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A worldwide trend known as “Innovation Districts” could be of particular importance to Charlotte as we seek to leverage our assets to grow innovation-driven enterprises. A study co-authored by Bruce Katz, long-time Brookings metro policy thinker, describes the emergence of Innovation Districts in cities across the globe.
The study is timely considering light rail construction, the City’s interest in an Applied Innovation Corridor, and efforts to plan the future of University Research Park.
The Brookings report finds innovation districts emerging near anchor institutions, typically in downtowns and midtowns, in U.S. cities including Atlanta, Cambridge, Houston, Pittsburgh, and San Diego. Districts are developing in older industrial areas in cities as varied as Boston, Chicago, and Seattle. And, the report finds that Research Triangle Park is becoming an innovation district as it transforms to offer a more urbanized environment attractive to workers. A typical district is one to four square miles.
Regardless of the specific geography, all innovation districts include economic, networking, and physical assets. Collectively, these combine to create an innovation ecosystem that facilitates idea generation and commercialization.
Brookings finds that innovation drivers are a key economic asset. These include research institutions, large companies and entrepreneurs focused on developing leading edge technologies, products, and services. The industries typically found in innovation districts are: 1) high-value, research-oriented sectors, 2) highly creative fields such as industrial design, and 3) highly specialized, small batch manufacturing.
Innovation cultivators, such as incubators, tech transfer offices, and shared working spaces, are another category of economic assets. Neighborhood-building amenities, the final economic asset category, provide support services for residents and workers in the district.
Networking assets are the relationships among the relevant actors (people, businesses, institutions) that generate and accelerate the advancement of ideas. Brookings identifies the value of “strong ties” that deepen relationships and “weak ties” that introduce new information and contacts.
The study finds that innovation districts typically emerge from the efforts of a collaborative leadership network. The authors see the districts as a path for cities and metro areas to build stronger regional economies. Of particular note, they observe that the concept is aligned with the disruptive dynamics of our time: “crowd sourced rather than close sourced, entrepreneurial rather than bureaucratic, networked rather than hierarchical.”
An innovation district in Charlotte might be anchor-based associated with UNC Charlotte. It could be an adaptive use of old industrial areas such as NoDa and the North Tryon corridor. It could be incorporated into the re-thinking of University Research Park.
Or, it might be that Charlotte’s particular situation would be best served by a long, skinny innovation district that connects the economic assets of Uptown, NoDa, and University City.
The concept of an innovation district as a driver of metro economic growth is gaining worldwide attention. Charlotte’s “Applied Innovation Corridor” planning might be the catalyst that leads to development of a more focused innovation district in the Queen City.
To learn more about innovation districts, you can find a summary and the in-depth report at: www.brookings.edu/about/programs/metro/innovation-districts