|A graphic highlighting locations with Chattanooga’s Innovation District, known locally as the “Gig”. Source: nlc.org|
Are innovation districts really a thing? Can they be the primary engine that fuels economic growth in today’s cities?
First, what they are. Innovation districts are distinct locales within urban areas where leading-edge companies and institutions align and coexist in concert with startups and incubators. A handful of cities have them where research universities intersect with medical centers or health care systems, cultural institutions, and downtown offices. They’re often found at the edges of large city downtowns, and usually include rapidly revitalizing neighborhoods that have transit access, great structural “bones” (an older, mixed-use building fabric), and appealing walkability. Think Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA, home to MIT and near Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital, or University City in Philadelphia, where the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, University of the Sciences and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia come together.
Innovation districts are the quintessential “eds and meds” locations in cities, with a twist. They’ve successfully leveraged the strength of their creative talent to spin off new businesses, and often developed a financial framework (venture capitalists, for one) to support them. In addition, innovation districts offer much of what creative talent prefers to prosper — parks, plazas, density with a mix of housing types, and an eclectic blend of commerce on the streets. Not all cities have innovation districts, but many are working hard to develop them where they currently don’t exist.
Three years ago, the Brookings Institution authored a report on this new urban model. In essence, their point was that innovation districts are the entryway for cities to enter the global economy via the creative, innovation and tech sectors. They have the elements of a self-perpetuating economic engine — young talent is attracted to the area through by a research university; that talent is developed at the university and then connected with outside businesses and institutions; that talent uses the networks to strengthen the businesses and institutions, or heads toward entrepreneurship; that talent stays within the area and benefits further from talent development efforts.
In their report, Brookings acknowledged three types of innovation districts. There’s the “anchor-plus” model, where anchor institutions (like a university or medical center) team up in a shared downtown or midtown location, as in Boston or Philadelphia. Similar models can be found in several other cities across the nation. There’s also the “re-imagined urban area” model, in which new innovation districts are being created in older cities. These are often in former industrial or warehouse sites, and are similar in structure to the anchor-plus model. Seattle’s South Lake Union, which was transformed from a largely empty warehouse district to a vibrant node specializing in technology and life sciences, with an array of housing types thrown in, fits this profile. Brooklyn’s Navy Yard is moving in this direction as well. The third model is the “urbanized science park” model, exemplified by Research Triangle Park in Raleigh-Durham, NC. These can be best described as suburban office parks that developed with intention — sites that emerged and thrived because of the work done there, but with little of the serendipity apparent in the other models.
Why do innovation districts matter? Virtually all cities have the necessary elements to create one. Even as innovation districts proliferate among the largest U.S. cities, smaller cities have the assets within them to plug into the ascendant parts of our economy as well. If not a large research university, then a small liberal arts college; if not a medical center, than a regional hospital; if not a signature innovative corporation, then a small leading-edge comply eager to benefit from more new thinking.
The problem, however, is that not all cities have the requisite assets in close proximity, or near the shrinking downtowns or midtowns that would benefit most directly from their creation. That’s why governmental, institutional and business leadership is important. Brookings assembled a list of the actors necessary to make an innovation district happen: mayors and local governments, major real estate developers and land owners, managers of research campuses, motivated anchor businesses, research educational institutions and medical centers, philanthropic investors and incubators and accelerators. That’s quite a mix.
Even at a time when our political landscape is turning inward from aspects of the global economy, and our large cities are struggling to deal with the ramifications of success, there’s still a place for more development like innovation districts.