Creating Places to Drive Innovation

More cities are experimenting with place-making to help drive economic growth in so called “innovation districts.”

An innovation district is a designated area that clusters higher-education institutions, industry, researchers and entrepreneurs together in a bid to drive innovation, business and job growth.

There are existing innovation districts involving numerous universities, including MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Drexel University. New efforts are underway in Minneapolis-Saint Paul with the University of Minnesota and Purdue University with the city of West Lafayette, Ind.

The innovation districts stand in stark contrast to the suburban model of remote research parks or company and campuses accessible only by car. Instead, these districts are urban, compact, transit-accessible and wired. The intent is that staff, researchers, students and entrepreneurs will connect at work and play. They'll be involved in joint research, will meet at coffee houses or cross paths when walking home to nearby housing. That cross pollination, it is hoped, will spur innovation.

Spurring Connection and Innovation

The rise of the districts “reflects a fundamental rethinking by corporate management about how and where innovation happens,” says Bruce Katz, Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution, in a Harvard Business Review article. The rise of innovation districts also will “yield broad lessons,” Katz says, as to what the best “physical and social platforms” are to drive entrepreneurial growth.

As campus planners and architects, we hear consistently from the university community how learning happens anywhere — not just in classrooms.  The most successful campus environments foster a strong sense of place and take advantage of opportunities to increase spontaneous and frequent connections between students, peers and faculty.

So, it’s not hard to see how innovation may be spurred by clustering companies, entrepreneurs, students and faculty in one area. In addition to more collaboration and cross pollination of ideas, innovation districts may present students more job opportunities after graduation.

The synergy that occurs when the right people mix in the right places is evident in Palo Alto, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley. That city is home to Stanford University, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and many Silicon Valley executives. Palo Alto’s innovation engine has grown organically over decades. New innovation districts are attempting to nurture similar ecosystems.

We’re excited to see innovation districts taking off. Some are already reporting success. Boston’s Innovation District along the waterfront, launched in 2010, added 3,000 jobs and 100 new businesses since in its first three years. It also drew Babson College to the district to teach classes on entrepreneurship and host public events.

Boston Innovation District with Lofts, photo credit: izzointeractive

Maximizing Potential

Yet Katz, who’s followed and championed the growth of innovation districts, says more work needs to be done. Some innovation districts, he reported, have not yet “maximized the potential for creating lively communities in which their residents and workers feel invested, reducing the potential innovation output of these communities.”

He’s also said that naming something an innovation district is not enough. To thrive, the areas need a required number of innovation-oriented firms, institutions or clusters to create an innovation ecosystem.

Many districts also “have significant work ahead” to understand the rising value of ‘place’ and that strong places entice residents and workers to remain in the area off hours, extending collaboration opportunities.

In that way, innovation districts strongly resemble what universities and colleges strive to do: create environments to nurture knowledge, innovation and community.  

In follow ups to this post, we will examine strategies to achieve these desired outcomes.

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