America's Brainiest Cities

Tracking metros by a new measure of "brain performance."

Image
Shutterstock

In a knowledge economy, we are often told the smartest cities and nations do the best. But economists typically measure smart cities by education level, calculating the cities or metros with the largest percentage of college grads or the largest shares of adults with advanced degrees. Others (like me) do it by charting the kinds of work people do and the occupations they hold, differentiating between knowledge or creative workers and others who do more routine manufacturing and service jobs.

But a new measure seeks to track the "brain performance" or cognitive capacity of metros in a different and potentially more direct way.

This metric, developed by Lumos Labs, is based on their cognitive training and tracking software, Lumosity. It covers some 20 million members (and 320 million individual game plays) who use the company's online games to assess and attempt to improve their cognitive performance. This, writes the Wall Street Journal:

might not sound much different than other games you might play at the office. (Minesweeper, anyone?) The difference is tracking. The games offer a scorecard of your performance and let you follow changes in performance over time, so you can see if you're getting better or backsliding. You can also choose what skills you want to improve. If you're having trouble remembering things, for instance, you might ask for memory-boosting games. So, while it may seem like just another game, it can home in on skills you're trying to sharpen for work—and improve them.

To measure the smartest cities, Lumosity scientists tracked the cognitive performance of more than one million users in the United States on their games, mapping them across U.S. metros using IP geolocation software. Individual scores were recorded in five key cognitive areas: memory, processing speed, flexibility, attention, and problem solving.The data was normalized into a basic brain performance index controlling for age and gender. Only metros with more than 500 observations were included. The data cover 169 metros. 

The map below from Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute maps the this brainy metro index across U.S. metros.

(Click the map for a larger image)

With the help of my colleague Charlotta Mellander, I correlated the Lumosity data on brain performance with conventional measures of educational attainment, knowledge workers and other factors. The Lumosity data were significantly associated with both the share of adults with a bachelor's degree or greater (.56) and the percent engaged in knowledge and creative work (.45).   Higher cognitive performance scores not surprisingly were also associated with higher rates of innovation, greater concentrations of high-tech industry and higher per capita incomes.

Here are America's 25 brainiest metros, according to Lumosity's metrics:

  1. Charlottesville, Virginia
  2. Lafayette, Indiana
  3. Anchorage Alaska
  4. Madison, Wisconsin
  5. San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose 
  6. Cedar Rapids-Waterloo-Iowa City & Dubuque, Iowa
  7. Honolulu
  8. Johnstown-Altoona, Pennsylvania
  9. Champaign & Springfield-Decatur, Illinois
  10. Minneapolis-St. Paul
  11. Boston-Manchester (Massachusetts/New Hampshire)
  12. Austin
  13. Rochester, New York
  14. Gainesville, Florida 
  15. Fargo-Valley City North Dakota
  16. Lansing, Michigan 
  17. Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-San Luis Obispo
  18. Burlington-Plattsburgh (Vermont/New York) 
  19. Pittsburgh
  20. Syracuse, New York
  21. Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  22. Columbia-Jefferson City, Missouri
  23. La Crosse-Eau Claire, Wisconsin
  24. Harrisburg-Lancaster-Lebanon-York Pennsylvania
  25. Springfield-Holyoke, Massachusetts

There's a lot of college towns on the list. Charlottesville, Virginia, home to the University of Virginia, takes first place. Lafayette, Indiana, home to Purdue University, is second, while Madison, Wisconsin, home to the University of Madison-Wisconsin, is fourth. Iowa City (University of Iowa), Champaign, Illinois (University of Illinois), Austin (University of Texas), Gainesville (University of Florida), Lansing (Michigan State), Burlington (University of Vermont), and Syracuse (Syracuse University) all number among the top 25. MORE: As well as my former hometown of Pittsburgh in the 19th spot -- which, as our savvy commenters point out, I overlooked in the original version -- and Rochester (with just over a million people) too in 13th place.

The result is not driven principally by college students, according to Daniel Sternberg, the Lumosity data scientist who developed the metro brain performance measure. "Since our analysis controlled for age, the reason they score well is not simply that they have a lot of young people," said Sternberg. "Instead, our analysis seems to show that users living in university communities tend to perform better than users of the same age in other locations."

The only large metros to make the list are San Francisco (in fifth place), the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul (10th), Boston (11th), and Austin (12th). "Smaller metro areas likely have a more homogenous population than very large metro areas, like New York City, which encompasses large parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, or Boston, whose metro includes much of the rest of Massachusetts and New Hampshire," notes Sternberg. "If we could drill down and look at the individual cities within each metro, we would expect to find large differences between cities within a given metropolitan area. With that said, it's actually quite impressive that San Francisco and Boston do as well as they do."

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here