Halifax, Nova Scotia; Stellenbosch, South Africa; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Nashville, Tennessee. In just the last week, members of The Global Institute team spoke with local leaders in these parts of the world to learn about their innovation districts. These leaders described the hard work under way, including the research and innovation specializations underpinning their locales. The discussions were fascinating.
At the same time, and in many of the same global regions, other places are unclear as to whether they have the assets of an innovation district.
Research on innovation districts—geographies of innovation where research-intensive universities, medical institutions, and companies are clustering—describes a new paradigm of innovation evolving in cities and urbanizing areas. From a quantitative standpoint, these geographies are characterized by high concentrations of research grant recipients and funding, by employment densities on the order of 50 times their regional averages, and by significant orientation toward commercial/research investment rather than residential investment and activities.
All the research, writing, and case studies on innovation districts have led to a flurry of interest. This excitement has also prompted local leaders advancing other types of urban hubs (such as transit-oriented developments, stadium developments, and traditional waterfront developments) to define their geographies as innovation districts.
In response, The Global Institute is designing a research agenda that will offer some concrete answers to what defines an innovation district. The goals of this research are as follows:
- Establish minimum thresholds (e.g., employment densities) to define districts. This will help those places that are asking whether they even have a sufficient level of starting assets to qualify as an innovation district.
- Develop a set of benchmarks or collective measures that help determine what stage of growth a district has reached (e.g., emerging vs maturing). This research will help districts understand where they are in their evolution.
- Offer broad-based evaluation across districts to help each district understand where it is consistently strong (demonstrating cutting-edge practice) and where it is consistently underperforming (demonstrating the need for new interventions).
Our work is already under way. Since February, we have identified well over 100 variables by which to evaluate districts, drawing on the tremendous experience and strategic support of Mass Economics, TEConomy Partners, The University-Industry Innovation Network, Accenture, seasoned members of our board, and mature innovation districts. The real challenge lies ahead, however, in identifying and gathering comparable data across districts located in the United States, Europe, Australia, and other global regions. Great variations exist in how these countries and their regions and/or states collect, organize, and update data. Identifying comparable data—and finding meaningful substitutes when necessary—will take time.
Specific members of our Steering Committee (innovation districts in the United States, Europe, Australia, and soon a few more) will be analyzed first and will serve as the basis of this work. These innovation districts were selected for their advancements in the field and/or for the extent to which they are building on their early efforts, drawing on insightful practice.
To test our work, a team has already gathered initial data in St. Louis (the Cortex Innovation Community) and Amsterdam (the Zuidas Knowledge District). The next phase of our work will be to take stock and assess our findings before moving on to other global regions.
Exciting but hard work lies ahead. Please watch for our updates from the road.
Teresa Lynch is president of Mass Economics, a research and consulting firm that specializes in urban economic growth and equity. Julie Wagner is president of The Global Institute.