In 2014, Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner framed the growing emergence of innovation districts as “a geographic area where institutions and companies cluster and connect with intermediaries, small firms, start-ups, and others. Physically compact, transit- and broadband-accessible, they offer mixed-use housing, office and retail.”1
Their paper set off a movement of cities across the globe to establish and declare their own innovation districts were open for business. In the past five years, that movement has only accelerated as mayors, economic development professionals, and other intermediaries have set about defining their own regional innovation ecosystems.
But simply declaring an area to be an innovation district is not enough to make it so. Regional innovation ecosystems and the innovation districts that they foster, are catalyzed by anchor institutions that act as magnets for talent, ideas, and connections.
In North America, the most successful innovation ecosystems are anchored by universities. Looking forward, I see three trends that will only further the importance of universities to such efforts.
Talent continues to be the real currency of innovation
It is the availability of talent that is most often cited in decisions on where to found start-ups as well as given as a key reason for site selection by large companies too.
“Increasingly, universities are creating pathways to connect the intellectual capital of their faculty and students with companies and organizations within their regions”
Industry engagement and faculty consulting programs at MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Toronto, and Purdue come to mind.
Moreover, demands by parents and students for academic coursework to be more relevant to the needs of the employment market will continue. Therefore, experiential learning programs will continue to expand and provide linkages between universities and the companies that comprise their local ecosystems. Northeastern, the University of Cincinnati, and Old Dominion University have especially well-developed co-op and internship programs. Furthermore, universities that have programs for helping companies solve technical problems or explore new products, services, and markets, such as Purdue, Rose-Hulman, and Ryerson will find themselves well positioned.
Finally, expanding talent markets is essential for any regional innovation ecosystem. Programs to expand the number and diversity of students who can access a university education, such as those at Arizona State University and Florida International University are particularly noteworthy.
Emergence of alternative cities
Much has been made of the affordability challenges being experienced in gateway cities like San Francisco, Boston, Toronto, and New York, especially when it comes to housing and cost of living. In the coming years, issues of affordability will become even more pronounced and, in a growing number of instances, drive companies to find alternative cities in which to scale their companies. We are beginning to see this play out as recent studies have shown that three quarters of millennial workers and forty percent of start up businesses in San Francisco would happily relocate if they could find a suitable substitute.
This is creating an opportunity for secondary cities – that contain at least one major university – to emerge as viable alternatives to cities where the cost of living and doing business are rapidly getting out of hand.
The most successful regions are ones that can maximize their geographic, proximate, and intellectual advantages to attract new businesses, talent, capital, and ideas. In these instances, the university often acts as an ordering force, bringing together all of the region’s innovation stakeholders into a cohesive force. They can also leverage their space requirements to catalyze economic development activities that benefit the entire region.
Witness how Arizona State University strategically used its needs for space for its schools of journalism, law, and health sciences to stimulate the revitalization of downtown Phoenix. Similarly, Duke University, Brown, and the University of Pittsburgh have all been major players in the renewal of energy and growth of Durham, Providence, and Pittsburgh, respectively.
These efforts have gone hand-inhand with economic development activities that have attracted companies looking for the talent, research, and technology of a great university, but in a location that features a more reasonable business climate and affordable housing environment.
While much is made of the Amazon HQ2 search that played out over 2018, simultaneous to that, InfoSys, AON, Microsoft, Google, and a host of other leading companies were quietly establishing innovation centers in non-gateway cities across North America, including Providence, RI, Phoenix, AZ, St Louis, MO, Pittsburgh, PA, Indianapolis, IN, and Halifax, NS.
Turning the campus inside-out
For much of their history, universities have been inwardly focused; more concerned about what happens within their campus walls than what occurs outside of them, even erecting walls to further segregate the campus from the community.
Twenty years ago, led by the efforts of the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia, that outlook began to change. Today, progressive university leaders have turned their attention to addressing community and regional challenges as well. Those efforts have multiplied at universities across North America and the coming years will see them expand beyond the major urban centers to smaller cities and rural areas, blending academic, research, work force, and economic development initiatives.
Certainly the efforts of the University of Pennsylvania, and their neighbor in West Philadelphia, Drexel University, have continued; especially through the University City District organization which runs numerous impactful programs, including the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative.
Similarly, in Baltimore, the University of Maryland, Baltimore is dedicated to not only improving the neighborhoods of west Baltimore, through housing, safety, and community programming, but working with local schools, Baltimore City Community College, and others to provide workforce opportunities that are in alignment with the life sciences ecosystem of greater Baltimore.
Other institutions are focusing addressing challenges within their communities. The Center for Community Solutions at West Chester University and the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University are excellent models of how universities can apply their talent and ideas to improving their communities and regions.
Moreover, several institutions are turning their focus to anchoring cluster-centered innovation and economic development initiatives. Noteworthy examples are the activities of the Energy Innovation Center at the University of Pittsburgh, Launch Oceans at Dalhousie University, and the International Center for Automotive Research at Clemson University. These efforts maximize the geographic, proximate, and intellectual advantages the area already enjoys and extends them by attracting additional resources that can differentiate their regions.
1 Rise of Innovation Districts; Bruce Katz & Julie Wagner; Brookings Institution, 2014
Tom Osha is employed by Wexford Science + Technology as Senior Vice President, Innovation and Economic Development. In this role, he guides Wexford’s implementation of its Knowledge Community strategy across its portfolio, working with Wexford’s partner universities and research institutions, entrepreneurs and innovators, growth companies, and economic development stakeholders globally to position Wexford’s research park developments as critical hubs in the regional innovation ecosystem. Osha is an engaging speaker who has recently delivered keynotes on creating innovation ecosystems and helping universities, research institutions, cities, regions, and federal governments, leverage their research and technologies into knowledge-led economic development