Innovation districts are poised to make a significant contribution to the global fight against climate change. As epicenters of economic activity where innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, and placemaking converge, innovation districts already serve as testbeds and catalysts for technological solutions to pressing challenges. They demonstrate that within urban areas, small-scale interventions can lead to large-scale environmental and economic benefits.
The urgency of addressing climate change is underscored by the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events worldwide. Despite international commitments to limit global warming to +1.5°C by the end of the century, the global response has fallen short, with each passing year being the warmest on record and continued reliance on fossil fuels. This gap between global intentions and actions is where innovation districts can play a transformative role.
Although geographically small, innovation districts, as hubs for knowledge-intensive research, are uniquely positioned to lead the decarbonization of the built environment and develop climate-resilient urban infrastructure adapted to regional conditions. Yet, the challenge is not simply one of innovation, but also of leadership and execution. Innovation districts must ambitiously set and meet targets, leveraging their autonomy to cut through financial and regulatory red tape and catalyze the development and adoption of clean technologies.
Innovation districts are being impacted by climate change
Of the 23 innovation districts in the inaugural cohort of The Global Institute’s Global Network of Innovation Districts, over half are in cities that are likely to experience temperature increases greater than the projected global average by 2070, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[i]
The effects of climate change are already too real for these innovation districts, however. In a December 2023 survey by The Global Institute, more than two-thirds of responding districts reported that their city or district experienced one or more physical effects of global warming in recent years, indicating a growing level of impact.
What are districts doing to address climate change?
Innovation districts are setting ambitious targets that demand bold action. Each of the 10 countries in which the 23 innovation districts are located, has committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Even more, some of these cities have committed to achieving net zero emissions well before their countries, notably Adelaide (by 2025) and Oslo, Sheffield, and The Hague (by 2030).
As leaders in R&D and innovation, districts must lead by example by achieving climate targets sooner than set by their cities—and some already are. For example, the Tonsley Innovation District in Adelaide, the Cortex Innovation Community in St. Louis (US), and Oslo Science City have each set more ambitious targets than their country and city. Examples of the types of action led by these districts are as follows:
Examples from the Global Network:
- The Tonsley Innovation District has the distinction of being home to Australia’s first, and one of the world’s few, green hydrogen electrolysis and distribution facility. The district, which comprises a university, several research institutes and industry partners, is a collaborative testbed for decarbonization technologies for the built environment. It focuses on distributed renewable energy (RE) generation and storage, material circularity, future mobility solutions, and Industry-4.0 manufacturing technologies to demonstrate a sustainable mixed-use environment. Tonsley meets 80% of its total electricity needs from on-site renewables and is aiming for 100%.[ii]
- The Cortex Innovation Community is working to implement its Sustainability Action Plan[iii] to achieve net zero emissions by 2030. The district measures its carbon emissions from on-site energy use in buildings and transportation to track progress towards its goals and comply with local regulations. The measurements are publicly accessible online. Colleen Autry, Vice President of District Operations at Cortex, says sustainability is a top priority in the district’s development and practices. “We would like to be an example for the city of St. Louis and other regions on the types of innovative thinking and technology that can be incorporated into helping solve some of the most pressing issues of our time,” she adds.[iv]
- In Norway, Oslo Science City is planned as a model urban district with minimal impact on the local ecosystem and net zero emissions. It incorporates sustainable architecture, zero-emission mobility, renewables, and nature-based climate adaptation solutions.[v] One focus of the district is to leverage Norway’s experience and expertise in carbon capture and storage (CCS) and scale up CCS technology at the city level to help Oslo achieve its goal of reducing carbon emissions by 95% by 2030.
Meanwhile, leaders in other districts are taking action to combat climate change. The strength of innovation districts lies in their ability to rapidly experiment and deploy solutions, serving as ‘Living Labs’ for new technologies and approaches that can be scaled to larger areas. Their compact nature facilitates efficient implementation and validation of new strategies. They also foster interdisciplinary collaboration, essential to tackling complex challenges like climate change.
Yet, the role districts can play transcends the built environment and energy solutions. Innovation districts throughout the world are playing a growing role in developing climate solutions. More than 70% of the innovation districts in The Global Network specialize in fields such as advanced medicine and human health, but The Global Institute’s analysis has also identified districts’ growing strengths in disciplines crucial for decarbonization and sustainable growth, such as biochemistry, plant proteins, marine biology, and advanced materials. This diversification shows the districts’ potential to lead in the development of sustainable materials, biofuels, and alternative protein sources for food and energy security.
“City-districts dialogue is what is needed.”
Rodrigo Perpétuo, Executive Secretary of ICLEI South America
Innovation districts must act in partnership with their city and state governments
Despite these advances, innovation districts face formidable obstacles. The path to climate leadership is fraught with financial limitations, regulatory complexities and the need for cross-disciplinary collaboration. Innovation district leaders must find ways to navigate these obstacles through active engagement with local and state governments. Experts’ insights on how the work of innovation districts can ‘add up’ suggest that the districts would be wise to collaborate with their city and state governments to accelerate the transition. Their individual efforts and interventions, in other words, need to be matched by policy innovation and collaboration. “City-districts dialogue is what is needed,” says Rodrigo Perpétuo, Executive Secretary of ICLEI South America.[vi]
Districts can also act as catalysts, influencing regional and national policies and attracting public and private capital for investments in climate-friendly technologies.
Involving local communities in sustainability initiatives and building capacity through training in green practices would help extend the impact of the districts beyond their geographic boundaries and also support economic growth. Such models can serve as blueprints for other cities.
Innovation districts have the potential to be at the forefront of the fight against climate change. Their success in leading the charge will depend on their ability to overcome challenges and fully harness their capacity to collaborate, innovate and facilitate efforts to scale solutions we all need.
[i] Gutiérrez, J.M., et al., 2021: Atlas. In Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC [Masson-Delmotte, V., et al. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, pp. 1927–2058, doi: 10.1017/9781009157896.021.
[ii] Sustainability, Tonsely Innovation District. Renewal SA. https://renewalsa.sa.gov.au/projects/tonsley-innovation-district#sustainability
[iii] Sustainability Action Plan, Cortex Innovation Community. https://sustainability.cortexstl.org/sustainability-action-plan/
[iv] Response to the GIID Survey on Sustainability by Colleen Autry, VP of District Operations at Cortex, on Dec 13, 2023.
[v] Sketches, concepts and solutions, The feasibility study for Oslo Science City https://mulighetsstudie.oslosciencecity.no/7-oslo-science-city-sketches-concepts-and-solutions
[vi] Personal communication with Rodrigo Perpétuo, Executive Secretary of ICLEI South America, on Jan 17, 2024.