Innovation Districts at Future of Places Conference

The Rise of Innovation Districts

In June 2014, the Brookings Institute released The Rise of Innovation Districts, a new report analysing the emerging trend of a new urban model. We wrote an article about the new report last year.

Innovation districts is a recent trend in urban planning that has emerged as a new model to stimulate economic growth in cities across the globe. Since the 1950s, entrepreneurial clustering has been led by the model of Silicon Valley, suburban corridors with sprawling research centres and campuses.

However, around the year 2000, mayors in European and American cities began dedicating zones in cities exclusively for the purpose of clustering entrepreneurs, startups, business accelerators and incubators. These spaces are easily accessible via public transportation, wired for public Wi-Fi, support mixed-use development, and nurture innovative collaboration and knowledge-sharing.

The first official innovation districts were in Barcelona, Spain with 22@Barcelona, a project which we in Bearing worked on in our early years of consulting, and in Boston, Massachusetts with the Seaport Innovation District. Following these two initiatives, mayors across the globe have replicated variations of this model in their own cities. Today, there are over 80 official innovation districts worldwide.

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Innovation Districts have proven to be effective solutions for cities to modernize their economies and pivot from traditional industrial-based production to technology-driven services. A wave of academic research is also emerging analysing innovation districts’ positive effects on job creation and economic development.

At the Future of Places conference in Stockholm, Sweden in June this year, Bruce Katz from the Brookings Institute gave a presentation about his research, captured in the video below. We recommend taking a look.

Bruce Katz on Innovation Districts


In the Brookings institute report last year, Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner identified three primary models in how innovation districts are created:

  1. Anchor plus: This model is characterized by the revitalization efforts / redevelopment centering on a leading institution in a city. The institution itself plays a vital role in redeveloping the surrounding real estate into innovation-friendly locations and attracting entrepreneurs, startups and talent to the area. The most frequently cited examples of this model include Cambridge around Cambridge Science Park, Massachusetts’ Kendall Square and St. Louis’ Cortex district. MIT has significantly shaped the development of Kendall Square and Washington University has led the redevelopment of the Cortex district in St. Louis.
  2. Re-imagined urban areas: Followers of this model focus the efforts of building an innovation district around degraded real estate, most likely in the outskirts of the city. Re-imagined urban area innovation districts are typically located along historic waterfronts that once served as thriving manufacturing hubs in the 20th century. It is common for significant investments in public transportation to accompany this model in order to reconnect this once-thriving part of a city to downtown residents. Examples of this model include Boston’s Innovation District (redeveloped South Boston Waterfront), Barcelona’s 22@Project (redeveloped Poblenou neighborhood) and Seattle’s South Lake Union
  3. Urbanized science park: This model is characterized by re-imagining suburban or exurban areas into less sprawling, isolated geographies. Examples of this model include Raleigh-Durham’s Research Triangle Park, which was one of the preeminent research corridors in the 1980s and 1990s. However, in November 2012, leaders of Research Triangle Park unveiled a master plan to reinvent the area to attract more nearby living and working, and promote physical spaces that encourage “random collisions” and open innovation.

To learn more on this topic, here are some articles we have written previously on this blog which may be interesting to read:

  1. Matija Derk on The Metropolitan Revolution – The New Geography of Innovation
  2. Citizen Driven Innovation Through Living Labs
  3. Jörgen Eriksson on City Innovation Environments
  4. Lars-Göran Larsson on Innovation Driven Local and Regional Growth
  5. Third Generation Innovation Environments
  6. Dr David Hardman on The Future of Science Parks
  7. Jörgen Eriksson on the Five design elements for successful development of science parks
  8. Something New Above the Noise of the City

Below is the generic presentation on The Rise of Innovation Districts from Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program in 2014.

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