Building an Innovation District: What is the Formula for Success?

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This past month, I visited our peer organization, Midtown Alliance in Atlanta, home to Tech Square, an innovation district linked to Georgia Tech. Launched over 15 years ago, Tech Square is one of the oldest and most successful innovation districts in the nation.

This trip and many similar visits to innovation districts around the country have allowed us to develop a framework for growth in the Uptown Innovation Corridor by studying our peers’ success (and missteps). Here are a few takeaways from our recent visits and how we’ve applied these learnings to our own Corridor:

Economic growth depends on talent

Cities are competing for talent to remain viable in our technology-fueled new economy. According to The Brookings Institution, human capital is among the most important contributors to growth in advanced economies specializing in knowledge-based industries. That’s why attracting and retaining talent is central to the Corridor’s mission.

We know that Uptown’s talent pool was a key factor for organizations and businesses who have already invested in the Corridor. After all, Uptown is the most educated area in the region with a residential and workforce population boasting more than 4,400 individuals with a doctoral degree. The major institutions in Uptown employ 52,000 people and continue to aggressively attract additional talent to the region. And more than 800 small and large businesses engage experts that serve or support healthcare, research, technology, service and procedural innovations, product development and the arts.

Research and planning are key

Successful innovation districts are the result of thoughtful research and long-term planning. We saw that reflected in Midtown Alliance’s Tech Square and in each innovation district we’ve visited over the past few years. The Uptown Innovation Corridor is no different—we’ve spent a considerable amount of time conducting extensive, pragmatic and partner-centric research.

Beginning in 2012, Uptown Consortium, Inc. (UCI) requested an economic impact study around a proposed new interchange at I-71 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. That same year, UCI commissioned a MLK Corridor market assessment, and GBBN and Sasaki were engaged to launch an MLK Corridor Study. In 2013 an MLK Corridor steering committee, comprising more than 30 Uptown stakeholders and community leaders, began convening monthly. Simultaneously, UCI began visiting peer urban development organizations to investigate their plans for innovation districts. The following year, Cincinnati City Council adopted the MLK Study. And in 2015, UCI engaged MKSK for a series of land use studies to guide real estate investments. Most recently, UCI enlisted Sasaki, a global planning and design firm, to complete the master plan for the Corridor.

With each study and investigation came foundational planning elements, which cultivated community stakeholder input and approval throughout the development process.

Diversity and inclusion build better innovation districts

To compete in the new tech economy, it’s critical that all stakeholders feel engaged and included. The success of our own Corridor depends on integral relationships with the communities in its footprint and beyond. This was true at the beginning of the project and will remain a priority in perpetuity.

We have included community stakeholders (e.g. residents and businesses) in our planning and development work to ensure that they have a voice in determining the future of the Corridor. In addition, we have set economic inclusion goals with all of our development partners. Our goal is to integrate the Corridor into our existing communities while driving economic growth for all.

Balancing research and innovation with amenities

Development should be balanced with amenities. The old model of building “research parks” with highly concentrated office space and an abundance of parking does not work anymore. One of our key learnings is that successful innovation districts include a variety of lifestyle amenities. These include green space and public spaces that provide opportunities for enrichment and collaboration among tenants as well as restaurants and services. 

In the Corridor, our partners have planned mixed-use developments bringing green space, retail and residential development along with office space and below-ground parking. We will continue balancing office space with other amenities as we pursue future development opportunities.

These takeaways from our successful peer innovation districts will continue to grow and guide development in the Corridor. We look forward to visiting other similar developments to learn more best practices as the Corridor develops.




Beth Robinson

President & CEO