I have discovered something extremely strange about San Francisco. It has to do with how many patents the city has produced in the past 25 years.
One of the most fascinating things about urban life today is that city populations are growing to historically unprecedented sizes. Basically we’re at a stage in urban evolution that is something our species has never experienced before. So a lot of us are wondering about the unintended consequences as our city populations continue to grow.
Two researchers who study networked systems at the Santa Fe Institute, Luis Bettincourt and Geoffrey West, came up with an intriguing answer. They published a paper in 2007 about a few interesting side-effects of urban population growth. One is that rates of crime grow faster than the rate of population growth. But another thing that grows more quickly than population is the rate of innovation, which is partly measured by how many patents are granted to people in that city.
Out of curiosity, I checked the US Patent and Trademark database for my home city, San Francisco. I searched for how many patents had been issued to people in the city, or to groups that included at least one person with a San Francisco address. As you can see, our rate of patent innovation has skyrocketed far beyond our rate of population growth over the past 25 years. Indeed, it’s far beyond the kind of growth that Bettencourt and West’s research would predict.
There are some oddities to account for here. Partly due to anti-development laws, the population of San Francisco has been unable to grow much over the past few decades. Also, San Francisco’s recent economic boom comes from tech and biotech industries that tend to rely heavily on patents. It made me wonder whether patent rates have taken off in every wealthy or tech-centric city in the United States. So I checked.
Here you can see San Francisco’s patent rate compared to those of New York and Boston. There is a general upward trend, and you can see a shared dip there during the downturn in the late noughts. But San Francisco’s numbers are extreme even compared to rich New York and techie Boston.
So what’s going on in San Francisco?
Let’s look at some other interesting statistics for my fair city. First of all, you can see that family incomes are also rising. Given that our population has remained steady, the combination of income and population lines represent what’s called gentrification. Richer people are displacing poorer people. Of course, there are still plenty of working class and low-income people in the city. There are just fewer of them.
Now let’s look at crime, which Bettencourt and West’s research suggests will rise faster than population rates. That’s the red line up there in the graph. So first of all, I’ve separated out property crime here — so the crimes reflected in this trend include only crimes like robbery, auto theft, burglary. In the U.S., we’ve had a national downward trend in crime rates generally. Like the national average, San Francisco property crime rates sank for about twenty years.
But in the past few years, property crime rates in San Francisco have started to rise again. This goes back to the gentrification lines I discussed earlier. Recently San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi remarked that the rise in property crimes in San Francisco is basically a function of gentrification. It’s a crime directly related to poverty. As the division between haves and have-nots grows wider, people at the bottom of the economic ladder get more desperate and engage in more thefts. In San Francisco, most of these are auto thefts.
Still, even when you factor in that brief uptick, San Francisco’s story is a huge aberration. Our crime rates are not rising at the rate that you’d expect from Bettencourt and West’s work on other cities. And our innovation, again measured in patents, is way out of proportion to our population growth. So what’s making SF so freakish?
There’s a simple answer, and a more complicated one. Let’s start with the easy stuff first. You’ll notice that we see the patent rate begin rising around 1997, a few years after Bruce Lehman was appointed commissioner of the USPTO. Before he took that job, he was a lobbyist for the software publishing industry. During his tenure at USPTO, he decided to interpret patent law rather broadly, allowing software to qualify for patents. And San Francisco is basically ground zero for software patents. So this could explain part of the huge patent spike we see in San Francisco.
But there’s another possibility, which is that San Francisco isn’t so aberrant after all. Maybe our innovation and crime rates are rising at a rather normal clip, but we can’t see it because we’re so used to understanding patents as a proxy for innovation, rather than a proxy for property crime.
What I’m suggesting is that this giant spike in patent rates is reflecting the combination of innovation and theft. Consider that many patents are used by the wealthier classes as a way to bilk people out of money. There’s the obvious case where patent trolls buy up overbroad patents — often in software — and threaten people with lawsuits until they pay to licence a dubious patent from the troll. And patents also allow big companies to block small businesses from innovating, by charging astronomical prices to licence really basic ideas or software functions. Especially in Silicon Valley, patents are often a game played by wealthy businesses, to the detriment of small-time entrepreneurs and teams of inventors.
So when you look at this jump in rates of patents, I want you to consider the possibility that we’re not looking at evidence that San Francisco is a city of innovators. Maybe it’s a city of thieves.
Annalee Newitz is editor-in-chief of Gizmodo and this is her column. She does not own any patents. You might also be interested in her book about surviving mass extinction, called Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive A Mass Extinction.
Research for this column was supported in part by my participation in the Grey Area Center for the Arts cultural incubator program in San Francisco. Through Grey Area, I was able to collaborate with data designer Mikko Järvenpää and his company Infogr.am. Many thanks, Grey Area!