October 3, 2019

Innovation Districts: They’ve Got History, But Do They Have A Future?

Stemming from discussions onsite at the UIDP29 conference in Columbus, OH, Patricia Bou discussed the future of innovation districts with Erin Barkman and Lynne Deninger. These are their thoughts:

According to the latest data from Brookings, there are now over 100 “innovation districts” emerging globally. However, many in the education, political, technology and economic sectors are wondering if and how innovation districts will evolve, and whether they can adjust to issues challenging previous related efforts such as research parks and incubators. Will innovation districts, as questioned in the Brookings report, bridge social, economic and racial divides, or exacerbate them?

Before innovation districts, the concept behind research parks revolved around siloed programmatic elements, separation from the distractions, and physical isolation from the urban grid. This concentrated hub of people working has now transformed to break down those siloes and embrace interdisciplinary environments that encourage individuals to learn from their surroundings in a branded space: the innovation district.

At its core, an innovation district is a community of people who push boundaries and incubate ideas; they are immersed in technology and motivated by an entrepreneurial mindset. Constructing a space for this community that inspires a connection between people and the environment around them is paramount.

The central focus of this design is placemaking, which encourages people to bond with their surroundings and call it their own. This allows people to use branded space in and outside the workplace to mold a cultural identity for the innovation district as a whole.

Designing “startup accelerators,” “connected cafes” and happy hour spots weave a fabric of “live, work, play” elements that professionals can embrace. This helps to recruit people, and to keep them coming back. Adjacent anchor institutions support this community and accelerate the growth of the district with corporate partnerships. These adjacent positions will remain the ideal location for innovation districts because they offer an already captured market, complete with a thriving community of students to pull from for future growth.

Innovation districts embody the 21st-century worker; they’re easily accessible through public transportation, surrounded by an entrepreneurial community and supportive of that “live, work, play.” All of these elements together are the essence of today’s emerging workforce – the concept of the nine-to-five job has passed, transforming where work is and what it looks like. Innovation districts will allow the workforce to thrive by providing a physical space that offers both work and play offerings; residents or participants will feel more encouraged to engage with their surroundings and create inclusive communities.

So, as they continue to develop, will innovation districts eliminate their research park and incubator counterparts? Not so, in fact; these established spaces can serve as anchors themselves for future innovation districts, as strange as that sounds. Again, it’s a matter of connecting existing offerings, breaking down silos and creating an environment where partnerships and community lead to innovation.

Innovation districts have potential, and we’re excited to be a part of their development. Keep an eye on this space as we continue to explore the possibilities.