The Emergence of Innovation Districts

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

By Kimberly Steele, Digital Content/Public Relations Specialist

Powered by the promise of good coffee and the idea that collaborative space fosters innovation, incubators, startups and accelerators have started grouping together in innovation districts, which are targeted urban areas specifically designed for innovation and entrepreneurship. This shift signifies that the sprawling suburban corporate campuses in Silicon Valley and the like that are geographically separated from urban centers no longer lead the innovation landscape, as they have done for more than half a century. Innovation districts are a force of urban renewal versus suburban sprawl, meaning that these new districts can foster growth for the urban economy. 

What Is an Innovation District?

According to the Urban Land Institute (ULI), “these districts are being driven in part by a confluence of demographic and economic forces that are shifting the development focus back to core cities.” Innovation districts typically are created in close proximity to universities and institutions with a focus on science and technology. Other characteristics include having a smaller geographical footprint, are transit-accessible, wired for technology and feature mixed-use aspects, usually combing multi-housing, creative office and retail assets like coffee shops, cafes and boutiques. These spaces make it easier for people to network and collaborate – using geography to generate new ideas, products and technology by mixing the above features. 

The Brookings Institution

Creating spaces to make it easier for people to network and collaborate is a boost to the local economy. Innovation districts attract a creative workforce from other communities and areas, which leads to economic growth in the immediate area. In addition to the job creation, the results of collaboration between multiple groups and disciplines lead to new discoveries and products for the larger market. The Brookings Institution points out an even larger benefit:

“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 re-population of urban cores.”

Innovation Districts in the United States

Innovation districts are already in several cities around the world, including Boston and San Diego.  Boston's district was the first innovation district in the United States and modeled after the one in Barcelona, named 22@Barcelona. After many years of planning, San Diego's district will be open for discovery soon. 

Boston Innovation District – Boston, Massachusetts 

Led by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Boston’s innovation district started in 2010 with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts' (NEA) Our Town program, which exists to "support creative placemaking projects that help to transform communities into lively, beautiful and resilient places with the arts at their core.” The Innovation District, which is colloquially referred to as the Seaport District, combines five sub-districts, Fort Point, Seaport, Port, Convention Center and 100-Acres, totaling 1,000 acres near the South Boston waterfront. Its goal was to cluster together innovative companies, build housing that fostered a live/work setting for the district’s employees and to create an environment that fostered creating connections between people, businesses, sectors and cities. The mayor’s vision for the district had four main components that set the tone for how development took shape: Industry-agnostic (be open to industries of every kind), clusters (proximity and density), experimental (flexibility) and the city as host (versus an institution).

The first company to move into the district was MassChallenge, a Boston-area accelerator that created traffic to the district by providing co-working space and grant financing for start-ups. Since then, District Hall, the world’s first public innovation building, was completed; it provides community space for gatherings. Additionally, an experiment in “innovation housing,” Factory 63, joined the fray; it provides both micro-unit apartments and common areas for work, socializing and events.

Since its inception, Boston’s Innovation District has brought more than 5,000 new jobs from more than 200 companies in the technology, life science and other disciplines, and, according to the city of Boston, more new jobs are expected in the future.

I.D.E.A. for Innovation, Design, Education and Art – San Diego, California

The I.D.E.A. District is a “transformative urban initiative which aims to create 13,000-plus design and tech jobs in the next 12 years in downtown San Diego’s East Village.” The mission is to create an innovation economy by attracting a highly-educated and mobile workforce. 

THE I.D.E.A. DISTRICT / 1 of 6 from BREADTRUCK FILMS on Vimeo.


Led by David Malmuth and Pete Garcia, the I.D.E.A District involves a variety of players and developments in downtown San Diego, including Quartyard, FAB Lab, Urban Discover Academy, SMARTS Farm, IDEA1 and Makers Quarter, which makes up a quarter of the project. According to Aldon Cole, HFF senior managing director and HFF San Diego office head:

“Makers Quarter stands to be one of the most unique neighborhoods in downtown, given it is essentially an infill, master-planned community being developed on a highly-coordinated basis by some of the regions most noted developers."

The first part of the project, IDEA1, comprises 295 live/work apartment units; 5,000-square-feet of street-level retail and restaurants; 8,000-square-feet of ground-floor creative office space; and The Hub, which houses common space and a courtyard that connects the commercial and residential parts and has a shared café, co-working space called the E-Lounge, the spot for planned and spontaneous events and lively spaces for connection and collaboration. IDEA1 is scheduled for completion in August 2017.

Innovation District Outlook

A variety of other U.S. cities, including Cambridge, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham, Seattle and St. Louis, already house innovation districts or have them planned, with several other cities boasting the innovation district's cousin, innovation centers. The emergence of these innovation districts across the country is a strong indicator that they are a vital part of a new era of local economic development.

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