The New Geography of Innovation

Innovation Districts

A dramatic shift in the geography of innovation is underway, according to a new report authored by Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of the Brookings Institute, and Kendall Square is the poster child for the paradigm.  Bruce and Tim Row of the Cambridge Innovation Center talked about the phenomena of innovation districts at a recent meetup sponsored by Pfizer Cambridge.

For the past 50 years, much of the landscape of innovation has been dominated by suburban corridors of spatially isolated corporate campuses, accessible only by car, typically removed from housing and recreation.  Corporate and Academic campuses alike were built or expanded in vast open areas far from city centers through much of the 20th century.  That is now changing, with the rise of urban innovation districts.

A new complementary urban model is now emerging, giving rise to what we and others are calling “innovation districts.” These districts, by our definition, are geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators. They are also physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired and offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail.

Epitomized in the U.S. by high tech districts in San Francisco, Seattle, Brooklyn, Portland, Chicago and other cities, similar districts are under development around the globe in places like Barcelona, Berlin, London, Medellin, Montral, Seoul, Stockholm, and Toronto.  Perhaps the prime example is Kendall Square in Cambridge Massachusetts, an area roughly 10 city blocks on a side.  Anchored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kendall Square is home to over 150 high tech institutions.  According to Tim Row, the neighborhood is home to approximately 5% of all global venture capital funding (the U.S. totals 80% of global VC funding, Massachusetts 16%).  Despite incredible growth in telecommunications and online networking, face to face human interactions are still incredibly powerful, and Boston is working on a second innovation district along the South Boston waterfront.

Innovation districts are the manifestation of mega-trends altering the location preferences of people and firms and, in the process, re-conceiving the very link between economy shaping, place making and social networking.  Our most creative institutions, firms and workers crave proximity so that ideas and knowledge can be transferred more quickly and seamlessly. Our “open innovation” economy rewards collaboration, transforming how buildings and entire districts are designed and spatially arrayed. Our diverse population demands more and better choices of where to live, work and play, fueling demand for more walkable neighborhoods where housing, jobs and amenities intermix.

Interestingly, some well known suburban high tech areas, such as North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, are actually re-urbanizing — building bike paths, bringing new residential and retail development into the suburban campus.  So what’s the big deal?  In a word, jobs.  Estimates are that five additional jobs are created for every new high tech job in an innovation district.  Innovative cities and innovative nations are more prosperous than non-innovative ones.  Many think that innovation districts will be centers of job creation and economic dynamism with large spillover effects for much of the 21st century.  Is the idea just the latest fad in urban planning?  Possibly.  But the concept is driving a LOT of development around the world, and for the next several decades it will shape many urban environments.  To learn more, you can read the online report, or watch one of Bruce’s presentations.

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One Response to The New Geography of Innovation

  1. Pingback: Biopharmaceutical Innovation Hubs and the Future of Work | MechanizedIntelligence

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