One year after: Observations on the rise of innovation districts

Bruce Katz, Jennifer S Vey and Julie Wagner
Brookings Institute
June 24, 2015

In the year since we released “The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America,” Brookings has visited or interacted with dozens of leaders in burgeoning innovation districts in the United States and Europe. In so doing, we’ve sharpened our knowledge of what’s happening on the ground and gained some important insights into how cities and metros are embracing this new paradigm of economy-shaping, place-making, and network-building.

Innovation districts capture the remarkable spatial pattern underway in the innovation economy—the heightened clustering of anchor institutions, companies, and start-ups in small geographic areas of central cities across the United States, Europe, and other global-trading regions.

The rise of innovation districts has been situated against the familiar backdrop of suburban corporate campuses and science parks. Accessible only by car, these spatially isolated corridors place little emphasis on the quality of life or on integrating work, housing, and recreation.

By contrast, in our report we found the rise of urban innovation hubs to be the organic result of profound economic and demographic forces that are altering how we live and work. The growing application of “open innovation”—where companies work with other firms, inventors, and researchers to generate new ideas and bring them to market—has revalued proximity, density, and other attributes of cities. At the same time, the growing preference of young talented workers to congregate in vibrant neighborhoods that offer choices in housing, transportation, and amenities has made urban and urbanizing areas increasingly attractive.

We also found that innovation districts uniformly contain a mix of economic, physical, and networking assets. Economic assets are the firms, institutions, and organizations that drive, cultivate, or support an innovation-rich environment. Physical assets are the public and privately owned spaces—buildings, open spaces, streets, and other infrastructure—designed and organized to stimulate new and higher levels of connectivity, collaboration, and innovation. Lastly, networking assets are the relationships between actors—such as between individuals, firms, and institutions—that have the potential to generate, sharpen, and/or accelerate the advancement of ideas. These assets, taken together, create an innovation ecosystem—the synergistic relationship between people, firms, and place that facilitates idea generation and advances commercialization.

One year later, innovation districts continue to rise. What have we learned about how they are evolving?

First, the model of innovation districts has been embraced, co-opted, and (in some cases) misappropriated, further reinforcing the need for grounding this work in empirically based evidence.

A simple Google search will reveal the extent to which the language of “innovation districts” (or “innovation quarters,“ “innovation neighborhoods,” or “innovation corridors”) has rapidly permeated the field of urban and metropolitan economic development and place-making.

In some places, this labeling is being accurately used by globally recognized research institutions (e.g., Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Drexel University in Philadelphia) that are both experiencing extraordinary growth near their campuses as well as designing intentional efforts to build on their distinctive assets. In communities as diverse as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis in the United States and Manchester and Sheffield in England, local leaders are conducting deep empirical analysis to understand their competitive advantages and existing weaknesses within their innovation ecosystem. They are exploring what it means to encourage greater collaboration and cooperation across their institutions, firms, and entrepreneurs. And they are exploring ways to better create “place” so as to increase overall vitality, facilitate innovation, and spur the growth of new businesses and jobs.

In other places, the nomenclature reflects an aspiration—and is spurring more deliberate efforts by local stakeholders to grow distinctive innovation ecosystems. In cities like Albuquerque, N.M., Chattanooga, Tenn., Chicago, Ill., Durham, N.C., and San Diego, Calif., local leaders are using the innovation district paradigm as a platform to measure their current conditions, develop strategies for addressing gaps and challenges, and build coalitions of stakeholders that can together help realize a unified vision for innovative growth. Some of these budding districts represent typologies not outlined in our report but that are ripe for future research, including “start-up” enclaves in or near downtowns of cities that lack a major anchor as well as “public markets” that blend locally produced food products and crafts with maker spaces, digital design, and other innovations in the creative arts.

There is one unfortunate trend in the rising use of the “innovation district” lexicon. In a number of cities, local stakeholders have applied the label to a project or area that lacks the minimum threshold of innovation-oriented firms, start-ups, institutions, or clusters needed to create an innovation ecosystem. This appears to result either from the chase to jump on the latest economic development bandwagon, the desire to drive up demand and real estate prices, or sometimes a true lack of understanding of what an innovation district actually is. The motivation for real estate developers to adopt the moniker seems clear: to achieve a price premium for their commercial, residential, and retail rents. Yet these sites are typically a collection of service-sector activities with little focus on the innovation economy. The lesson: labeling something innovative does not make it so.

From all these observations, it is clear that the field needs a routinized way to measure the starting assets of innovation districts—both to separate true districts from “in name only” ones as well as to give individual communities a platform for developing targeted strategies going forward. This means both running the numbers—conducting a quantitative audit—and undertaking a more qualitative assessment of strengths and weaknesses. Irrespective of their phase of development, innovation districts must evaluate the extent to which they have a critical mass of economic, physical, and networking assets to collectively generate thevitality that these districts demand. They need to evaluate the competitive advantages they have in certain economic sectors and learn how to cultivate them. And they need to ensure that they have the connectivity, diversity, and quality of place necessary to create a unique and vibrant environment in which innovation can thrive.

To facilitate this process, we are working in close collaboration with Mass Economics and the Project for Public Spaces to develop an audit template and tool. Over the next year, we intend to sharpen this tool in a subset of innovation districts across the country and then encourage others to employ it in their own established or burgeoning districts.

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