Chapter 4
Policy: Rules of the Game

Innovation Districts as a Road to Recovery

Early intel suggests that a small number of governments are developing multifaceted recovery packages aimed at creating a multiplier effect on the economy. These recovery packages include investments that are best aligned to jump-start the economy, create a longer trajectory of job growth, construct pathways for economic mobility, including traditionally underserved communities, and expand the city’s or region’s competitiveness.

Achieving such a multiplier effect sounds like a tall order. But some government officials have already identified viable avenues to get there by thinking through short-, medium- and long-term goals for driving recovery. This explains why in some parts of the world, innovation geographies—such as innovation districts and innovation precincts—are informally being asked to develop detailed lists of the kinds of projects and types of support they would need to drive inclusive, long-term growth in economic development. Innovation districts are compact geographies of innovation found primarily in cities. They are anchored by R&D-intensive institutions, such as universities and academic medical centers; companies; clusters of start-ups; community spaces; and urban amenities, such as housing, retail shops, dining, and entertainment. These districts activate a magnetic, interconnected environment that is the creative, productive, and economic engine of the municipal, if not regional, economy.

An exhibition at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo courtesy of Science Gallery, Dublin

Even though job growth and economic recovery are a top priority, governments cannot focus solely on these goals. They must also make significant investments in research, development, and manufacturing—areas that will be more crucial than ever in solving some of our most vexing human and environmental challenges. Arguably, COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of our economic systems and the vulnerability of our global society.

Georgia Tech researchers work on the Open-AirVentGT, a low-cost, portable emergency ventilator. Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech Institute Communications

It is illuminating, in real time, the painful losses we are bearing as a consequence of being ill-prepared and under-resourced:  

•        COVID-19 has reinforced the imperative of scientific research and its application to improving the human condition—an area of vital government investment that has been in steady decline over the last 50 years.  

•        The global pandemic has helped highlight how most complex innovation processes no longer occur in isolation but, rather, are built on the ability to share knowledge and data locally and globally. Look no further than your own communities to see how relationships have proliferated between hospitals and start-ups, and life science researchers and established manufacturers.

•        We have also learned what can happen when we rely on single- supply sources and fail to invest in fundamental capabilities like manufacturing. Although moving manufacturing closer to home will likely mean higher unit prices, our current vulnerabilities underscore a renewed imperative for multiple supply sources. Furthermore, if designed well, regional manufacturing could breathe new life into our shrinking manufacturing clusters. 

•        Finally, this pandemic has illustrated the imperative for, and power of, challenge-based research to forge new alliances and a new wave of innovation charged to solve world-impacting challenges. Finding ways to eradicate this pandemic is only one example. Climate change and a myriad of intractable cancers and other diseases could become the platforms for funding teams that span organizations, institutions, and nations.

DeserTech Community, launched in Be’er Sheva, Israel, will develop technologies in the region that will address the global desertification challenge. Photo courtesy of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

It is natural for these early government leaders to look to innovation districts as a driver of amplified activity. Yet, in the end, governments must also recognize their responsibility in fixing policies that have hampered the growth of local and regional clusters. And finally, it means they must align their economic imperatives with goals related to training, teaching, and including historically disadvantaged communities in this growth. Governments must also innovate and retain the agile and rapid decision-making—what many are demonstrating throughout this crisis.

In the end, we know we can respond to the challenge. We now challenge government to do the same.

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