One of the country’s oldest suburban research parks, the Research Triangle Park, is cultivating a new, public-facing Frontier to reconnect its employees and attract new entrepreneurs through social spaces and programming. The Roxbury Innovation Center just opened its doors in a rehabilitated public building in an underserved neighborhood of Boston as a place for the community to learn, connect, and incubate new businesses. The Cortex Innovation Community in St. Louis is experimenting with a mission-driven and highly empowered model of self-governance.
What do all of these initiatives have in common? They are all examples of how communities around the country, and the world, are leveraging the nexus of innovation and place.
Innovation does not happen in isolation. It happens as a result of the synergies that are made possible by place: between people, ideas, and opportunities. For much of the 20th century, economic life existed separately from the places in which people lived; it was isolated instead in remote office parks and corporate campuses in areas like Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128 Corridor. Today, however, many practitioners are recognizing that the interplay between inventive people and the places they share is what accelerates the exchange of ideas, resources, and talent—the very process that fuels innovation.
Recognizing this trend, in 2014 Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner kicked off research interest in this new geography of innovation with their Brookings Institution paper “The Rise of Innovation Districts,” which produced an impressive response as cities around the country began to tap into the innovative assets in their own backyards and cultivate new opportunities. In late 2015, Brookings and PPS announced their collaboration on The Bass Initiative on Innovation and Placemaking to extend this work. Although many on-the-ground practitioners like the ones mentioned above have an intuitive and empirical understanding of how place can support innovation, this effort is one of the first attempts to systematically study and test how physical, social and economic assets come together in place to drive innovation.
Last year, the Initiative produced an audit framework for innovation districts to assess themselves on a variety of fronts. Since then, we have taken this audit for test drives in Philadelphia’s University City and Oklahoma City’s Innovation District, and recently the Downtown Center Business Improvement District in Los Angeles took it upon itself to test its own version of the audit on its emerging innovation district in DTLA, anchored by a new, people-centered, tech-enabled Pershing Square. Other research organizations are following suit, like the Centre for London, whose 2016 Spaces to Think report examines the physical environment of the city’s many innovation districts.
Since its launch, the Bass Initiative’s scope has also grown beyond innovation districts into other shared workplaces like public markets and arts and culture districts. Much like innovation districts, these urban hubs bring together physical, social and economic assets into a complex cluster of innovative activity. In places like Toronto’s 401 Richmond or the Flint Farmers Market, vendors and artists find their markets, exchange resources and knowledge, compete and collaborate—all in publicly accessible places.
But there is still so much work to be done! Compared to some of the other movements that converge in place, the nexus of innovation and placemaking is still young and growing. Major challenges face this agenda in terms of strengthening the connection between innovation and place in innovation districts and other urban hubs; broadening the benefits of innovation to underserved communities and entire cities; building common language and purpose between placemakers, entrepreneurs and economic development professionals; and overcoming ever-present barriers in governance and funding.
Are you the manager or developer of an innovation district, or of a public market, arts and culture development, or other public place that sees innovation as part of its mission? Are you a chief innovation officer for your city? Do you connect innovation and placemaking in your work in ways we have yet to imagine?