x-IMG_1539A handful of cities around the world are experimenting with placemaking in an incredibly targeted way. The result of this hyper-focused approach to creating vibrancy and economic growth is known as an innovation district. An innovation district is a designated area within a city that encompasses higher-education institutions, and public and private sector industries such as science and technology, to attract entrepreneurs. In a knowledge-based economy, the goal is to encourage cross-disciplinary partnerships. Bringing people (talent) and ideas together to spur entrepreneurial creativity will in turn grow jobs and strengthen economies.

Catalyst Required

The League has been researching various innovation districts in Pittsburgh, Boston, Portland, Toronto, and Barcelona to discover their shared characteristics and successes, and how these might be applied to cities in Michigan. Each district was created by the commitment and vision of one key public figure in the community. While there was most certainly buy-in from many other sectors, the initial promotion of the concept required a primary voice to serve as a catalyst. That figure was most commonly—but not always—the mayor. There must be someone with a knack for publicity to promote these projects.

IMG_1545Finance and Investment

The financing tools and public investments used in these districts are distinct. While they each benefit from state or federal funding and/or programs, the degree to which they utilize them varies. Each district uses a variety of tax captures, seed funding, infrastructure development, and grants. This demonstrates the possibility of multiple methods of achieving similar outcomes depending on the resources available in each city.

Each innovation district we researched had a slightly different focus. For example, Barcelona concentrated its efforts on five high-tech areas, whereas Toronto focused on biomedical and financial industries. Boston, however, chose not to target specific industries, instead allowing different industries to grow naturally. Despite the differences in focus and funding, innovation districts can be identified by a few key components.

Concept One: Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs are the focus of attraction. While some innovation districts may have specific sectors in mind, they are all focused on individuals who are creating opportunities, products, and services. If placemaking is designing communities around people, then the innovation district model is placemaking for entrepreneurs.

Concept Two: Universities

Each district has at least one college or university—a necessity for making the education, talent, entrepreneur connection. In some cases, the district was created around an anchor institution, and in others, such as Boston, leaders worked with Babson College to open a branch in the innovation district to teach entrepreneurship classes.

Concept Three: Philanthropy

Along with universities, there is a strong partnership with the philanthropic community in each district. In fact, the nonprofit work that is managing and/or connecting incubator programs with investing opportunities, skill building, and networking is a major factor setting these areas apart from the rest of the city and/or region.

IMG_1545Concept Four: Infrastructure

There is a significant commitment to infrastructure investment in each district. Some cities benefitted from investments made just prior to the district being developed, while others had to create proposals as the district was developed. Barcelona is the most obvious and ambitious of the cities mentioned here. It completely transformed entire systems—energy delivery, waste, and lighting—with the most high-tech equipment available. However, access to public transit, internet connectivity, and multi-modal transportation were undoubtedly major components of all the districts. These cities made a concentrated commitment that the private sector could build off, and that residents were attracted to.

Concept Five: Housing

There are housing options in these districts, including affordable housing for entrepreneurs who are seeking live/work space. New, creative, and affordable housing options, like co-housing, are a consistent innovation district element. In most cases, cities solidify housing requirements through zoning changes. In return, owners and developers are able to increase their units per structure and obtain more uses for their property.

Concept Six: Open/Green Space

Access to open space and green space is also a central component of an innovation district. It can take many shapes—from parks and walkways to open indoor gathering spaces. These cutting-edge cities recognize the importance entrepreneurs place on this amenity. It adds a quality of life measure that is becoming increasingly necessary to draw and retain talent. Each of these cities has acknowledged that need and rigorously included it in their development plans.


Pittsburgh, Boston, Portland, Toronto, and Barcelona boast impressive figures on residential growth, job creation, and a number of other economic statistics. They have clearly reaped the benefits of hyper-focused development strategies. We believe there are opportunities for this concept to be pursued in Michigan. Innovation districts could be a path toward greater prosperity, and we are working with several stakeholders, including the Governor’s office, regarding how they could be developed here. Stay tuned—you will be hearing more about this is the near future!

Boston’s Innovation District: A Closer Look

In January 2010, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino launched the Boston Innovation District to spur the economic revitalization of an area along Boston’s waterfront. It was a significant undertaking intent on completely transforming an area by using a geographical space as an urban laboratory—everything was intended to be fluid and creative in order to attract entrepreneurs.To accomplish this, the city established a huge marketing and public relations effort. It worked with businesses and developers to infuse creativity into development plans—introducing collaborative spaces into new buildings (including co-housing and units with small square footage) and installing open space among the developments.

One of the initial beneficiaries of this approach was MassChallenge, a nonprofit organization and the world’s largest start-up accelerator. MassChallenge finalists have free office space in the innovation district, networking connections, and significant funding.

The Boston Innovation Center offers entrepreneurs public space to host free events and gather to work collaboratively. The one-story 12,000 square foot space has 9,000 square feet of modular meeting space and 3,000 square feet of restaurant and test kitchen space. It is home to some high tech companies and is thought to be one of the first facilities of its kind in the country.

The district has added 3,000 jobs and 100 new businesses since it began two-and-a-half years ago. The district’s subway lines have seen a significant increase in ridership. They recently drew Babson College to the district to teach classes on entrepreneurship and host public events.