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Innovation districts: Simple guidelines to make them real

/ September 14, 2014

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Innovation districts: Simple guidelines to make them real

For those of us who have been around a while, the new push to regenerate cities with innovation districts appears like yet another fad sweeping the field of economic development. But is it? Clearly, Brookings, the major proponent of the shift doesn’t think so.

Veterans in economic development have a right to be skeptical. After all, we’ve seen metropolitan business plans. Before that, it was the clean economy. Before that “Eds and Meds“. Before that, Richard Florida and his Creative Class. All along, real estate developers have promised us that big ticket development would do the trick: convention centers, sports stadiums and casinos. (“Build it. We assure you they will come.”) If you stretch back to the 1980s, it was festival marketplaces. A decade earlier, pedestrian malls were thought to be the magic.

Are innovation districts for real? Let’s hope so.

All of these ideas been pushed as a way to revitalize cities. Some of them had value, others not so much.

But what about innovation districts? After all, isn’t that what we want? Dynamic downtowns, anchored by edgy, high-growth businesses, all catering to employees interested in living in 24/7 mixed use, live/work districts.

Sure. But the challenge is not so much in describing the What. It’s figuring out the How.

Here are some rules on the How that I’ve learned in designing a strategy to transform Oklahoma City and in designing the Charleston Digital Corridor, the anchor of Charleston’s remarkable emergence as a tech powerhouse.

Rule 1: Transformation takes multiple, complex collaborations guided by core teams.

Years ago, small cliques of men dominated the political economy of most cities. Not anymore. Now, transformation takes a small army of civic entrepreneurs and willing volunteers working together. The trick involves designing and guiding the collaborations within loosely joined networks.

The first step in any transformation involves shifting your mental models from hierarchies to networks. Transformation takes distributed leadership. It’s not about hoping for disruptive innovation. It’s about organizing for swarm innovation. Innovation districts emerge from investments in underlying collaborations.

Some of these collaborations are publicly-led and privately supported. Others are privately-led and publicly supported. Transformation demands both.

Rule 2: Use a clear strategic framework – – a concise theory of change – – to guide these multiple collaborations.

You can think of assembling a portfolio of collaborations. A competitive and dynamic local or regional economy needs brainpower 21st-century skills; the networks to support entrepreneurs and innovative growth companies; quality, connected places, because both people and firms are mobile; and new narratives to guide people toward the future you are designing and developing. (See a strategy map here.)

From these core collaborations, all of the dimensions of an innovation district will emerge: creative, talented people; new start-ups and high growth businesses; dynamic clusters; and innovative hot spots. In developing an innovation district, especially at the early stage, coherence and alignment are more important than vision.

The challenge is not so much in describing the What. It’s figuring out the How.

Rule 3: Create shared value by linking and leveraging assets

Some years ago, two really smart community developers at Northwestern University developed the asset-based approach to community development. There are a lot of reasons why this approach works particularly well in open, loosely joined networks. It comes down to this: We can mobilize people in these networks far more easily by linking and leveraging our assets, rather than trying to fix our problems.

Regenerating an economy is a wicked problem with no clear definition. So let’s stop trying to define the problem. We will only understand the problem as we devise solutions. In other words, we must relentlessly experiment. Only then will innovations emerge. By focusing on assets, we move past the endless cycle of conversations leading nowhere. We move to a higher plane of thinking about sustainable collaborations. We begin to focus on creating shared value from accessible assets.

Rule 4: Follow a lean, low-cost and teachable process for designing your collaborations and making quick adjustments as circumstances change.

To enable collaboration spread across organizational and political boundaries – – to achieve scale – – you need a simple strategy process or protocol. Strategic Doing builds collaborations quickly and moves them toward measurable outcomes. It provides a simple process for making adjustments.

Are innovation districts for real? Let’s hope so.

Innovation districts represent a set of hypotheses, not a formula. If they really are the transformation that Brookings foresees, they will have to be replicated, scaled and sustained.

That, in turn, will depend on how many of us can dive into the messy challenges of designing and implementing complex, sophisticated collaborations. There are no lighted highways ahead, only promising game trails. We will need to explore while we go, moving from ideas to action and back again.

Thinking and doing are no longer separated. The only way to define a strategy is to do a strategy. The good news is that Strategic Doing – – a simple, low-cost process that people can easily learn – – generates the evidence we need to design the future we want.

One last point: The transformation in Oklahoma City started really showing momentum about 6 or 7 years into the process. (That includes about 2 years during which the city recovered from the bombing.) In Charleston, the launch of the Digital Corridor started gaining momentum after about 5 years. In short, the development of an innovation district takes time, certainly longer than an election cycle of two or four years.

Persistence and focus, relentless focus, are what matter.

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