Innovation districts and Greater Boston

The 21st century has brought a big change to urban planning, including the rise of the innovation district. Defined by The Brookings Institution as “geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators, and accelerators,” innovation districts have seized the minds of community leaders around the world with districts already in Barcelona, Cambridge, London, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham, Seoul, and St. Louis, to name a few.

The Brookings Institution’s three district models include:

  • Anchor plus—an innovation district where large-scale mixed-use development is centered around major “anchor institutions” and a rich base of related firms, entrepreneurs, and spin-off companies involved in the commercialization of innovation.
  • Re-imagined urban areas—an innovation district rooted in proper transit access, a historic building stock, proximity to downtown areas, and a rooted anchor company.
  • Urbanized science parks—an innovation district intentionally developed out of suburban office parks grounded in the work done there.

All three models have been tested in today’s burgeoning Greater Boston area, with the city’s most effective and recognized success story being Cambridge.

Cambridge designated first ‘anchor plus’ innovation district

Kendall Square wasn’t always the hub of innovation that it is today. After a NASA relocation to the area in the 1970s fell through, Kendall Square sat abandoned. Then the boom came. Large pharmaceutical and tech companies took up residence in the 90s and early 2000s, after the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) encouraged new and emerging businesses to set up shop.

The primary anchor institution that put Cambridge on the map as the first “anchor plus” innovation district is MIT. According to Brookings, there are key characteristics that make an institution like MIT a legitimate anchor to the community: an urban, not-for-profit organization, large in size and influence. Furthermore, MIT’s centralized location in the Greater Boston area and its proximity to other leading research institutions continue to make the Kendall Square District attractive to new and expanding companies alike.

But these qualities alone don’t create an anchor institution. These qualities give MIT the potential to be an anchor institution, but its focus on the local development of engineering and design, specifically in the life sciences and pharmaceutical industries, are the key drivers for Kendall Square’s status as an effective incubator of innovation. Moreover, by deploying university-owned land to help grow these industries and allowing MIT affiliates to purchase intellectual property licensed to the university, MIT has created a development-friendly atmosphere in its backyard.

MIT also produces the creators and thinkers required to drive a hub of innovation. The Kendall Square District acts as a forum for these engineers and designers to share their ideas with peers. MIT’s global and academic stature allow it to nurture this network of like-minded companies and people that then attract more innovative companies and people. In this way, the district fuels the economic development of both Kendall Square and Boston.

Conditions remain ripe in Allston Landing

West of Kendall Square, Allston Landing looks to follow suit. The area houses more trains than people and is often considered an infrastructural nightmare. But Harvard University, its northern neighbor, has other plans for the 90-acre parcel of land it purchased incrementally from 2000-2015. Allston Landing today is what Kendall Square was fifteen years ago, and Allston Landing tomorrow is the new innovation district in Boston.

Like Kendall Square and MIT, Allston’s innovation district will be anchored by Harvard University. Harvard is embedded in the Greater Boston community, readily accessible by all means of transportation, and arguably the most influential university in the world. The construction of the Harvard Innovation Lab in 2011—Allston’s very own incubator of innovation—looks to mirror the role of the CIC in Kendall Square. While its recent Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab—a specialty incubator designed by Shepley Bulfinch for entrepreneurs in the life sciences—showcases the big impact even smaller projects can have. Built with an innovative modular building technique, the Life Lab demonstrates a commitment to the new ideas and practices that are the hallmark of an innovation district. Since its completion in 2016, the 15,000 sf BSL-2 lab incubator has housed 16 ventures representing nine schools with a diversity of industries from therapeutics to diagnostics, drug development to devices and research tools, with venture teams raising $30 million. And the space continues providing life science researchers the lab and collaboration areas necessary to advance their research, while also connecting to a network of industry, investor, and academic stakeholders.

Plans are also underway to further Harvard-driven development along Western Avenue. An enterprise research campus and a hotel and conference center are envisioned, and work has begun on relocating Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to the Allston community by 2020.

Harvard’s provision of the necessary resources for innovative growth, coupled with the vibrant Harvard Business School community (long based in Allston) will surely attract new and exciting businesses to the landscape. Before long, the Boston region will feature two top innovation districts anchored by premier global universities.

Designers influence what’s next

So, the next question is, how do we as designers help make the next Kendall Square? We believe buildings that bring together research, access to innovative design thinking, and business expertise will spur “Kendall-like” economic development. But do all innovation districts need these three elements, or can an anchor institution be born out of something else? As economic development efforts continue, it’s important for planners to look at not only what elements can drive an innovation community, but also recognize and solve for potential challenges. In Boston these include housing access and transportation. Only time will tell if effective planning strategies will drum future growth.