Innovation Districts: Stepping Stones for Smart Cities Initiatives

Smart Cities

Smart Cities

Understanding how innovation districts act as strategic hubs of accelerating smart cities programs

Throughout history, we have evidence that every time humankind birthed an innovation, it has helped in molding civilization into what it is today. From wheels, to steam engines, transformations have been a key part development of cities worldwide. Since the industrial revolution, technologies too have been playing an integral role in shaping these cities. Today, as the smart cities movement is picking up momentum, digital technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain, IoT, and data analytics will be deeply intertwined to define smart city ecosystems.

A smart city refers to a modernized infrastructure where everything is connected to each other and is highly dependent on technologies. And every smart city must have innovation districts that act as testing areas and grounds for new ideas that could shape the city’s infrastructure. These places cluster research centers, and educational institutes, start-ups, business incubators, and accelerators and larger companies, cultural institutes and community amenities in a concentrated urban environment. An innovation district enables cities to create new products, processes, technologies and high growth firms that will drive productivity growth, by encouraging collaboration via increasing the density of innovators in an area.

Current innovation districts in metropolitan cities generally fall under one of these models:

1. Anchor Model: Found in the downtowns and mid-towns of central cities, is where large-scale mixed-use development is based around major anchor institutions and a rich base of related firms, entrepreneurs and spin-off companies involved in the commercialization of innovation. E.g., Kendall Square in Cambridge

2. Re-Imagined Urban Area: Found near or along historic waterfronts, is where industrial or warehouse districts are undergoing a physical and economic transformation to chart a new path of innovative growth. E.g., South Boston waterfront in Boston

3. Urbanized Science Park: Found in suburban and exurban areas, where traditionally isolated, sprawling areas of innovation are urbanizing through increased density and an infusion of new activities (including retail and restaurants) that are mixed as opposed to separated. E.g., Research Triangle Park in North Carolina

According to a Brookings Institute’s report, innovation districts also bring educational opportunities for disadvantaged populations since that many districts are close to low and moderate-income neighborhoods. Further, they present the potential for denser residential and employment patterns, the leveraging of mass transit, and the repopulation of urban cores – thus addressing urban concerns of inefficient land use, extensive sprawl and continued environmental degradation.

Apart from that, innovation districts are creating and attracting new high-quality jobs at accessible locations. As per a joint study conducted between the Association of University Research Parks (AURP) and the Technology Partnership Practice (TPP), it was observed that innovation districts collectively span at least 47,000 acres and employ more than 300,000 people across North America. According to industry experts, every job in an innovation district creates 2.57 more jobs in each related industry.

Innovation districts can be considered as preliminary steps to smart cities. They also showcase solutions for a more manageable funding equation through small scale implementation. With the market size of the global smart city industry estimated to double, from US$410.8 billion in 2020 to US$820.7 billion by 2025, these innovation centers pave the way to boosting economic growth, attracting more investors, leading to digitally empowered cities.