Innovation districts should be like bamboo, not mushrooms

Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner at the Brookings Institute just put out a new thought piece on innovation districts — concentrated urban areas designed to foster innovation, entrepreneurship, knowledge sharing and creativity. This is an interesting mix of existing thinking about how the economic growth engine of developed economies are shifting from suburban office parks to urban cores, studies on cluster development and knowledge spillovers, and architectural and environmental psychology thinking about how the built form influences interaction and knowledge sharing. Innovation districts are different than the traditional idea of clusters. Clusters are about a whole region, from the suburban periphery to the downtown core, to the other downtown core, to the highway strip malls that are become a new form of office space. Innovation districts are much smaller, the authors through out numbers like 200-1000 acres, and much more focused on the assets needed to support high-tech innovation (wet labs, office space, collaboration areas, 3D printers because everything is 3D printers right now).

The report does a very good job of making clear that innovation districts aren't just physical facilities. The authors cite three kinds of assets: economic assets, networking assets, and physical assets. Economic assets are the existing firms and institutions that drive innovation, network assets are the linkages between these economic assets and the individual employees that actually generate the innovation, and physical assets are the infrastructure in which all this tasty innovation happens within.

However, I'm a bit concerned about the idea that innovation districts are a solution to specific problems, such as low levels of innovation or a failure for the knowledge produced within a university or anchor firm to effectively spillover to others in the area. Just like when I try to bake, just having all the ingredients together in one place doesn't mean that you'll make something delicious.

The recent controversy over MaRS in Toronto is instructive. MaRS is a government sponsored facility in downtown Toronto, right next to the University of Toronto and its many research hospitals. Its mission was to support and incubate spinoff companies from university research and provide a space for satellite offices and labs of major pharma companies to capitalize on knowledge spillovers. It failed. Despite the copious efforts put in to entrepreneurial support, there are few if any startups in it and it the facility poised to default on its bonds because it's new lab space don't have any tenants. Despite the fact that Toronto has the physical, economic, and network assets to support this kind of work, the innovation district never really emerged.

What this means is that innovation districts can't just be plomped down in a city and expected to work. Now, that's a bit of a stawman argument: very few policy makers think they're playing Sim City where they can just right click, add a new feature, and expect it to seamlessly integrate with the physical and economic landscape of the city. But there does seem to be a belief that one last public investment — a new incubation facility or a collabatorium — will finally bring together all the great urban and regional innovative resources that are currently unconnected.

Let's call that outlook the 'mushroom model.' Mushrooms seem to popup right after a nice summer rain: the water activates the existing resources in the environment (I'm no mycologist here. I'm just a guy who notices that mushrooms seem to spring up after a rain). This suggests that the physical form of the innovation district can unlock the existing potential of an innovative region.

I think a 'bamboo' model is better. Bamboo is a rhizome, a root system that sometimes sends up shoots to gather energy and produce flowers to reproduce. (note: apparently poison oak is also a rhizome, but that wouldn't make as catchy a title). The heart of the bamboo is the roots, not the shoots.

An innovation district should be like bamboo: it's physical form should reflect a strong root system of innovation, interaction, knowledge sharing, and entrepreneurship. The physical form of the innovation district should be the embodiment of the innovation, not the catalyst.

But there's the rub. Unlike bamboo shoots, new university collaboration centres, lab space, or incubation programs just don't appear overnight because the conditions are favourable. They require massive public investment and years of planning. How is a policy maker to decide if an investment in a new facility reflects an existing innovative undercurrent or if she is just trying to add a bit of water in the hopes that a new mushroom pops up.

I obviously don't have the answer to that, but part of the process is casting a critical eye on the region's innovative culture. You need to take a serious look at the pre-existing levels of interaction between firms, researchers, and entrepreneurs. Is there a culture that supports interaction and learning for their own sake, or are they just showing up to networking events for the free wine?