nThe Brookings Institution lays out vision for urban 'innovation centers' to bring together research institutions, businesses and startup incubators to create concentrated pockets of industry rather than the sprawling, suburban office campuses of Silicon Valley.
By Kenneth Corbin
The next Silicon Valley could look very different.
Scholars at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, envision the next hubs for cutting-edge technology startups taking shape in the form of “innovation districts,” urban environments that blend large companies, research institutions and startup incubators and accelerators.
The shift away from sprawling office campuses knitted together by a skein of highways in favor of denser cityscapes and mixed-use developments follows what Brookings author Bruce Katz calls the “shifting geography of innovation.”
“For past 50 years the landscape of innovation has been dominated by places like Silicon Valley — suburban corridors, isolated corporate campuses, research parks, accessible only by car, little emphasis on the quality of life or integrating work, housing and recreation,” Katz says. “What’s happening in this country is a broad re-envisioning of cities.”
Katz and co-author Julie Wagner look to neighborhoods in cities like Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia where innovation districts are revitalizing areas that in many cases had become blighted or fallen out of use after old-line industrial operations closed down or relocated.
A cornerstone of the innovation districts Katz and Wagner envision is an anchor institution, either a research university or a research-oriented medical hospital with a strong focus on research and development.
On the business side, the authors of the report, “The Rise of Innovation Districts,” describe a mix of mature companies and startups working alongside the research institutions and with the support of a flourishing network of incubators and accelerators to hasten the delivery of new technologies to the market.
The result, the authors argue, could yield a thriving commercial hive where urban real estate is put to more efficient use, with the economic benefits filtering into the surrounding community.
“Innovation districts have the unique potential to spur productive, inclusive and sustainable economic development. At a time of sluggish growth, they provide a strong foundation for the creation and expansion of firms and jobs by helping companies, entrepreneurs, universities, researchers and investors — across sectors and disciplines — co-invent and co-produce new discoveries for the market,” Katz and Wagner write.
“At a time of rising social inequality, they offer the prospect of expanding employment and educational opportunities for disadvantaged populations given that many districts are close to low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. And, at a time of inefficient land use, extensive sprawl and continued environmental degradation, they present the potential for denser residential and employment patterns, the leveraging of mass transit, and the repopulation of urban cores,” they add.
How Cities Can Become the Next Tech Hub
Katz and Wagner offer a menu of policy prescriptions for municipal officials to implement to create an environment conducive to innovation districts. First, they suggest that city officials cultivate a network that brings together leaders in “structured interactions” from what they call the “triple helix” of government, industry and academia.
As that network grows, Katz and Wagner advise city officials to lay out a vision with actionable steps to advance the innovation district in the short and long-term, and then to set their sights on policies to attract and retain skilled workers, encourage “inclusive growth” to expand the economic benefits of the innovation district to the surrounding, often low-income communities, and to take steps to facilitate access to capital to help young businesses get off the ground.
Another key ingredient for the innovation districts to thrive turns on the digital infrastructure available in the community. And there’s no shortage of interest among city officials in faster broadband. Since Google began rolling out its high-speed fiber Internet service, for instance, cities have been lining up to win a build-out.
Beyond Google Fiber — the Network Known as ‘The Gig’
But in Chattanooga, Tenn., officials took a different approach, and built a taxpayer-funded, ultra-fast fiber-optic network that delivers speeds of 1 gigabit per second, what Mayor Andy Berke boasts is the fastest service in the western hemisphere.
That network, known to residents as “the gig,” has been a boon for Chattanooga’s efforts to lure businesses and entrepreneurs, particularly those in the tech fields, Berke says.
“The gig is such a mobilizing force for us, because we’re at the front of this curve,” said Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. “And so, people keep talking about, ‘We want Google Fiber.’ Well, we have beyond Google Fiber — we have a gigabit per second service everywhere, to the homes and businesses, so we’re able to use that and really pull people together.”
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.