Best Cities for Innovation

Cities to watch, from Abu Dhabi to Orlando.

Best Cities for Innovation
Seattle | photograph by Benjamin Benschneider & Weiss/Manfredi Seattle | photograph by Benjamin Benschneider & Weiss/Manfredi

You can see it in their stats and in their cityscapes: These 12 Fast Cities around the globe are thriving. We’ll be watching these nodes of creativity and innovation this year and beyond — we’re expecting big business and big things.



Peer through the shroud of smog, and you’ll see Beijing all dressed up for the Olympics, with daring new buildings like Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV HQ. China’s economy is booming, and the arts scene is too. The newest draw in the hip 798 district is the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, funded by a Belgian baron.


“Cyberabad” it may be, but Andhra Pradesh’s capital is more diverse than rival Indian IT hub Bangalore. Home to development centers for Microsoft, Accenture, and IBM, it also has strong pharma and aviation sectors, plus a new international airport. But rapid change has stoked fears that megamalls will swamp this nexus of Indian culture.

Mexico City

Fun fact: Mexico has more undergrads than the U.S. does. Education has helped Mexico City grow its middle class and become an aviation center, luring Cessna and Bombardier. Latin America’s cultural capital hosts the muy caliente art fair MACO. And the trendiness quotient will soar this fall when a Nobu branch opens.



With Rwanda’s economy zipping along — growth has climbed past 6% — development dollars have flooded Kigali. A stock exchange opened in January. And President Paul Kagame has plans to build the capital into an African science-and-tech hub, pledging to spend 5% of GDP on research by 2012 and turning military facilities into educational ones.


Is the next Silicon Valley on Puget Sound? Washington has the U.S.’s highest proportion of engineers, and Seattle is seeing $1 billion in VC funds a year. The Fremont District, home to Google’s new research lab, has become a magnet for tech startups. Raising Seattle’s cultural cred: the art museum’s recent expansion and the opening of the $85 million Olympic Sculpture Park.


There’s more to Orlando than Mickey. It’s now a hub for two burgeoning industries: interactive games — a lively scene has sprouted around the Electronic Arts studio behind Madden NFL — and biotech. A new medical complex in the Lake Nona area will house a University of Central Florida med school and a branch of the famed Burnham Institute for Medical Research.



Oil and gas, with assists from finance and tech, have made this Canadian city the No. 1 boomtown in North America. Boutique hotels and trendy eateries are becoming as ubiquitous as Western-style saloons, and construction recently began on architect Norman Foster’s building, the Bow. The downside of the boom: a labor shortage so severe that even fast-food workers can demand $15 per hour.


Is there a city whose riche are more nouveau? This capital of superlatives has the world’s highest cost of living; Europe’s tallest skyscraper, the new, 889-foot Naberezhnaya Tower; and plans for the world’s biggest building (27 million square feet). Alas, corruption thrives here. But so does art — fine private galleries such as the Yekaterina Cultural Foundation are opening.


The Catalan capital is doing more to attract new business than any other European city, says Cushman & Wakefield. Recent successes include the move from Berlin of Bread & Butter, Europe’s top fashion trade show; and 22@Barcelona, a new warehouse-turned-tech quarter that has lured Novartis, Microsoft, and HP, and could create as many as 150,000 jobs.


Kansas City

A $9 billion redevelopment is restoring downtown KC’s shine with the new Sprint Center and Steven Holl’s glorious expansion of the Nelson-Atkins Museum. This Missouri city also anchors a new animal-health corridor — a bovine Silicon Valley — that’s home to more than 120 bioscience firms. The hope is that this old cow town’s new spin will boost job growth and keep young people from seeking greener pastures.


Qatar’s oil and gas won’t last forever, so it has been investing cleverly in knowledge and culture — reviving the newspaper Al-Arab, expanding Al-Jazeera, and building the I.M. Pei — designed Museum of Islamic Art. The most ambitious initiative is Education City, with outposts of the RAND Institute, Georgetown, Cornell, and, in the fall, Northwestern’s journalism school.

Abu Dhabi

Dubai may get the hype in the Emirates, but Abu Dhabi has more oil, more money, and a less tacky take on development. The spectacular Sheikh Zayed Mosque will be finished this fall. A complex with starchitect-built outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim is under construction, and phase one of Masdar City, a zero-waste community designed by Foster + Partners, is set to open its doors next year.