Jennifer Vey (Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, The Brookings Institution), opened the panel by defining an innovation district. These districts are geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions (research universities, research-oriented medical hospitals) 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. She showed a fantastic short video [insert video link] focusing on the new geography where innovation takes place—where people and ideas come together not in isolated spaces, but in highly connected places.
Jennifer was joined on the panel by Sakina Khan (Senior Economic Planner, DC Office of Planning) to discuss how important the innovation economy is to the District’s overall economic development. In particular, she was asked what role St. Elizabeth’s and other emerging innovation districts are expected to have in the overall growth of the technology sector of the economy. Sakina reported that the innovation economy is very important to the District, in particular as a means to diversify the economy and create jobs. They have been focusing on St. Elizabeth’s as an innovation hub that will feature an academic anchor and be connected to the surrounding community, with the goal of creating a place that will in turn attract the innovation.
Gayle Farris (Founding Principal, GB Farris Strategies, Inc.) worked with MIT developing University Park beginning in the mid-eighties. She then worked with Johns Hopkins on the Science and Technology Park beginning in the early 2000s and has been working with Harvard on Allston since 2014. She has witnessed how the concept of technology parks and innovation districts has changed over time. When MIT started their innovation district, their objective was to commercialize the research and improve the area around the campus (act as a buffer between the neighborhood and the university). Johns Hopkins began to think about creating a good place for innovation. They focused on the community first and then on the innovation. Harvard is now focusing on how the tenants have changed and their changing needs and desires. This includes creating a great, collaborative space.
Innovation districts are where a critical mass of economic, physical, and networking assets comes together. Design is a key element, helping to create the type of high-quality physical spaces that bring people together in ways that foster collaboration, creativity, and idea exchange, in both formal and informal ways. Colin Koop (Associate Director, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, LLP) works on the Cornell Innovation District on Roosevelt Island. Before starting the project, he spent time looking for examples of other buildings/architecture that helped to create ideas and foster innovation. They found two examples. Building 20 at MIT was horrible outside, but that was its attraction—all of the folks at MIT that didn’t fit neatly into their departments ended up there and created great amounts of innovation. They didn’t have to fit in. The other example was Bell Labs’ original building in New Jersey. They put the labs and offices on different floors, which forced people to walk around the building and interact with each other. Based on these observations, they designed the “Tech Walk”—the central spine on Roosevelt Island. This forces interactions by creating a pathway that people have to share as they go between buildings. They also made sure the secure space in the buildings was as far into the building as possible. They wanted the community (both students and the neighborhood) to feel welcome. Design can create better space.
At this point, the panel turned to the discussion of whether innovation districts can happen all over and/or anywhere. Every city and region needs to understand their own innovation ecosystem, the competitive assets they have to build on, how the shifting geography of innovation is playing out in their own community, and how innovation can best be supported. There does need to be some (relative) degree of critical mass, however. One real estate project does not make a district. Sakina talked about how in the District, innovation is spread out. They have a variety of opportunities for innovation ranging from St. Elizabeth’s (as an Innovation Hub) to pop-up/temporary spaces for innovation such as Nerds in the Lobby in NoMa where an underutilized lobby was turned into an idea-creating space.
The driving force behind innovation district development can come from a range of actors— universities or other anchors, private sector firms or business organizations, or the public sector. The long-term growth and development of innovation districts demands that these stakeholders collaborate around a shared vision and ambition for what the district can be. Jennifer asked Gayle and Colin a question about collaboration. Universities, as large anchor institutions, are key drivers of innovation districts. In these projects, it is very important for private-sector partners to work within and understand the university system. Universities are large land owners that want to own the land for the long term. Working with universities takes a long time, and you often have to work with a variety of stakeholders, including faculty, administration, board, and community. Colin added that you can bring stakeholders together with patience. It helps with the anchor institutions if they have a strong facilities team that can make decisions. It’s also important to do community outreach early in the design process. Universities are unique in that they will change their position and adjust in order to keep their constituents happy.
Overall it was a great session. More information on innovation districts can be found on the Brookings Institute website http://www.brookings.edu/about/programs/metro/innovation-districts-series.
Click here for an audio recording of the panel.