Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The Rise of the Innovation District

June 17, 2014
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The Rise of the Innovation District
The greater Boston area. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
A new report shows how leaders in business, academia and government are working to revitalize urban areas and drive inclusive growth across America

Thanks in large part to an understanding of the industrial economy after World War II, cooperation between our universities, businesses, and government helped produce an explosion of growth and prosperity that benefitted more Americans than ever before.

After the Great Recession, we know just how much globalization and technology has altered that landscape, but Brookings, a non-partisan think tank, believes we may be on the verge of retooling this partnership for the 21st century economy in the form of “innovation districts.”

So what is an innovation district? It’s a physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired urban area where public institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups to drive growth and, you guessed it, innovation.

But these districts aren’t like the isolated corporate campuses of the past. They double as actual neighborhoods — communities containing an abundance of housing, retail, and recreation that support a vibrant local economy.

Innovation districts are also characterized by choice and flexibility, allowing cities from Buffalo to Baltimore to develop in ways that best suit their geographic, cultural, and economic needs. While these decisions depend on the pre-existing resources in each city, every district contains a mix of similar elements to revitalize and sustain the ecosystem:

– Drivers are the high-value “anchors” focused on developing cutting-edge technologies, products, and services. Examples include applied sciences research institutions, creative fields such as industrial design, media and architecture, as well as specialized, small batch manufacturing.

– Cultivators are second-tier organizations supporting the growth of individuals, firms, and ideas, such as incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, schools, and job training firms advancing specific skill sets for the innovation economy.

– Physical assets are the public and privately-owned spaces — real estate (both commercial and residential), parks, and infrastructure like wifi and transportation — that attract new residents and business and sustain quality of life.

– Networking assets develop the human relationships central to building community and driving innovation through trade organizations, workshops, informal learning opportunities, social events, and hyper-local media platforms.

Neighborhood amenities provide important support services to residents and workers in the district ranging from medical offices to grocery stores, restaurants, coffee bars, hotels and retail.

Perhaps most importantly, these districts promote inclusive growth. At a time of rising economic inequality, their mix of public/private funding, focus on education, as well as their proximity to low- and moderate-income neighborhoods could mean a significant expansion of opportunity for those still struggling to adapt to the new economy.

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Growth and prosperity will most likely look differently than it did in those years after WWII, but as we determine how to close the digital divide and equip Americans with the skills they need, innovation districts are a sustainable step in the right direction. Check out the latest Brookings report to find out what your city is doing to develop its own district.

 

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