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What Makes a Successful Innovation District?

Prosperous innovation districts have diversified economies and are integrated into the fabric of a community, drawing workers who seek out such environments and the companies that are trying to attract them.

Q2 2019
Concept design of UC Davis Aggie Square, a planned 
25-acre innovation district on UC Davis’ Sacramento campus.
Concept design of UC Davis Aggie Square, a planned 25-acre innovation district on UC Davis’ Sacramento campus.
The definition of the workplace as we know it has been undergoing rapid changes. What it once meant to baby-boomers is completely different than what it now means to millennials and Gen-Z. Instead of having students graduate and move for jobs, companies are now choosing to set up shop where young talent wants to live — in up-and-coming destinations that embody a “cool factor” like Denver, Austin, and Seattle. This shift in perspective has led to the rise of innovation districts — an emerging trend that is changing the way industries, economies, and communities are growing in the areas where they are located.

These targeted urban areas have the potential for entrepreneurship and, of course, innovation, given the right catalysts. In these districts, spaces and ideas develop organically to foster connections between people and industries. When executed successfully, innovation districts can diversify and encourage significant economic development in a community, as well as serve as a compelling tool for both talent recruitment and retention. But what makes an innovation district flourish?

How do we turn a trend into a lasting vehicle for economic growth and prosperity?

What Is an Innovation District?
The concept of the modern innovation district has long been in the making, with the first industrial and corporate business campuses evolving into university research parks. There was a surge in the development of many of these areas in the 1970s and 1980s, which were anchored by — if not led by — universities with notable research-based institutions and academic medical centers that resulted in partnerships with business and industry. Most parks were based on the traditional corporate park model — a building in isolation, surrounded by surface parking, maybe a pond with a fountain, and a ring road that would quickly help people leave at the end of the business day. These design and planning elements were not the model of a vibrant, active space.

As universities have continued to face research funding challenges, industry partnerships have since become an even more important part of the equation. Due to the fact that institutions have cautiously become more outwardly focused, their respective communities have simultaneously learned to leverage the economic potential of their institutions. Surrounding communities and investors from both the public and private sector have instinctively realized that they are able to utilize local assets in an economically favorable way. This has led to more advantageous partnerships, because both parties have a strong understanding of the mutual economic gains of working together, ultimately resulting in development and growth. These partnerships are a fundamental aspect of the evolution of the modern innovation district.

Coupling the demand of next-generation service and creative workers who are seeking interesting places to live, employers have begun to follow the talent. A robust and available pipeline of knowledgeable workers is key, as recently evidenced by major expansions of Amazon in both Crystal City, Virginia, and Nashville, Tennessee, as well as Apple in Austin, outside of their bases in Seattle and Cupertino, respectively. As such, placemaking and economic development have become inextricably woven.

Traditional office parks are attempting to reinvent themselves as places full of activity offering employees a variety of uses, and university research parks are rethinking their traditional models as well. Traditional office parks are attempting to reinvent themselves as places full of activity offering employees a variety of uses, and university research parks are rethinking their traditional models as well. For example, today’s mechanical engineering graduate who wants a job in the automotive industry is no longer limited to moving to Detroit. That graduate has “place choice” and can weigh their options between moving to Silicon Valley and working for Tesla, or moving to Greenville, South Carolina, where they could work with BMW, or be a researcher in the Clemson University Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR).

Sacramento, California, and Tallahassee, Florida, are both great examples of prime areas for an innovation district to grow. Both cities are located in states with strong, growing populations and industry. Both are capital cities with a major higher education institution presence. Sacramento has the University of California, Davis Health Center, the main academic and research campus just 20 miles away, as well as a strong agricultural economy; while Tallahassee leans heavily on its base of state government, a population of over 50,000 students at Florida State University and Florida A&M University, in addition to the city’s population. However, each of these locations have traditionally been large net exporters of talent, as few people stay in the area following graduation. If their institutional assets were leveraged from an economic perspective, and through partnership and place-making, these cities would quickly attract young talent and establish opportunities for entrepreneurship, incubation, technology, and swift economic growth.

This is exactly what is happening at UC Davis’ planned 25-acre Aggie Square innovation district on its Sacramento campus. Just this past April, the chancellor and the mayor of Sacramento jointly unveiled plans for the first eight acres of the project to include office and classroom lifelong learning spaces, two multitenant research buildings, and a mixed-use residential building with active ground-level uses and an outdoor market focused on providing access to healthy food options. The designs incorporate a mobility hub to encourage alternative modes of transportation, which is anchored by a public Aggie Square that connects buildings. This new public space provides an open area for tenants, residents, and community members to congregate. Once realized, this initiative will leverage the institution and community assets, positioning Sacramento as a hub of the innovation economy.

Innovation districts evolved into the contemporary notion of what they are today by becoming much more integrated into the urban fabric of a community. They are no longer singularly focused research parks in suburban areas, but a mix of different market sectors and purposes in urban landscapes. A prosperous innovation district will have a diversified economy, with a vibrant mix of businesses that support a need for mixed-used development and housing companies across multiple industries. Ideally, these industries — no matter how disparate — will cross pollinate, coming together through shared discourse to solve a common problem. This sort of innovation leads to notable economic growth and the transformation of several different industries simultaneously. Bringing together companies with common themes of discourse that result in this level of trailblazing and economic advancement is the most effective way to future-proof an innovation district and ensure that it will continue benefiting the community for years to come.

The three main aspects to consider when planning an innovation district in an urban area are economy, place, and culture. Economic growth comes from diversified industries and research and the innovation ecosystem they provide. Place-making represents the physical, vibrant, mixed-use environment that industry seeks in identifying access to the best and most creative talent. That said, the program activities, cultural efforts, and the curation and cultivation that happen in a remarkable innovation district are just as important as what happens on the place-making and economic side. When planning an innovation district, one of the key questions designers and urban planners must ask themselves is how to bring people together and create both common ground and opportunities to exchange ideas fluidly.

An Emerging Success
An excellent case study of a burgeoning innovation district is the one Perkins+Will is helping to design in Oklahoma City, which is home to the state capitol; the University of Oklahoma (OU) Medical Center; the OU Research Park, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation; Devon Energy; Baker Hughes-GE; Tinker Air Force Base; and the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center; among other entities. With a number of industries centered in this area, such as aeronautics, oil and gas, biomedical, and healthcare, the burgeoning Oklahoma City Innovation District will be a place where different industries are successfully forging common discourse and effectively demonstrating a positive impact on each sector.

This area has become a significant driver of economic growth for the state of Oklahoma, and the institutions and neighborhoods in this district have a unique stake in supporting its sustained growth and future development. Additionally, the district is integrating the Medical Center and Capitol Environs campuses further into the fabric of the neighborhood, creating new growth opportunities for all parties. Through the exciting potential the innovation district is fostering, the capacity for new developments and civic investments, as well as business opportunities, is allowing for additional place-making and, in turn, cementing the innovation district’s place as a permanent part of Oklahoma City’s urban framework.

The three main aspects to consider when planning an innovation district in an urban area are economy, place, and culture. Oklahoma City’s innovation district has also been diligent in ensuring that already established communities, such as its surrounding and historically underrepresented neighborhoods, are being included in the new economic opportunities that are emerging in the area. Instead of being left behind through economic disparity, Perkins+Will is fostering conversations with local educational institutions and organizations regarding training, technical education, and workforce development — allowing individuals without access to an expensive education opportunities for new jobs within the innovation district. These opportunities for upward mobility will allow the residents the chance to build personal wealth. While the value of their property may rise, so may their earning potential, and the innovation district will grow in a more holistic and inclusive manner. This focus on diversity is an increasingly important part of how designers and urban planners must look at future innovation districts.

Looking to the Future — What’s Next?
The conversation surrounding innovation districts is pivoting to center around economic, cultural, and demographic inclusion. As urban designers and planners begin to think about future innovation districts and what those will look like, diversity in terms of the composition of the workforce and the demographic of the community is a priority. Community leaders and designers have begun to think about the foundation of these communities more holistically, making sure to consider ways to combat the issues of affordability and gentrification that technology and innovation can bring within established communities and neighborhoods. Sensitivity must be applied, as these negative impacts threaten to form a consistent level of unemployment around certain demographic sectors.

Walkability is also a concern, with urban planners and designers taking serious care to ensure that people have access to affordable public transportation and are not priced out of accessing possible employment. Thinking about density and mobility in a different way also enables additional opportunities for connection. A foundational principle of innovation districts, this introduces the potential for discourse and innovation that may not be present without this all-inclusive point of view.

The next generation workforce has a different set of values in terms of what is important to them. As technology continues to advance and the trend of innovation districts continues to grow and expand in preferred cities, changing the conversation in a more diverse and inclusive method will ensure that these centers of innovation, economic growth, and cultural transformation continue to prosper, and change the way we look at industry and urban planning for years to come.

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