A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to London to a panel discussion/report launch on Innovation Districts.  This concept has been around for a bit, but developing the idea more in cities like London is quite interesting (watch this great video to find out more).

So what is an innovation district?

“Innovation districts constitute the ultimate mash-up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments – all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fuelled by caffeine.”
Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner, The Rise of Innovation Districts

Historically, innovation has been closed, hidden away in science parks and campuses located away from city centres and away from prying eyes.  There was a much greater focus on developing ideas internally.  However there is a bit of a shift happening, with more open innovation, external collaboration and co-creation among different parties.  Businesses are working with universities and local authorities more closely, creating interconnected nodes rather than individual spaces.

This new shift is not without its difficulties though, as relationships can be hard to define, issues around financing and governance are not always clear, and decisions around benefits and outcomes can be difficult.  However, by co-locating services, allowing all manner of people to “bump and mingle”, there is an opportunity to create real value and join the dots.

In London, places like Here East (in the former 2012 Olympic park) are being developed to include all the elements for an innovation district.  There are businesses (both established and startups), cafes, universities (both UCL and Loughborough have a presence here), and housing.  The opportunity for serendipitous meetings increases as the space develops and matures, and the tenants’ interactions grow.

“University-business collaboration goes beyond R&D and spin- outs. What we are creating at Here East is a concentration of young, intelligent, and footloose individuals, who can think about ideas and creating businesses. There are two main things you need to get right for this to happen – the right mix of tenants, and a site that encourages encounters between individuals and organisations. It’s all designing in serendipity, and developing spaces which can create a sense of community.”
Gavin Poole, CEO, Here East

I went out to Here East to have a look, and although it is still unfinished, the scale of the space is amazing.  Some of the rooms seemed to vanish in the middle distance!  When it is finished, and populated, it will no doubt be a thriving hub, with a creative mix of people in the spaces.

So how can the concept of innovation districts be applied to Oxford? The recommendation that came out of this report, for Universities, is “carve out a civic role” and be part of, not apart from, the city.  More integration, more involvement.  Both universities here in Oxford do get involved in the city, and helping to shape the future.  But more needs to be done.  As Oxford is a relatively small city, there are plenty of areas of mixed use already, with cafes, restaurants, residential, university and businesses co-existing.  There are more opportunities to develop radical mixed use areas.  However there are not enough “open doors” yet to encourage this properly, and so we must look at how we can create more interactions between business, university and local community.  Perhaps the idea of fuelling innovation through caffeine would be a good approach. . . opening the doors to the universities a bit wider and fostering more “serendipitous” opportunities is a good start.

Innovation Café anyone? Watch this space. . .




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