Innovation Districts: A Recipe


Innovation districts embody the very essence of cities: an aggregation of talented, driven people, assembled in close quarters, who exchange ideas and knowledge in what urban historians call a “dynamic process of innovation, imitation, and improvement.
— Peter Hall, Cities in Civilization
Photo by  Mindaugas Danys

Boca Raton and Delray Beach have long championed the idea of creating “innovation districts”, a term we hear about often but probably never slow down enough to define.

Over the years, there has been a desire to attract the “creative class” to downtown Delray Beach, build on Boca’s rich history in medicine, education and technology (MedUTech) and create an innovation district along Congress Avenue. FAU’s Research Park has achieved enviable success and now FAU’s Tech Runway has a great opportunity to serve as a catalyst for creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem. There are also several examples of co-working and incubator space in both Boca and Delray.

A recent white paper by the Brookings Institute has gotten a lot of traction among policymakers interested in Innovation Districts. Perhaps one of the best things it produced was a simple definition of the term: geographic areas with synergistic relationships among people, firms and places, allowing ideas to be generated and commercialized. These districts are also physically compact, transit-accessible, technically-wired and offer a mix of uses: housing, office, and retail.

Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of Brookings describe innovation districts as requiring entrepreneurs, educational institutions, start-ups, affordable housing and other urban amenities that are connected by transit and high-speed Internet.

Among the primary market forces driving innovation districts are private firms and universities seeking to be more efficient at innovation. The model that originated in Silicon Valley–where firms acted independently and were isolated on a campus or an industrial park–appears to be no longer in vogue. It is more effective to be located in places where people bump into each other by happenstance — at the office, in the coffee shop, at a music venue or at dinner. Ideas are shared at the office and away from the office, leading to more ideas and more innovation. This is a sea change from the model of the past 50 years where innovation happened in suburban office parks—accessible only by car. In that model, little to no thought was given to integrating work, housing and recreation. Today, companies and their workers see quality of life as a pathway to productivity and innovative breakthroughs.

A trend that is simultaneously strengthening innovation districts is millennials’ preference for urban living. According to the Council of Economic Advisors, 73 percent of college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds were living in large or mid-sized cities in 2011, compared to 67 percent in 1980. Primary drivers of this trend are the neighborhood-building amenities that a vibrant city offers. 

Essential to the success of innovation districts are what are called “innovation cultivators,” which support the growth of individuals, firms and their ideas. 

The trend is to nurture living, breathing communities rather than sterile remote, compounds of research silos.

Experts are pointing to downtown Eugene, Oregon as a good model for an emerging innovation district. Eugene offers lessons that may be useful for Boca and Delray. In downtown Eugene, innovation cultivators include Fertilab, which focuses on incubating early-stage entrepreneurship; RAIN, which helps new business ideas accelerate to market; and the Technology Association of Oregon, which focuses on inputs to growth for tech companies including high speed internet infrastructure, access to talent, and community events like Hack for a Cause. All of these organizations now have offices that are within walking distance of each other.

“The trend is to nurture living, breathing communities rather than sterile remote, compounds of research silos,” said Pete Engardio in a recent article entitled “Research Parks for the Knowledge Economy,” that ran in Bloomberg Businessweek. As the article explains:

Innovation districts have the unique potential to spur productive, inclusive and sustainable economic development. At a time of sluggish growth, they provide a strong foundation for the creation and expansion of firms and jobs by helping companies, entrepreneurs, universities, researchers and investors—across sectors and disciplines—co-invent and co-produce new discoveries for the market. At a time of rising social inequality, they offer the prospect of expanding employment and educational opportunities for disadvantaged populations given that many districts are close to low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. And, at a time of inefficient land use, extensive sprawl and continued environmental degradation, they present the potential for denser residential and employment patterns, the leveraging of mass transit, and the repopulation of urban cores.

So what’s the formula and do we have what it takes?

Brookings lists the following assets as key components:

Photo by  La Citta Vitta

Economic Assets

These are the firms, institutions and organizations that drive, cultivate or support an innovation-rich environment. Economic assets can be separated into three categories: 

  1. Innovation drivers are the research and medical institutions, the large firms, start-ups and entrepreneurs focused on developing cutting-edge technologies, products and services for the market.
  2. Innovation cultivators are the companies, organizations or groups that support the growth of individuals, firms and their ideas. They include incubators, accelerators, proof-of-concept centers, tech transfer offices, shared working spaces and local high schools, job training firms and community colleges advancing specific skill sets for the innovation-driven economy.
  3. Neighborhood-building amenities provide important support services to residents and workers in the district. This ranges from medical offices to grocery stores, restaurants, coffee bars, small hotels and local retail (such as bookstores, clothing stores and sport shops).

Physical Assets

These are 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. Physical assets can also be divided into three categories:

  1. Physical assets in the public realm are the spaces accessible to the public, such as parks, plazas and streets that become locales of energy and activity. In innovation districts, public places are created or re-configured to be digitally-accessible (with high speed internet, wireless networks, computers and digital displays embedded into spaces) and to encourage networking (where spaces encourage “people to crash into one another”). Streets can also be transformed into living labs to flexibly test new innovations, such as in-street lighting, waste collection, traffic management solutions and new digital technologies.
  2. Physical assets in the private realm are privately-owned buildings and spaces that stimulate innovation in new and creative ways. Office developments are increasingly configured with shared work and lab spaces and smaller, more affordable areas for start-ups. A new form of micro-housing is also emerging, with smaller private apartments that have access to larger public spaces, such as co-working areas, entertainment spaces and common eating areas.
  3. Physical assets that knit the district together and/or tie it to the broader metropolis are investments aimed to enhance relationship-building and connectivity. For some districts, knitting together the physical fabric requires remaking the campuses of advanced research institutions to remove fences, walls and other barriers and replace them with connecting elements such as bike paths, sidewalks, pedestrian-oriented streets and activated public spaces. Strategies to strengthen connectivity between the district, adjoining neighborhoods and the broader metropolis include infrastructure investments, such as broadband, transit and road improvements.
women working on a computer

Networking Assets

These are the relationships between actors—such as individuals, firms and institutions—that have the potential to generate, sharpen and accelerate the advancement of ideas. Networks fuel innovation because they strengthen trust and collaboration within and across companies and industry clusters, provide information for new discoveries and help firms acquire resources and enter new markets.

Networks are generally described as either having strong ties or weak ties. If you tally these assets up, Boca and Delray are positioned to have successful innovation districts. Many of the principles outlined by Brookings, were incorporated in a recent task force effort to jumpstart Congress Avenue in Boca. Lynn University, FAU, FAU Research Park, the Boca and Delray Chambers of Commerce, local hospitals and research facilities and private incubators and co-working spaces are all elements for success.

What’s missing in my view are stronger ties, a need for more events, a lack of venture, seed and angel capital (but some bright spots are emerging) and more media attention to build the area’s reputation. Possible headwinds also include a lack of imagination with some, Ok maybe most—but not all– new development—i.e. the same old, high-end condo’s and sprawl in the Ag Reserve—and not enough political vision to push and incentivize developers to create something new, different, cool and forward thinking. There is a need for creative space in both cities. NIMBYism is another threat; we have to be forward thinking and ensure that our downtowns evolve beyond food and beverage.

Still, our quality of life, proximity to key markets, universities, recreation, cultural amenities etc., are awfully compelling. Yes, we can make this happen. The ingredients are there and abundant.

How to make it happen

Practitioners in leading edge innovation districts offer five pieces of advice:

1. Build a collaborative leadership network

Build a collection of leaders from key institutions, firms and sectors who regularly and formally cooperate on the design, delivery, marketing and governance of the district. In advanced innovation districts in Barcelona, Eindhoven, St Louis and Stockholm, leaders found the Triple Helix model of governance to be fundamental to their success. The Triple Helix consists of structured interactions between industry, research universities, and government.

2. Set a vision for growth

Provide actionable guidance for how an innovation district should grow and develop in the short-, medium- and long-term along economic, physical and social dimensions. Most practitioners cite the importance of developing a vision to leverage their unique strengths—distinct economic clusters, leading local and regional institutions and companies, physical location and design advantages and other cultural attributes.

3. Pursue talent and technology

Educated and skilled workers, and sophisticated infrastructure and systems are the twin drivers of innovation. Pursuing talent requires attraction, retention and growth strategies; integrating technology requires a commitment to top notch fiber optics (and, in some places, specialized laboratory facilities) to create a high quality platform for innovative firms.

4. Promote inclusive growth by using the innovation district as a platform to regenerate adjoining distressed neighborhoods

In addition, create educational, employment and other opportunities for low-income residents of the city. Strategies in places as disparate as Barcelona, Detroit and Philadelphia have particularly focused on equipping workers with the skills they need to participate in the innovation economy or other secondary and tertiary jobs generated by innovative growth.

5. Enhance access to capital

This could support basic science and applied research; the commercialization of innovation; entrepreneurial start-ups and expansion (including business incubators and accelerators); urban residential, industrial and commercial real estate (including new collaborative spaces); place-based infrastructure (e.g., energy, utilities, broadband, and transportation); education and training facilities; and intermediaries to steward the innovation ecosystem. Districts in Cambridge, Detroit and St. Louis have successfully re-deployed local capital to meet these needs.

(Top photo of Barcelona by Bastien Decueninck)

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