A defining characteristic of innovation districts is their horizontal relationships—connections across actors and sectors spanning research universities and medical institutions, companies and smaller firms, start-ups, and intermediaries. Many innovation districts have worked tirelessly to build and facilitate these horizontal connections, an effort that has included orchestrating or “choreographing” collisions between people as a way to stimulate new relationships and new ideas. Their work has also supported collaborative innovation, where institutions and/or companies work collaboratively to conceive new inventions or advance joint research.
Today, with COVID-19 writing new rules of engagement, new questions are being raised about the unique value proposition of innovation districts: geographies of innovation powered by physical proximity, density, and, crucially, horizontal relationships across actors and sectors. For example, how are districts continuing to nurture, grow, and differentiate their innovation ecosystem when many researchers, workers, and other actors are working from home or in highly separated spaces and places?
In July 2020, The Global Institute convened a peer sharing session with district leaders as part of a new global network of innovation districts to understand the range of strategies and tactics being used to engage and connect district actors. How are district leaders, in other words, keeping the community flame alive and authentic when physical distance is the new normal?
Early insights from this network session suggest that districts should use this time to drive innovative practice, writing a new chapter in the fast-evolving district playbook. The pillars of today’s playbook are:
- Experimenting with strategies and formats to virtually connect district actors and others.
- Designing new ways to creatively—and safely—make essential face-to-face connections or on-site collaborations possible, such as utilizing public space for outdoor events or staggering occupancy in co-working spaces and other district assets.
- Adopting hybrid formats that allow for both virtual and face-to-face connections, where, for example, online gatherings are augmented by in-person visits to district spaces, restaurants, or other amenities.
Because rates of COVID-19 cases differ widely across cities, regions, and countries, each innovation geography needs to carefully assess what is viable and safe. Listed below are insights from leaders who are boosting creative collisions and supporting collaborative innovation across actors during COVID-19.
- “Collisions are never accidental; you have to organize and plan them.” Now, with COVID-19, the level of intentionality needed to support collisions has grown exponentially. In some districts, teams are prioritizing the need to creatively engage actors and deepen relationships. They are also looking beyond the physical borders of the district to forge new connections in response to the growing appetite among district actors to engage nationally and internationally.
- Engage the local community. The pandemic presents an urgent need for district actors to come together as a group to demonstrate the district’s value to adjacent communities, especially for residents who are disadvantaged or vulnerable.
- Be they virtual or hybrid, take the time to identify software tools that are right-sized for the event type and audience. “Some companies and anchors have banned Google Meet and Zoom while others insist on Webex,” explained one district leader. And look out for tool inconsistencies: Regardless of which tools are used, a helpdesk should be available to sort out connection or technology problems in real time. With respect to the design of meetings, districts spoke about keeping everyone who takes part stimulated and engaged. Examples included virtual rooms for people with different interests to connect in break-out conversations.
- Whether the meeting is small or large, allow participants to actively engage with one another. “People actively asking questions helps facilitate accidental collisions.” As one district leader cautioned, “When people sit and absorb content but do not contribute, there is much less of that kind of new relationship building or emotional engagement, the kind of connectivity we’re trying to drive—another kind of vision, imagination, energy level amongst the group.”
- Dedicate time for intensive follow-up to understand the needs and pain points of district actors. Feedback surveys and Net Promoter Score tools are essential. District leaders explained how impact measures and measurement models must account for alternative leading indicators when staging a virtual event. They also noted that “outcomes such as new partnerships or relationships do not differ as much” from those used for in-person activities prior to COVID-19.
- Everyone is getting used to doing business online. Recognize that trust needs to be deliberately nurtured. One district leader summed up the challenge of strictly virtual formats as follows: “To what extent can you trust someone on a screen when you’ve never met them?”
- Continue to demonstrate the value of the district’s physical assets. Whether by giving participants in a virtual event a discount at restaurants located in the district, or by developing ways for socially distanced teams to share access to resources (such as labs) that are in demand, or by some other creative means, take advantage of the shifts brought about by COVID-19 to make effective use of the district’s physical assets.
Even before COVID-19, taking a one-size-fits-all approach would have failed to foster connectedness and collaborative innovation. With people further removed and dislocated from their pre-COVID environments, finding ways to attract and connect actors is all the more important. By taking advantage of changed perceptions and behaviors for connecting in person and virtually, districts are integrating a variety of activities and approaches to cross-pollinate actors.
The network session concluded with a challenge: Each district should experiment with formats and strategies that encourage creative collisions and collaborative innovation in this new world. The discussion also surfaced a mandate for The Global Institute, which is to identify hybrid formats—those that bring together virtual and (to the greatest extent possible) in-person exchanges—that are helping to create new horizontal relationships across actors.
Given the likelihood of a longer period of social distancing—not to mention an already high level of app, webinar, and Zoom “fatigue”—district leaders want to understand the range of hybrid approaches, whether bold and ambitious or small and one-off, that are being introduced by their peers.
Hybrid models feature a mix of components where some people are present at one (or more) physical location(s), while others attend remotely. Examples typically demonstrate the value of the district’s physical assets—for example, making use of district open spaces for an in-person event (with social distancing observed) that is broadcast online to participants worldwide.
The Global Institute is now reaching out to districts globally to discover where this experimentation is occurring. That is, what events, meetings, and conversations that mix virtual and physical encounters are taking place in innovation geographies around the globe? Specifically:
- How are these experiments enabling “creative collisions” to flourish?
- How are they providing pioneering—and safe!—ways for people to connect and collaborate?
- How are they fostering support for district amenities, such as restaurants and retail, or continued usage of district resources such as labs?
The Global Institute will collect these examples for possible publication. Meanwhile, we are encouraging network participants to actively share new insights with their global peers. By helping to orchestrate our own cross-pollination among districts, GIID hopes to accelerate this new innovative practice and support district leaders who are rewriting their playbook.
Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have something to share or are curious to learn more!
EXAMPLES OF APPROACHES THAT DRIVE CREATIVE COLLISIONS
In the paragraphs below, examples and insights from districts that joined the peer sharing session (MaRS Discovery District, Grand Canal Innovation District, and Liverpool Innovation Precinct) are followed by examples from districts that shared their activities in earlier global listening sessions.
MaRS Discovery District (Toronto, Canada)
- Investing energy in figuring out what works: Whether virtual or hybrid, MaRS is “playing around to figure out what format fits what kind of topic.” Leaders at MaRS Discovery District are designing different online activities—for example, more focused and simpler discussions on one or two topics, versus larger, more general and open-ended conference events. Intensive follow-up with partners after these events helps identify areas for improvement. MaRS is also experimenting with ways to share information post-event, such as short videos. The following dedicated core programs help ensure the continuation of “collisions”:
- An innovation pipeline event that functions as a reverse trade show. Here corporate partners share their big business challenges, and governments share problems that arise in the delivery of services. MaRS invites a mix of local ventures and businesses outside Canada to pitch back ideas about how to reshape challenges and problems, and about how they can help.
- A virtual “showcase” for a curated set of ventures and solution providers on a specific topic (such as 5G, for example). Following a quick pitch, participants are able to visit each “stall.” MaRS has adopted a hybrid format, with an in-person studio set up just for staff (taking extra safety precautions). The rapid coordination required among virtual participants was too difficult to orchestrate with staff working remotely.
- A series of events with corporates and ventures focused on economic stimulus responses and collective measures that the district can advance to ensure continued support from government.
- As elsewhere, in-person activities are proving to be a challenge at MaRS, all the more so because COVID-19 testing is being provided in the MaRS building. Because safety is of utmost importance, MaRS leaders are debating whether to move activities to other open spaces for now. They have also learned that it is crucial to develop extra safety procedures and share them in advance, so that participants know what is expected of them and staff know how to handle delicate situations (such as someone not wearing a mask).
Grand Canal Innovation District (Dublin, Ireland)
- Meanwhile, in addition to running several webinars, the Grand Canal District has begun to explore the potential of micro-event models. Although the highest priority is to ensure meaningful engagement, shorter, more targeted 20-minute events—akin to the “meet someone for coffee” kind of informal engagement—can be deeply informative.
- Among the positive effects of the lockdown for the Grand Canal District are new opportunities for collaboration. Country leads for the large corporates now regularly engage in structured sessions with peers. Meeting topics range from strategies to retain talent and the district’s competitive advantages, to development of a charter and of solutions to ease the transition back to in-person work once it is safe to do so. The district leader noted, “It would not be possible to get those people in a room together in the same way.”
- These efforts and others are helping to confirm the value proposition of districts and to define what differentiates them as a location choice for investment and growth.
- They are also providing a platform to take advantage of new scenarios for risk mitigation. As companies realize that virtual collaboration works well, trends are emerging that involve decentralization and creating opportunities in other locations. District leaders are considering how they can take advantage of this.
- The Grand Canal District is also creating new ways to bring actors together to collectively leverage and strengthen ways in which the local community can benefit from the district. Organizations—including universities, large corporations, and public bodies—are now presenting themselves as a unified group, aligning activities and engaging with the local community.
Liverpool Innovation Precinct (Liverpool, Australia)
- This new level of collaboration is also being advanced in the Liverpool Innovation Precinct. Although a number of district actors are running virtual programs, these are all run independently. District leadership recognizes that to drive innovation and creative collisions, it is necessary to reach across actors to intentionally activate cross-collaboration.
- The precinct is also experimenting with formats for “Demo Day,” a virtual accelerator program for start-up teams. The idea is to allow participants to break out from the main stage periodically. Joining smaller, focused conversations, with open Q&A sessions and time limits, helps create intimacy and familiarity. Even though this format requires “a heavy lift on the facilitators’ end, it was seamless for the attendants.” Being able to follow up offline with participants helps address a primary challenge of virtual environments, namely that trust is hard to build.
- Because Liverpool has had relatively few COVID-19 cases, in-person meetings—with occupancy limited to allow for social distancing—are augmented by audio-visual facilities to include virtual attendees. District leaders are also developing new programming designed in direct response to the coronavirus, with fully virtual and hybrid formats for the time being.
Galway City Innovation District (Galway, Ireland)
- Many districts are finding new ways to ensure that resources in the district continue to be utilized. This may take the form of a simple directory of companies located in the district, with information about new hours, delivery/pick-up options, or other changes (Galway Innovation District). Or it may consist of a system for coordinating access to core equipment, labs, or technologies for teams in staggered shifts (BioSTL in St. Louis’s Cortex Innovation Community). In any case, leaders are being clear about what the district offers and are creating new ways to share information and access.
- District leaders in Galway quickly moved programs online, including a new pre-accelerator series designed for remote locations and tailored to account for any regional disparities. As the district leader explained, the pre-accelerator series “had just kicked off in Letterkenny in the northwest of Ireland when this happened, and we had to flip it online. It’s actually now gaining traction as more and more people attend every week, which has been very positive.”
Knowledge Quarter (London, UK)
- District leaders have been innovating with partners to virtually connect the district’s ample cultural resources to the 70,000 people who, prior to COVID-19, worked in and around the Knowledge Quarter. Virtual private tours showcase district assets and areas of interest, and a series of special events designed for the general public often sell out. Community engagement is paramount for the Knowledge Quarter (KQ). For example, the district recently conducted an online survey of local audiences—defined as people employed by organizations in the district or those who had regularly visited any of the 100 cultural, academic, research, scientific, and media organizations located in the district—to explore how cultural partners in the district can better serve local audiences. National surveys had been conducted to understand the impact of COVID-19 on visitor behavior, but cultural institutions in the KQ felt that there was insufficient data on local audiences. The district helped to fill that gap. In addition, the district has introduced a new series bringing together local community organizations to share their experiences on the ground during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as their expectations for the immediate future.
Science City Lyngby (Copenhagen, Denmark)
- Science City Lyngby is playing an instrumental role by serving as intermediary between the government, public institutions, and its more than 80 members. In addition to hosting webinars for members to exchange ideas and information, district leaders have been able to connect members with pro bono financial and legal services, which were contributed by local businesses. “Everyone is eager to help each other and also to innovate.”
Quartier de l’innovation (Montréal, Canada)
- With more than 40% of the employees who typically work in Downtown Montréal now telecommuting, working from home has created a surplus of available space—so much so that district leaders of Quartier de l’innovation are recruiting partners to make space available to select companies and start-ups rent free. The idea is not only to help populate otherwise empty spaces and support local businesses downtown, but also to enable critically important sectors to gain traction and grow through (socially distant) in-person collaboration.
Technology Square (Atlanta, United States)
- Prior to the crisis, Technology Square routinely brought corporate partners together in peer-to-peer exchanges, with partners driving the content. Now district leaders have increased the frequency of their community-building efforts with partners and are being more intentional in their engagements. Partners are brought together to solve common problems or discuss changes brought about by COVID-19 and to look ahead for opportunities to collaborate around recovery. For example, the district is working to ensure active connections are being maintained between companies, researchers, entrepreneurs, and intermediaries across the district in order to support technology adoption among stakeholders. The district is also advancing virtual “collision and connection” events to foster research and start-up and student engagement with corporate partners. Above all, the district is capitalizing on the sense of community among partners—the district utilized “place” to create a sense of community over years—and the deep trust that had developed among actors prior to COVID-19. As the district leader explained, “That momentum has carried over and the appetite for getting together remotely remains.”
University City (Philadelphia, United States)
- District leaders of University City are placing a high priority on providing virtual support for start-ups by making connections and introductions, helping with funding applications, and offering one-on-one advice. Its Venture Café moved promptly to a virtual-only format, and participation levels are high, owing in part to new global cooperation through the network of other Venture Cafés. Only in the district’s BioLabs (a co-working space for life science companies with shared wet labs and equipment) have people continued to work on site. As the property manager of several buildings, district leadership plays an active role, sharing, in real time, ideas and information about policies, practices, and procedures to create greater alignment among actors.
While the above is only a partial list of the efforts under way in geographies of innovation around the world, it represents a diverse sample of how district leaders are embracing the challenges posed by COVID-19 to boost collaborative innovation and to plan and direct creative collisions. This type of choreography requires a special skill, and, above all, intentionality among district leaders. When done right, this deliberate effort to encourage creative collisions and collaborative innovation rewards district actors with an incalculable return—one that makes being part of an innovation district all the more valuable in such volatile times.