PPS staff Nate Storring and Meg Walker reflect on the possibilities and challenges of placemaking in innovation districts. This article is part of the Bass Initiative on Innovation and Placemaking, a collaboration between PPS and the Brookings Institution.

South Lake Union, an innovation district in Seattle, WA

South Lake Union, an innovation district in Seattle, WA.

Increasingly, startups, incubators and accelerators around the world are clustering around leading-edge companies and institutions in dense urban settings called “innovation districts.” By creating shared value, placemaking has much to offer this emerging geography of innovation in cities. It can play an important role in an integrated strategy designed to attract, retain and cultivate talent; to improve networking and communication flows between innovators; and to make the district a distinct, memorable destination. As this article shows, by averting, sharing, and externalizing costs, quality places can also accomplish these goals with a greater return on investment than many conventional approaches.

These eight principles reflect our work with the Brookings Institution on innovation districts, combining twists on some of PPS’s well-known strategies with fresh new observations:

1. Identity: Make innovation visible and public

All too often, institutions like universities and corporate offices turn to expensive starchitect-designed buildings or public spaces to differentiate themselves from competitors and express their prestige. And all too often, these investments end up costing more than they’re worth in financial, practical, and social terms. Focusing instead on a sense of place provides a cost-effective and meaningful alternative to such expensive mistakes, and this process begins with one simple question: what are we currently doing privately that we could be doing publicly?

Yoga in Bailey Park, Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, Winston-Salem, NC

Who says a health center has to be an unhealthy place to work? Yoga in Bailey Park, Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, Winston-Salem, NC | Photo by TowniesWS 

There are many creative answers to this question. For example, a company could showcase one of the more exciting aspects of their work in a transparent ground-floor space or through programming in public space. Public spaces or coffee shops with power outlets and wifi could provide places to linger, work and think in public. With the right policies and spaces, urban-oriented startups could even test their products and services in public space. By drawing on the distinctive economic assets of innovation districts, these strategies create a one-of-a-kind identity, while the arms race of international starchitecture, on the other hand, makes Prague look like Sydney, Sydney look like Cambridge, and everywhere look like Disney.

This kind of visibility could also enhance the value of “open innovation” in such districts. As we have observed in our ongoing research on innovation in public markets, when a vendor can see what her neighbor is up to, it may prompt her to adopt her neighbor’s products or display techniques, to differentiate her products, or to collaborate with her neighbor. Multiply that dynamic by a hundred vendors, and you have an intricate, self-organizing network of economic relationships that pushes and enables each vendor to try new things. What if innovation districts worked like the very best markets—places that openly communicate the newest thinking and challenge everyone to do better?

2. Diversity: Mix innovation with a range of other uses

Although economic specialization can provide identity to innovation districts, these specializations cannot survive in a vacuum. In order to attract and retain talent, a district must also provide a reasonable amount of convenience, leisure and social uses for employees. This has long been the case, but quality of life pressures continue to rise as Millennials flock to urban places that offer choice and liveliness, and talent from abroad demands places that embrace diversity and perhaps offer a few familiar footholds.

In the mid-century geography of innovation that centered on suburban research parks, corporations attracted employees by internalizing a virtual Main Street worth of uses within their fortress walls—cafeterias, gyms, game spaces, convenience stores, and even theatres, bowling alleys and beauty parlors. This trend lives on in the very biggest of our tech giants today. But such facilities require big subsidies—not because these uses must inherently lose money, but because they’re so inefficient, sitting idle most of the time. Companies like Google and Facebook, valued at hundreds of billions of dollars, can afford to balance such luxuries with other priorities, but startups and smaller suppliers cannot.

In urban innovation districts that bring together sufficient retail and multi-use public spaces (as well as residents and visitors to supplement the foot traffic of the working population) organizations can externalize and share these quality-of-life costs—particularly to the benefit of young and small enterprises. Furthermore, a diversity of small businesses can better fulfill the diverse demands of today’s workforce, while also paying their own way and building up the local economy.

3. Continuity: Start with existing people and places

The last thing that innovation districts should do is strive for a clean slate. Without any continuity in the community or urban fabric, places often lack the social capital and identity that builds up in other neighborhoods over time. This problem makes protecting existing people and places both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.

Innovation districts are often built near (or overtop of) low-income communities, and their relationships with those communities are often tenuous, if not hostile. But the community likely has a number of assets that the district desperately needs. Long after most employees have gone home, residents are the people who can support local businesses and keep the streets lively and safe; they’re the people who attend community meetings, and band together in times of crisis; with access to educational and training opportunities, they can also provide the future talent that innovation districts need in order to remain competitive. Depending on whether or not innovation districts work meaningfully with these natural and rightful stewards of the area, nearby residents can  become either powerful allies or equally powerful opponents.

Automobile Alley, a unique part of Oklahoma City's innovation district.

Automobile Alley, a unique part of Oklahoma City’s innovation district.

The existing urban fabric has just as much to contribute to innovation districts. As Jane Jacobs once said, “new ideas need old buildings.” Rather than clearing rundown buildings in a district for new construction, or even polishing up these hidden gems, Jacobs suggested that such buildings are important economic assets as is. They add to the diversity of a neighborhood by giving low- and no-profit uses a place they can afford without subsidy. What’s more, the vernacular or historical style of existing buildings can help bolster a district’s identity, much as Automobile Alley has in Oklahoma City’s innovation district. Some pioneering developers have even found ways to conserve the affordability of such spaces while gradually improving them.

4. Sociability: Bring people together through places and programming

PPS has long considered sociability a key quality of successful public spaces, but as our colleagues at Brookings have observed, “networking assets” are also invaluable ingredients for innovation districts. “Strong ties” connect people and firms within a given field, building up a community of practice that allows deep levels of trust, collaboration, and information-sharing. “Weak ties,” on the other hand, connect people and firms more loosely across fields, and provide access to new information, new contacts and business leads outside of existing networks.

As PPS knows from over 40 years of experience working in public space, comfortable, accessible places with lots of things to do help build both kinds of sociability. They are the physical locations where formal social programming can take place, and where people unexpectedly bump into each other again and again in their daily routines. “Third places,” like coffee shops and bars, can add to this rich stew of social opportunities.

Urbanspace Gallery, 401 Richmond St W, Toronto

Urbanspace Gallery in 401 Richmond St W, one of many “third places” on the ground floor of this innovative arts and culture development in Toronto, ON.

Furthermore, as William H. Whyte observed, the best public spaces attract more people in groups. In a survey of employees and students conducted as part of our audit of Oklahoma City’s innovation district, we found that about two-thirds of serendipitous social interactions reported by respondents involved a mutual acquaintance, suggesting the need for groups in facilitating new social connections. In other words, making places that people want to share with their friends and colleagues helps generate the self-organizing network of bonding and bridging social capital so valuable to innovation.

5. Proximity: Build things close together on the ground—not just on the map

While agglomeration economics emphasizes the importance of clustering between firms, there’s little magic in simply being close together. Proximity amplifies innovation in concert with other factors like strong networking assets and a culture that accepts risk. Walkable streets with active ground floors and vibrant public spaces represent another such factor that conspires with proximity to build connections and efficiencies within the district. Great streets can make the difference between a built environment that simply puts innovators next to one another in mutually exclusive drive-in fortresses, and one where innovators meet regularly in shared spaces, both serendipitously and intentionally.

Oklahoma City's Innovation District

Oklahoma City’s innovation district lacks the ground floor uses and even sidewalks in some places to make its streets a place to meet people. Furthermore, barriers like the 235 expressway to the west, and six blocks of uninterrupted parking lots to the east cut the medical center off from surrounding neighborhoods by foot.

For example, in the same Oklahoma City survey, about two thirds of respondents considered serendipitous social interactions to be valuable to their work or research, echoing results found in Kendall Square. However, while 84% of respondents in Kendall Square reported experiencing such interactions, only 55% did in Oklahoma City. What accounts for the 30% difference between the two districts? The locations where such social interactions occur may provide a clue. While interactions in relatively walkable Kendall Square happened overwhelmingly in publicly accessible places like restaurants, plazas or the street, in car-oriented Oklahoma City, they happened more often in socially homogenous spaces like cafeterias, lobbies, and other building common areas.

Graph comparing Oklahoma City's innovation district to Kendall Square: Do you experience serendipitous social interactions in the district?

Have you ever experienced unexpected interactions with others
working in the innovation district?

Having to hop into a car and find parking, or even walking through a series of boring, empty spaces, also imposes a cost on planned face-to-face meetings. In a recent study by the Harvard Business Review, 95% of respondents agreed that in-person meetings are vital to building and maintaining strong business relationships, and for accomplishing a variety of specific tasks—from client development to negotiations to overcoming cultural barriers. While communications technologies continue to improve long-distance collaboration when necessary, research suggests that they still fail to live up to the simultaneity and subtlety of the analogue alternative. Although more research needs to be done, we suspect that the costs in money, time, and effort related to transportation mode choice likely affect the frequency of such interactions, much as it does for consumer behavior.

6. Mobility: Connect to the broader city and region through multiple transportation modes

In a recent report by the World Bank on New York City’s innovation ecosystem, researchers found that social connectedness trumped physical proximity as an indicator of a startup’s future success. This may suggest that we should emphasize the importance of sociability over proximity in our principles, however the report adds a crucial caveat to these findings. Compared to many other cities, New York City has exceptional transit and digital connectivity, which may “reinforce the importance of social connectivity compared with geographic connectivity.” In other words, in less connected places, proximity may provide a crucial venue for sociability.

However, this report suggests that multiple transportation options can broaden the benefits of innovation to the city at large. For an innovation district, solid multimodal transportation means that firms can locate in cheaper spaces outside the district while still benefiting from its assets; it means reduced costs for district firms to collaborate in person with those outside the district; and it means district employees have a greater choice of residence and lifestyle options.

Connections between local transportation networks and regional or global transportation can also give a district a competitive edge. Thirtieth Street Station in Philadelphia’s innovation district, for instance, connects the subway and trolley lines that run through the area to Washington, DC or New York within an hour and a half.

7. Flexibility: Experiment, Observe, Repeat

Since the 1980s, “Agile” has become a widespread model for software development. Most of today’s top tech startups value working software over “high quality” design, test their products with users early and often, and embrace changing requirements instead of sticking to the plan in spite of them. The economic edge that these principles provide for startups is simple: they represent “the art of maximizing the amount of work not done.”

These same principles can be applied to the design of the built environment. At PPS we call this Agile approach to public spaces Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper (LQC). In short, the most effective solutions to improve a public space are often cheap, non-permanent interventions that can be accomplished right now.

Chairs in Harvard Yard

Simply by adding moveable chairs to Harvard Yard, the university transformed this nearly 300 year old crossroads into a destination where people meet and linger. This kicked off a Common Spaces initiative of Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper interventions around campus.

Much like agile software, LQC is more about functionality than design, operations costs more than capital costs. The design can come later once you get the functionality right, and the end users—not the designers—are the experts on what functionality they want and need. Most importantly, if one idea isn’t working, it’s not prohibitive to drop it and try something new. Over time, this evolutionary approach will produce optimal results, all while avoiding the need to rectify costly, time-consuming mistakes.

8. Unity: Govern with vision and holistic, inclusive strategies

A district cannot follow any of these principles very far without encountering the issue of governance. How do stakeholders within the district collaborate and make decisions? Where does the money come from? Who has the power to implement the plans and policies? Who is going to get their hands dirty and actually do the implementing?

To truly empower placemaking as a strategy for accelerating innovation, districts must experiment with new models of Place Governance. This means breaking down silos between disciplines and addressing issues with integrated strategies of policy and place. It means planning proactively and accountably with workers, students and residents—those end users again—not just leaders and experts. It means fostering a common sense of vision for the district’s future, while also leaving room for people to make many little plans. And ultimately, it means devolving more powers, responsibilities, and funding to the district level.

These are radical changes to the way that municipalities approach governance today, however Place Governance can begin with improving public spaces. The placemaking process brings together people from across disciplines, sectors, and interests, and provides tangible little wins that form the basis of shared trust for bigger endeavors. With relatively little investment, placemaking can literally produce the common ground for a broad, inclusive vision of the innovation district.

8 Placemaking Principles for Innovation Districts was last modified: November 7th, 2016 by Project for Public Spaces