You, too, can build an innovation district! The Brookings Institution looks at what it takes.


Cities everywhere are trying to attract the innovators as a way of reshaping downtowns and adding more jobs to urban areas.

Boston has made a home for tech startups in the Innovation District. Real estate developers in Cambridge and MIT are busily adding more square footage in Kendall Square. And the same kinds of developments are happening in Brooklyn, Chicago, and Providence, as well as cities abroad such as Medellin and Montreal.

“Innovation districts constitute the ultimate mash up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments—all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine,” according to “The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America,” a Brookings Institution report released on Monday.

Brookings says that the growth of these clusters is the result of numerous mega trends that are changing cities. Namely, according to the report, more companies are already abandoning the suburbs for the city and more young tech workers prefer working in town rather than in the suburbs.

But what’s the benefit of branding something an “innovation district” anyway? And who stands to gain in the long run?

Well, according to Brookings, these areas help spur “productive, inclusive, and sustainable economic development.” Since innovation districts by definition are in urban areas, they can also help with reduce social inequality in cities, say the report’s authors, Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner.

“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, they present the potential for denser residential and employment patterns, the leveraging of mass transit, and the repopulation of urban cores,” the two wrote.

Not every district is quite the same. For instance, Brookings points out, Boston’s Innovation District represents the “re-imagined urban areas” model where old neighborhoods are transformed for new uses. Kendall is the “anchor plus” model where economic development grows up around a major institution. In the case of Kendall, it’s MIT.

In many ways, Boston and Cambridge have emerged as the poster children for innovation districts. Now, other cities are looking to follow their lead. Of course, these sorts of areas don’t sprout up overnight, and require significant planning and leadership. And lots of financial investment.

“If current trends are any indication, innovation districts will continue to grow in size and scale, fueled by market and demographic dynamics, open innovation, local leadership, and the place based investments of large anchor institutions,” according to the Brookings report.

Katz and Wagner are indeed bullish on the promise of these new urban quarters for innovators. If more cities can build them, they say, that will result in “a step toward building a stronger, more sustainable and more inclusive economy in the early decades of this young century.”

Mike Farrell is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. Email him at [email protected].
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