Technology and the Future of Cities: Oklahoma City’s Innovation District

published in McAfee & Taft Business Update | March 3, 2016

By Michael E. Joseph

The new knowledge hub

Civic and community leaders in Oklahoma City are developing an Innovation District. An Innovation District 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. For more information about Innovation Districts, click here.

The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, Presbyterian Health Foundation, Oklahoma Health Center Foundation, and The Alliance for Economic Development provided the funding to retain the Brookings Institution to assist with planning and development.

The emerging Innovation District will include technology and biotech businesses, educational institutions, entrepreneurs, business incubators and start-ups, retail, housing, entertainment, green space, and multi-use developments. The objective is to develop a center of entrepreneurial activity, idea generation, and technology commercialization. The district will be a platform for job growth, business expansion, and revenue creation. It is not a government program, although creation of the district would be a function of the city. It is not a neighborhood revitalization project, although it would encompass adjacent neighborhood improvement strategies.

After months of study, including onsite visits and evaluation of infrastructure, collection and compilation of demographic and other data, an audit of physical, economic, and networking assets, interviews with dozens of people, and consideration of shifts in demographic preferences, Brookings Institution on February 23, 2016, presented initial findings to groups who are involved or interested in the development of the Oklahoma City Innovation District. Coincidentally, on the same date the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) submitted to the President a report entitled “Technology and the Future of Cities.”

Based on the findings in its extensive study, Brookings preliminarily identified the Oklahoma City Innovation District as the area encompassed by Robinson Avenue as the western boundary, NW 13th Street as the northern boundary, Lottie Avenue as the eastern boundary, and NW 4th Street as the southern boundary. Brookings noted that the emerging Innovation District is geographically small, but it is an important regional economic asset. It includes approximately 843 acres, 1,200 current residents, and 17,900 jobs. The area would serve as an organic entrepreneurial corridor.

The emerging district will concentrate on and generate medical, scientific, and technology businesses and jobs. It outperforms other areas of the city in terms of employment density, research funding, educational attainment levels (except for African Americans), and median earnings (except for African Americans and Hispanics). There are wide racial disparities among both residents and employees, which provides opportunities for economic inclusion, workforce training, and collaboration with surrounding neighborhoods.

PCAST stated in its report that cities are beginning a new era of change. In this new era, discrete and distinct districts and sub-centers are supplanting historic downtown centers. According to the report, a district does not necessarily have a predefined area or scale; it has an area and population that are large enough for new technology implementations to have an impact. Also, PCAST noted that the potential of a district-based approach first captured attention through Innovation Districts, which were primarily started to improve the local economy and create jobs in abandoned urban areas. PCAST recommended that the federal government take a more integrated approach to supporting new technologies that can improve the lives of people in cities. Citing a Brookings publication, PCAST reported that Innovation Districts:

  • Enable cities to grow jobs through the embracing of disruptive technology;
  • Empower entrepreneurs and start-up companies to use shared spaces to increase collaboration with mentor and investors and reduce overhead costs;
  • Provide improvements in infrastructure, education, and public space to the benefit of adjacent neighborhoods that are typically low-to-middle income neighborhoods; and
  • Create revenue that helps improve the adjacent infrastructure, housing, public safety, schools, and other services.

PCAST referred to these potential new districts as “Urban Development Districts” and described them as living laboratories from which fundamental knowledge about urban processes and practical implementation practices can be learned, adapted, and generalized to other districts.

Development of Oklahoma City’s emerging Innovation District will spur opportunities for real estate developers, contractors, architects, technology and biotech businesses, educational institutions, research organizations, financial institutions, entrepreneurs, retail operators, restaurants and entertainment venues, and business in general. It should provide tremendous public and community benefits through job growth and creation, economic development, municipal infrastructure improvement, adjacent neighborhood revitalization, and creation of wealth.

Creation of an Innovation District requires extensive planning. In Oklahoma City, a key priority is the creation of a governance structure that facilitates a public-private developmental and operational partnership. Various models have been proposed. Some who are involved in planning have stated a preference for a nonprofit governance structure, with key stakeholders as members and a small governing board that has supervisory responsibility, development oversight, and public accountability. The new governing organization would then focus and concentrate on planning and development. The governing organization’s responsibilities would likely include coordinating with municipal officials to update the city’s urban renewal plan, redevelopment planning, consideration of transportation options and public amenities, promoting incentives for business location and development, preserving and improving adjacent neighborhoods, recruiting and retaining technology, biotech, and other businesses, managing public spaces, and public reporting.

An essential element of the proposed district is the development of facilities, expansion of amenities, and implementation of programs to improve underserved neighborhoods, assist disadvantaged populations, and reduce the existing disparity in income, educational attainment levels, and job opportunities. According to Brookings, opportunities exist for economic inclusion, including training for mid-skill occupations and jobs, local hiring, and business development, with a goal of building a bridge between surrounding neighborhoods and the district.

Brookings will continue to provide ideas, information, and recommendations to facilitate community leaders in establishing priorities, aligning community assets, and defining a unified vision and strategy. The overall plan will likely be ambitious, but it should prove to be valuable for stimulating economic growth, allowing Oklahoma City to showcase its innovation strength and improve lives.