Innovation Districts

How a higher education institution, like MIT, and an office building for start-ups can shape the economy starting from the local dimension

How Boston's once-isolated seaport is developing into a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship


“Our most creative institutions, firms and workers crave proximity so that ideas and knowledge can be transferred more quickly and seamlessly.”


Brookings @BrookingsInst


How cities & metro areas are embracing the idea of innovation districts:


Excerpts from cited paper: “The Rise of Innovation Districts” by Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner


“For the past 50 years, the landscape of innovation has been dominated by places like Silicon Valley—suburban corridors of spatially isolated corporate campuses (…)


"A new complementary urban model is now emerging, giving rise to what we and others are calling “innovation districts.” These districts, by our definition, are geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators (1). They are also physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired and offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail."


"(...) re-conceiving the very link between economy shaping, place making and social networking." 


"Globally, Barcelona, Berlin, London, Medellin, Montreal, Seoul, Stockholm and Toronto contain examples of evolving districts."


"At a time of sluggish growth, they provide a strong foundation for the creation and expansion of firms and jobs by helping companies, entrepreneurs, universities, researchers and investors—across sectors and disciplines—co-invent and co-produce new discoveries for the market. 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 repopulation of urban cores."


"Innovation drivers are the research and medical institutions, the large firms, start-ups and entrepreneurs focused on developing cutting-edge technologies, products and services for the market."


"Innovation cultivators are the companies, organizations or groups that support the growth of individuals, firms and their ideas. They include incubators, accelerators, proof-of-concept centers, tech transfer offices, shared working spaces and local high schools, job training firms and community colleges advancing specific skill sets for the innovation-driven economy."



Practitioners in leading edge innovation districts offer five pieces of advice:


First, build a collaborative leadership network, a collection of leaders from key institutions, firms and sectors who regularly and formally cooperate on the design, delivery, marketing and governance of the district. In advanced innovation districts in Barcelona, Eindhoven, St Louis and Stockholm, leaders found the Triple Helix model of governance to be fundamental to their success (8).The Triple Helix consists of structured interactions between industry, research universities, and government.


Second, set a vision for growth by providing actionable guidance for how an innovation district should grow and develop in the short-, medium- and long-term along economic, physical and social dimensions.


Third, pursue talent and technology given that educated and skilled workers and sophisticated infrastructure and systems are the twin drivers of innovation.


Strategies in places as disparate as Barcelona, Detroit and Philadelphia have particularly focused on equipping workers with the skills they need to participate in the innovation economy or other secondary and tertiary jobs generated by innovative growth.


Finally, enhance access to capital to support basic science and applied research; the commercialization of innovation; entrepreneurial start-ups and expansion (including business incubators and accelerators); (…)


Innovation District Models


1. Anchor model: Leading institution, e.g. educational institution attracting businesses and start-ups


Example: MIT driving development of Kendall Square



Base map by Stamen Design - Image found at
« Massachusetts in United States » by TUBS (Wikipedia)
« National-atlas-massachusetts » Wikimedia Commons



"Since its founding in 1861, MIT has emphasized university/industry partnerships and the commercialization of ideas. Starting in the 1950s, the university has actively deployed university-owned land to support this goal. In the last two decades, this strategy has helped catalyze growth of a nationally significant life sciences/pharmaceutical cluster. It has also spurred the development of hundreds of small firms and attracted several major technology companies."


"The Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), founded in 1999 and housed in an MIT-owned building, is a good example of the interplay between the university and private sector. An independent organization, CIC has helped develop the modern concept of co-working while encouraging entrepreneurs and start-ups in its high quality environment. Firms at CIC have attracted billions of dollars of seed funding and later-stage investment."




High-tech firms are lured by the proximity of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus on the south side of Main Street. MIT owns some of the commercial real estate in the square,[4][5] and has been actively constructing space for new high-tech tenants as well as rebuilding its own facilities fronting Main Street.

Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) is an American real estate services company which bills itself as a "community of entrepreneurs". The company was founded in 1999 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduates Timothy Rowe and Andrew Olmsted.

Motto: “More start-ups than anywhere in the planet”


Single founder 1 employee Open desk? Private office? Need a view? It’s all here.

Founding team 2-3 employees Want to get the whole team around a table?

Growing company 4-30+ Employees Need more space? We’ve had teams grow to near 200 at CIC. Press Kit
 Press Kit



2. Remake of old industrial areas and underutilized areas in general


Examples: Boston’s innovation district, Barcelona’s 22@Project


Boston’s Innovation District


“Boston's once-isolated Seaport is transforming into a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship. While lacking a world-class research engine or an established cluster of firms, a powerful regional knowledge base combined with good infrastructure provided a strong foundation for growth. Since designation, more than 200 technology, life science and other companies have moved into the District, adding over 6,000 jobs.


Several unique assets have helped to create what is now a dynamic, collaborative environment. MassChallenge, the world's largest startup accelerator, provides shared office space and no-strings attached grant financing to startup firms from around the globe.


District Hall is the world's first public innovation building, providing civic gathering space for the innovation community. And Factory 63 is an experiment in “innovation” housing, offering both private micro apartments and public areas for working, socializing, and events.



Base map by Stamen Design - Image found at

3. Urbanized science park

“North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, perhaps the 20th century’s most iconic research and development campus, is the strongest validation of this model.”


End of excerpts from: “The Rise of Innovation Districts” by Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner