When Oslo Science City entered into a partnership with two other innovation districts, Stockholm Science City and Copenhagen Science City, the ambition was to strengthen the districts as much as the three Nordic countries. The math made sense, these district leaders reasoned. Taken together, the countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark form one of the most competitive regions in Europe and the 18th largest economy on the planet.i By joining forces, the districts seek to leverage their collective strengths to boost the Scandinavian health industry. “Not only will the partnership fuel new collaborations across the districts’ R&D-strong institutions, we want to help develop the startup scene and spur more investment,” observed Christine Wergeland Sørbye, CEO of Oslo Science City.
Globally, venture capital and entrepreneurial investment are highly concentrated in just a few places in the world.ii The partnership between districts in Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen will work to address this imbalance. “Through policy reform and collaborative practice, we will stimulate our own risk capital markets and create a new global center of innovation,” Christine concluded at the session.
Oslo Science City, DistritoTec in Mexico, and the Buffalo Innovation District in the United States each presented their global partnerships at the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Urban Transformation Summit held in Detroit. The Global Institute on Innovation Districts led the WEF session “Advancing Global Partnerships to Power Innovation Districts.” More than 15 innovation districts actively participated to gain insights and brainstorm where partnerships could accelerate the evolution of innovation districts into regional economic engines.
Bringing districts together to explore partnership opportunities
The idea of designing and deploying highly tactical district partnerships came forward during conversations over the last year among district leaders in the Global Network of Innovation Districts. Led by The Global Institute, the network’s combination of deep empirical analysis and structured, deliberative work gave district leaders a new space to talk through innovative tactics to strengthen their competitive advantages.iii
As the Global Network surfaced dozens of instructive insights to advance the practice, it also revealed a shared truth: nearly all districts, even the most ambitious, with enviable assets and strengths, are hampered by resource limitations if not large structural challenges that only policy or legislative changes can address. Strategic partnerships have the potential to create new avenues for taking on these and other problems in a shared, even synergistic way. While the idea of partnerships is not new, the breadth of challenges before districts are propelling district leaders to revisit this strategy with new energy.
Democratizing innovation, accelerating timelines 4x
In addition to Oslo City Science, two other districts—DistritoTec in Monterrey, Mexico, and the Buffalo Innovation District in upstate New York—outlined for WEF attendees the partnerships they had brokered. In the case of Monterrey, Tecnológico de Monterrey, a university, partnered with Science Gallery International and a network of cities united around a singular mission: to ignite creativity and discovery where science and art collide. “We recognize that we have research strengths in a range of disciplines, including health science, education of the future, advance materials, sustainable manufacturing, and nanotechnology, but the power of districts lies in how they invite people into this story of science and how we democratize the process of innovation,” shared Mario Adrián Flores Castro, VP of Monterrey Region at Tec de Monterrey. The focus on the democratization of innovation inspired this district to establish a science gallery, actively working with a global not-for-profit and seven other cities. Collectively, they curate exhibits, share outreach strategies, and exchange works of art. “Our partnership allowed us to leverage the insights and experiences of others, giving us the space to shape how arts and science should be integrated into our local fabric. This led us to create a corridor of the arts that includes our Science Gallery,” added Mario Adrián.
The story of Buffalo is equally intriguing. In Buffalo, New York, a district-based company struck a formal partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Knoxville, Tennessee, to advance electrification technology for the construction equipment market. Originally conceived in response to the challenge of reducing diesel fuel use in New York State construction activities, the project has seen its ambitions grow to a global scale. ORNL scientists both evaluated and validated the technology and helped accelerate the process to production. “We cannot underestimate the potency of these types of partnerships. Our engagement with ORNL cut our overall timeline from over two years to less than six months,” said Matt Enstice, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. “From my read,” he went on, “every innovation district should be partnering with a national R&D lab to validate their most promising technologies.”
Understanding the pros and cons of district-led partnerships
These three examples of district partnerships anchored a work session among districts, where conversations got real—including exposing an unspoken weakness with the concept. “How many of you have a drawerful of partnership MOUs?” asked one district leader. With districts positioning themselves to take on such innovation imperatives as decarbonization and diversifying talent, districts cannot afford to strike partnerships that are subsequently shelved.
District leaders also talked through what more is needed to ensure partnerships actually move the dial in how districts evolve in a sea of uncertainty. Participants were vocal on some of the fundamentals, such as designing partnerships to address a clear imperative or an urgent need; forging partnerships around goals that can only be achieved together; and focusing on action-oriented, “crunchy” projects to drive impact. Leaders also outlined a range of partnerships that could propel districts forward, ranging from the global (e.g., partnerships narrowly targeted to a subset of multinational corporations to scale up solutions) to the local (e.g., new partnerships to drive the development of a new workforce and talent-building pipeline).
These partnerships also have a clear purpose: to help districts overcome the limitations and barriers so often faced by these intentional, purposeful, mission-oriented organizations. To get there, district leaders are reaching beyond their borders and working with like-minded counterparts to solve highly complex problems we face as a society, while at the same time driving new waves of regional growth.
ii Richard Florida and Ian Hathaway, “The Rise of the Global Start Up City” (Center for American Entrepreneurship, 2018).
iii As part of its Global Network, The Global Institute undertook an analysis of how districts are structured and effectively organized, their unique R&D strengths and advantages, and the location and integration of place-based assets, including R&D assets, industry actors, and community-centered assets.