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What makes a place innovative?

When University of Iowa professor Frederick Boehmke and co-author Paul Skinner crunched the numbers in a search for the nation's most innovative state, we had to ask: what did they find?

Defining Innovation

First, Boehmke and Skinner had to define what makes a state innovative, which led them to look at the readiness of states to adopt new policies. Boehmke givest the example of the lottery. The first state to enact a lottery in the modern era was New Hampshire, in 1964; the last was Arkansas, whose voters didn’t approve a state lottery until 2008. 

The quicker a state is to adopt a policy, from lotteries to mandating seat belt use to medical marijuana, the more innovative Boehmke and Skinner argue it is. The authors feel that the adoption of any policy, even legislation like a Right to Work law that might seem regressive to some, is an indicator of a state’s capacity to innovate.

“The goal here is to try and understand, first if some states are adopting policies faster than other states,” explains Boehmke. “Once we answer that question, we’re hoping to provide some information … about why that is. What characteristics of those states lead them to be faster in adopting these policies?”

Boehmke and Skinner theorize that the states that aren’t on the cutting edge of adopting a particular policy are more tentative — they’re waiting to see how the adoption of the law will play out elsewhere in the country.

Leaders and Lag-gers

So which state is the most innovative? The study ranks states in four tiers, and in the first tier, California stands alone. In the second half of the 20th century, California was often the first to adopt a given policy. The study found the Golden State to be over three times as innovative as states at the bottom, like Mississippi, which is the only state to rank in the study's fourth tier.

But Boehmke warns against taking the ranking too seriously.

“The difference between [Mississippi] and the states a couple of slots ahead of it, like Wyoming and Alabama, aren’t necessarily huge. It just happened to fall below a particular threshold,” he says.“Kind of a rough way to think about it is this: for a typical policy, it might take California ten years to adopt that policy, whereas a state like Mississippi might take up to 30 years.”

Our home state, Massachusetts, ranks 10th in the country — it was the first to implement about 10 percent of all the policies that it adopted. But Massachusetts also saw a shift in its ranking, falling from the 6th most innovative state in the first half of the 20th century to 20th place in the second.

Massachusetts wasn’t the only state that saw its level of innovation shift. Sun Belt states like Arizona and Texas that have experienced growth in population and industry have risen in the rankings, while states with older industries and more established populations, like Pennsylvania and New York, have fallen lower.

Increased Innovation

But despite these shifts, Boehmke thinks it’s important to realize that we’re currently riding the crest of one of the longest surges of innovation in our country's history. Since the late 1980's, states have been adopting more policies, and adopting them more quickly, than ever before.

“We see a couple of really short [waves] after the great depression, where states are trying to do a lot to respond to the circumstances,” Boehmke says. “But this is by far the biggest increase in innovativeness … and one of the longer surges that we’ve seen.”

But Bohemke doesn’t know if we’ll be riding this wave forever.

“Whether this will continue to increase, or whether we’re perhaps we’re seeing the end of another wave — it’s a little too early to say,” he admits.