Coming Up for Air: How Innovation Districts Are Pivoting During the Pandemic
As countries begin to relax their regulatory measures for COVID-19, cities, states, and national governments are reeling from the economic shocks. The number of shuttered companies, retail, restaurants, and small-family owned businesses has rolled back economic progress—with communities living in poverty experiencing outsized impacts. The degree to which our prosperity has so precipitously declined calls into question earlier ambitions and ideals of a strong, more egalitarian society.
Conversations with dozens of innovation district leaders around the world have begun to paint a new narrative of how combined strength and ingenuity have inspired these organized places to pivot during COVID-19. Innovation districts, like so many other communities, are adopting measures and new functions to mitigate impacts on start-ups and anchors alike. Over the past month, The Global Institute has held listening sessions with 25 innovation districts across multiple global regions to hear their local stories. Click on this link to read the full list of districts.
Innovation districts are geographies of innovation that are primarily located in cities and urban areas that leverage the research strengths of R&D-rich universities and medical institutions, along with companies, start-ups, and a suite of intermediaries, such as accelerators and incubators. Unlike many traditional science parks and science corridors, they intentionally design horizontal systems of innovation that transcend buildings, actors, and often sectors. They leverage density, physical proximity, and shared amenities as part of their unique commitment to create, and grow, collaborative innovation communities.
Just a few months ago, these words in bold were virtues to be embraced. Today, they have been called into question as our world has withdrawn into itself.
In the cloud cast by the uncertainty surrounding the novel coronavirus, innovation districts—locales recognized for building communities that value human connection and physical contact—might easily have found themselves sitting on the sidelines waiting for sunnier times. Yet this is hardly the case. Leaders establishing and growing innovation districts are instead “leaning in”—actively seeking new solutions for mitigating the economic rollback, which in many countries has disproportionately impacted ethnic and minority groups.
DISTRICT LEADERSHIP MATTERS
The success of innovation districts lies as much with the local leadership as with the districts’ robust R&D portfolios. Driven by a “collaborate to compete” approach, many district leaders have encouraged a variety of actors to coalesce around a common vision and have established people- and place-based systems over time. In doing so, they have crafted a powerful base of cross-actor networks that is now proving essential. For example:
District leaders and actors have spearheaded a new wave of innovation in response to COVID-19. As chronicled in two earlier articles, districts particularly strong in life sciences, reinforced by platform technologies (such as Big Data and machine learning) and analytical capabilities, have birthed hundreds of sophisticated medical devices and technical applications to mitigate the virus. In the vast majority of cases, this work evolved through collaborations among institutions, companies, manufacturing plants, and start-ups. At the same time, at least 10 districts globally are working on creating a vaccine.
- Districts now serve a critical new matchmaking function to help minimize the uneven impacts on their companies, institutions, and others. Existing relationships are proving to be a decisive factor that enables districts to facilitate instrumental partnerships and collaboration. While some firms were forced to halt operations and enact hiring freezes, others are overwhelmed by demand. District leaders are adjusting to variations such as these, serving as central points of command, connecting firms and institutions so that they can exchange resources and services and share knowledge. Incubators and accelerators in the Halifax Innovation District are working closely together to maximize resources, truly relying on a collective impact model. In an effort to ramp up testing capacity, Knowledge Quarter in London has been pivotal in relationship development between its anchor institutions, the Francis Crick Medical Research Institute, Europe’s largest medical research center, who is working with its neighbor, the British Library, to transform the Library’s carpark into a testing facility. A district leader explained that “If we didn’t have those deep, meaningful friendships and relationships with the 103 institutions that make up the Knowledge Quarter, we would have been in a very, very different position.”
- New ways of thinking about innovation district objectives and horizons have evolved. COVID-19 is bringing a new clarity and intentionality. As a leader of Tech Square in Atlanta described, they have a community that connects and collaborates routinely, yet there has been a specific focus on bringing together teams, recognizing what various actors are “particularly good at and applying that to make an impact.” There are also reminders of the importance of a long-term vision, such as what we heard from the Sydney Innovation and Technology Precinct: “We have to be patient, we’ve got a 15-year vision to set a framework for.”
At the same time, MaRS Discovery District, a Toronto-based innovation hub that works with 1,400 Canadian science and tech companies, is now organizing itself around three time horizons for addressing opportunities and issues: COVID-now (“dealing with the most pressing issues”), COVID-next (“looking into the immediate future to work on high-impact opportunities”), and COVID-beyond (“shaping what the country will look like beyond the COVID-19 crisis”). As a leader there described, “This crisis is urging us to be the drivers of positive change for the future. This is not about going back to the status quo. We shouldn’t just be talking about recovery. We should be talking about going to a very, very different and better place.”
ADAPTATION AND INNOVATION IN RECONCEIVING PHYSICAL PROXIMITY
The adaptability of physical assets is proving to be an important factor in repositioning districts. At the height of the pandemic, districts creatively repurposed non-essential spaces for immediate health and safety needs. As cities and countries prepare for the transition to a “new normal,” district leaders are weighing how businesses can slowly turn the lights on again.
- Transition plans need to account for social distancing. The new world of social distancing raises new questions about the value of space and the power of face-to-face physical connections. It places a valued attribute of districts—physical proximity—at odds with our current health imperative. It also raises real questions about the short- and long-term implications of space and place. What are the implications for those creatively designed innovation and mash-up spaces that orchestrate the clustering of people? Will there be sufficient space in buildings, given the need for social distancing? Or will there be an excess of physical space and infrastructure if entrepreneurs, companies, and institutions decide to continue relying on video and phone conferences for many of their daily interactions? What will come of those highly programmed and curated spaces—such as public innovation halls—that demand a critical density of people to make the math work? What are the implications for building and tenant contracts? While district leaders are asking these questions, many will be testing different ways of reorienting people in public spaces and places. In the end, many leaders have resolved that the “dust has to settle” before it will be possible to understand the real impact this pandemic will have on their physical landscape.
- A new approach to retail, rent, and return on investment may result. For innovation districts, retail shops and restaurants, along with programs, training sessions, and other face-to-face events, created the connective tissue for the district itself. The closing of stores and restaurants has emboldened district leaders—alongside investors and others—to look at tailored approaches for extending the financial runway of these businesses. As districts prepare to resume full-scale operations, district leaders are making new calculations as investors reconsider risks and returns. Financial scenarios are attempting to internalize new realities of social distancing, when large events can again be sponsored, and when workers will return to offices and co-working spaces.
NEW VALUES ON LOCAL AND LOCAL-NATIONAL ALIGNMENTS
- A new emphasis on the local may emerge. The power of local supply chains and local buyers has become a major focus during the pandemic. The ability to complete supply chains and to manufacture critical, life-saving health devices is emerging as a new imperative within some districts, especially those that were heavily reliant on products and materials from China or elsewhere. This re-think on the power of locally “completing the chain” may prove to be a new public policy priority for national governments globally. For innovation districts, connecting R&D to production, especially through smaller, more agile types of production facilities, could be a unique value proposition in this decade.
- An alignment between the national and the hyperlocal. Some national governments that are flexible and iterative are working directly with innovation districts to inform changes in policy and investment. In various parts of the world—such as Canada and Denmark—districts and government are working together to mitigate the impact of the crisis. As aggregators of the businesses and sectors that need protection, governments are drawing from district insights to shape rescue and relief packages. Policymakers in districts such as Lyngby City of Knowledge, for example, are tapping their networks to collect ideas on how to transition and reopen once it is safe to do so. This level of alignment between the national and the hyperlocal signals a new type of top-down collaboration that must be strengthened in other countries to spur innovative and inclusive growth in these hyperlocal communities.
There is no doubt that the reopening of society will be challenging. Too much uncertainty remains, and no formula exists for realizing our new normal. Yet it gives innovation districts—those highly layered locales that value people- and place-based problem-solving—an opportunity to reconceive “community” and find ways to grow back our economy.
There is a global network of innovation districts thinking, sharing, and acting on ways to move our communities and regions forward.
Let’s see what new ideas and solutions unfold.