Research reveals innovation impact of high speed rail

Improved intercity rail networks spur innovation collaboration between cities, according to research published by a trio of academics from Duke Kunshan, Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Published in the Journal of Regional Science, their paper looked specifically at university-company partnerships, using joint patent applications as a measure of collaboration. They found a significant rise in number and quality of patents in areas where high-speed rail had arrived.

“During the period studied between 1985 and 2016 there was a dramatic improvement in innovation collaboration as a result of better-connected cities, to the extent that this could have implications for transport policy,” said Jingbo Cui, associate professor of applied economics at Duke Kunshan, who led the research.

Jingbo Cui, associate professor of applied economics, on the grounds of Duke Kunshan University

Cui worked on the project with Zhenxuan Wang, a Ph.D candidate in environmental economics at Duke University and Tianqi Li, a Ph.D. candidate in the economics department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They used a list of around 2,600 universities from China’s education ministry and patent application information from the State Intellectual Patent Office of China. Combining this with data on the expansion of China’s high speed rail network between 1985 and 2016 they were able to extrapolate a picture of how an improved intercity rail infrastructure had impacted collaboration on innovation between business and academia.

The team found that the arrival of high speed rail to a city led to an increase in collaborative patent innovation by around 44 percent. Moreover, they revealed the quality of collaborative innovation, which they measured by the quantity of invention patents, also improved significantly.

Research collaborators Zhenxuan Wang (left) from Duke University and Tianqi Li (right) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The researchers also unravelled some of the underlying mechanisms of how high speed rail affects collaborative innovation between universities and corporations. Evidence showed the impact on increasing innovation collaboration was more pronounced between universities and companies relatively far apart, and that high speed rail was a particular encouragement for cooperation between academics and businesses working in similar technological fields.

“The results are clear-cut evidence that a physical connection made easier by high-speed rail leads to more collaboration between universities and the business world, and better-quality innovation resulting from it,” said Cui.

“The diffusion of high-speed rail networks across a wider area could foster more interregional collaboration between research partners and may have profound policy implications for economic agglomeration and development,” he added.

Cui is now involved in follow-up research looking at how university-corporate collaboration could bolster regional economic development, with a focus on the Yangtze Delta Area, where DKU is located. That research is expected to conclude later this year.

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