Innovation Districts

By Michael E. Joseph

Last year representatives of a coalition of 12 organizations started meeting to discuss the continued development and expansion of Oklahoma City’s bioscience and technology sectors. Among other matters, the group discussed approaches for facilitating investment, promoting research, recruiting and retaining bioscience and technology businesses, developing business incubators and accelerators, facilitating start-ups, developing needed infrastructure, creating public-private partnerships, providing tax incentives, creating jobs, and fueling economic growth.

Participants included:

  • Presbyterian Health Foundation (Carl Edwards, Mike Joseph, Tommy Gray)
  • Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority and Oklahoma City Redevelopment Authority
    (Jim Tolbert, Cathy O’Connor, Dan Batchelor, Leslie Batchelor)
  • Greater Oklahoma City Chamber (Roy Williams, Josh O’Brien, Kurt Foreman)
  • Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (Steve Prescott)
  • GE Global Research Oil & Gas Technology Center (Michael Ming, Jay Albert)
  • i2E (Scott Meacham, Rex Smitherman)
  • OU Health Sciences Center (Ken Rowe, Jim Tomasek, Paul Manzelli)
  • Oklahoma Health Center Foundation (David Harlow)
  • OCAST (Michael Carolina, Dan Luton)
  • Oklahoma City Economic Development Trust (Pat Ryan)
  • University Hospitals Authority and Trust (Mike Samis, Dean Gandy)

After several meetings, the focus turned to the creation of an Innovation District.

An Innovation District or innovation community is a development based on the premise that economic growth, job creation, and innovation can be fostered through the clustering of businesses, institutions, and people. Proximity allows people to collaborate and, as a result, spurs and stimulates productivity, ideas, and innovation.

Typically, development of an Innovation District involves a departure from traditional economic development. Innovation Districts offer a mixed development that includes housing, office space, retail, green space, and entertainment venues. They are designed so that businesses can co-locate, cluster, and connect with business incubators, accelerators, and start-ups. They require a change in antiquated land use and zoning ordinances to allow developers and others to create favorable attributes with mixed uses, complexity, density, and activities. In some instances, cities have delegated to newly created nonprofit organizations or trusts authority over planning, development, tax abatements, and eminent domain in order to facility redevelopment and area regeneration.

Most Innovation Districts involve partnerships with universities, technology-related businesses, cutting-edge companies, centers of research, and government to facilitate interaction and communication among them, fuel job growth, stimulate investment, and encourage community regeneration in targeted locations. They bring together public and private sector participants who are interested in updating obsolete urban elements, regenerating depressed areas or marginalized sectors, promoting specific economic sectors, and fueling economic growth.

The goals vary and may include creating an environment in which entrepreneurs can work, live, and play; fueling job creation and growth; encouraging formation of start-up and spinoff companies; boosting research and development; diversifying the local economy; fostering community involvement; encouraging growth of particular economic sectors; providing flexible housing options; promoting investment in municipal infrastructure, modernizing the environment, and providing for urban refurbishment; providing public collaborative space; offering private sector investment options; providing economic and social revitalization; creating an appealing business atmosphere; attracting younger populations; attracting more highly educated populations; and transforming an obsolete industrial neighborhood.

Successful Innovation Districts that have brought about major community investment, economic development, and job creation have already been developed in Boston, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit, Barcelona, Helsinki, and a number of other cities throughout the world. Atlanta, Kansas City, Memphis, Austin, Charlotte, and other cities are developing Innovation Districts.

The Oklahoma City collaborative group focused on an Innovation District as a planned business, residential, retail, and entertainment community with emphasis on the biotech, bioscience, technology, and energy sectors. The general discussion involved a center encompassing the area from the Oklahoma Health Center to downtown to Automobile Alley. An objective is the creation of a booming start-up ecosystem that involves a transformation in the culture of how and where people live and work.

New generations entering the workforce have different work habits. They can work from anywhere any time. They work in socializing centers, like coffee shops, cafes, open offices, and building atriums. Their work often involves socializing in places without physical or organizational borders. For their businesses, interaction and collaboration with others are essential, allowing them to generate ideas, resulting in productivity and innovation. For many, it is becoming harder to separate areas of work from areas of living.

An Innovation District is designed to promote a high level of interaction and connectivity within a compact area. It facilitates accidental business collisions and serendipitous business choreography through deliberate urban planning.

Development of an Innovation District requires municipal buy-in. Assuming municipal support, one of the first steps is the identification of an area and creation of a redevelopment plan. The plan would identify key findings, along with the purposes and goals for creating the Innovation District. It should include an inventory and detailed description of existing buildings, facilities, and uses of properties within the proposed area. With respect to land use, the plan should also include the various redevelopment components, including proposed office, research, retail, housing, mixed use development, green spaces, and open spaces. It should include information about the proposed redeveloper, including the redeveloper’s authority. Among other matters, it should also address transportation routes, transit systems, tax incentives, a description of activities and projects needed to accomplish the principal goals, projected redevelopment costs, and sources of funds to pay costs.

The essential purpose is to develop a center that is appealing and advantageous for the attraction and retention of entrepreneurial talent. Urban planning, design, development, and related incentives can have an extraordinary impact on recruitment and retention of businesses, economic development, and job creation. Urban planners believe that Innovation Districts can enhance productivity and stimulate innovation. If that’s the case, the spillover effects would also be economically significant.

Oklahoma City has existing plans and empowerments that can be updated to provide the required legal and business framework for an Innovation District. We already possess a reservoir of community support. Additionally, we have key assets, including the University Research Park, GE Global Research Center, OMRF, and several neighboring institutions of higher education. The presence of these critical elements provides a platform of exceptional opportunity.