Head to the Heart January 15, 2024

What the next generation of innovation districts is all about

Around the globe, innovation districts have become the focus of cities looking to gain an economic edge.

Seeing the success of celebrated research centers like Stanford Research Park in California and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, many communities have been inspired to create their own. The basic idea—co-locating technology and creative startups with an academic research center for the benefit of both—has since matured into a strategic blend of higher education, economic development, and placemaking. “Innovation districts are a regional sandbox for everyone to play in,” says Mark Romney, former chief industry alliance officer for Aggie Square, a 24-acre innovation district on the University of California, Davis campus in Sacramento. “Academia, industry, and the community can all come together.”

Here are five steps to creating a successful innovation district:
01. Have a clear business model.

For innovation districts based around an academic institution, “it’s best to define a few thematic focus areas, supported by the strengths and talents of the institution, to shape the value proposition for industry,” says Romney. He adds that access to a concentration of the brightest students is attractive to companies looking to build their workforce talent. “Innovation districts are never simply a real-estate solution for industry, since the rent there is always going to be more expensive than at the industrial building on the edge of town,” he says. On that note, look to establish an innovation district in areas where rents and housing are relatively affordable, rather than within pricier city centers. “Innovation flourishes in places that are a little bit rough around the edges,” notes U.K.-based urban designer Peter Baird.

UC Davis Aggie Square
⇒ Look to establish an innovation district in areas where rents and housing are relatively affordable, rather than within pricier city centers.
02. Start by building relationships.

The connections and programming are more critical than shiny new buildings. For instance, the Oklahoma City Innovation District (OKCID) got its start by establishing a nonprofit, which was useful for its ability to connect institutions and create joint applications for grant funding, as well as launching events and programs. While its first buildings are still under construction, OKCID already has an established lineup of branded events, including its well-attended Symposium, Tech Talk, and Get Funded series. Meanwhile, Aggie Square at UC Davis was inspired by a 2004 project to develop a stem cell research center in an underused 108,000-square-foot building. As part of the building retrofit, 30,000 square feet were set aside for strategic industry partners. Within a few years, demand for space led to a vision for a formal innovation district: Aggie Square’s first phase of 1.2 million square feet is scheduled to open in 2025. “Building on incremental successes allows you to amplify what works and shape the district in intentional ways,” says Romney. “Start talking to faculty now about which companies they are working with or would benefit from working with. That way your business model forecast is built before anyone moves in.”

Oklahoma City Innovation District (OKCID)
⇒ Have conversations early on with faculty to determine existing partnerships and brainstorm future collaborations.
03. Plan for equity and inclusion.

Redeveloping an area provides a chance to address social inequality and invite diverse perspectives. “It’s about community-building and creating opportunity for everyone in a vibrant place,” says Austin-based architect and urban designer Stephen Coulston. As part of the planning for OKCID, which is located in an historically underinvested Black neighborhood, the nonprofit is developing a workforce training program for biopharma jobs and supplemental STEM education in the public school system. “We are committed to creating partnerships and a shared vision with the community,” says Katy Boren, the president and CEO of OKCID, which was named the Association of University Research Parks’ Outstanding Innovation District in 2021.

OKCID Community Input Meeting
⇒ Create partnerships and a shared vision with the community.
04. Value sustainability.

An innovation district is a wonderful opportunity to embed sustainability and circular economics into an entire community, such as by reducing carbon emissions through the reuse of existing buildings. In the U.K., the planned 400-acre Cambridge Science Park North aspires to be entirely carbon-negative—meaning that it removes more carbon from the environment than it produces—with half of the property devoted to green space and increased biodiversity. In addition to emphasizing public transportation and biking, the complex will have on-site water recycling and integrated district solar energy generation and storage. “The Cambridge Science Park North strategy proposes measures to capture, recycle, generate and store low carbon and renewable energy, extending the principles of a circular economy to energy on the site,” Jane Hutchins, director of the Cambridge Science Park. “This is an essential component of Trinity College’s aspirations for the project aligning with their wider sustainability goals.”

Cambridge Science Park
⇒ Embed sustainability and circular economics into an entire community.
05. Consider the innovation district as part of a greater ecosystem.

Analyzing the region helps to ensure the success of the companies that get started in your innovation district, as it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to provide for an entire supply chain in one location. Research and development may occur in one concentrated area, while advanced manufacturing may be located somewhere else. Recognizing the patchwork of dependencies is essential for figuring out where an innovation district should be located. It also helps clarify the sales proposition to prospective tenants of the innovation district. For example, the Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor spans the U.K. cities of Cambridge and Norwich, which are about 60 miles apart, but it’s also focused on developing the towns in between. That way, it can provide more of what’s in demand: start-up space, distribution, pilot manufacture, and even exhibit facilities. “Our spatial vision helped us to identify a number of high-growth locations that have the potential to play a key role in driving growth and investment in the tech corridor,” says Julian Munson, head of enterprise zones and innovation, New Anglia Local Economic Partnership, which hosts the corridor. “Our goal is to support each location to build on their existing strengths and to connect locations and industries across the Tech Corridor into one joined-up economy that can support sustainable and inclusive growth.”

Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor
⇒ Recognizing the patchwork of dependencies is essential for figuring out where an innovation district should be located.