Innovation districts: reshaping cities across the UK

Innovation districts have long been recognised as a way of reshaping and regenerating cities and towns across the UK, attracting talent, investment, creating high quality jobs and driving economic growth in the process.

A recent report from Bruntwood SciTech featuring experts from around the country explore the key themes for the success of innovation districts going forward but others exist too and, in an ever-changing world, more will emerge.

Defining success within innovation districts

Phil Kemp, CEO of Bruntwood SciTech believes that if you ask most civic leaders or national politicians, chances are they’ll tell you that they’d love their town or city to be home to the next Silicon Valley. Developing and making an innovation district a success is however an altogether more complex challenge.“

Julie Wager, President of The Global Institute on Innovation Districts believes that as districts vary substantially, this makes it difficult to define one successful district model. This is because they distinctly build off local and regional economic strengths, unique physical characteristics of a geography, and the culture and leadership style of district leaders. “For example, one district will have a strong R&D base in biomedicine, another will be a driver in advanced R&D and production and another still will be a story of incredible convergence – a true mix of innovation-rich sectors.

She adds: “These variations in sectors influence the types of innovation infrastructure, how it mixes with other amenities, and so on. The power of districts, in other words, lies with their unique characteristics and assets.”

Tom Renn, Managing Director at Bruntwood SciTech adds, “For me, it’s important to be able to capture the value of the innovation too – while people are fully aware of business districts, innovation districts are not as common in the public conscience. It’s important that a district should be able to hold up tangible examples of innovation in practice.”

The success of an innovation district doesn’t come overnight. Innovation experts were asked how long it really takes to achieve a tangible level of success and what’s needed to stimulate the growth of innovation districts in the early stages, beyond having a clear vision.

Rachel Dickie, Head of Urban Regeneration at Legal & General comments, “Success in my mind means reaching a critical mass. Sometimes, an area seems to have evolved organically over many years, and a curated, managed approach can give the extra boost a place needs to become an established innovation district. Other places might be at a much earlier stage and need significant infrastructure investment to get to sufficient scale.

“To stimulate growth, there are two aspects. The first is having the capital to provide the physical space to attract
a variety of businesses and give them room to grow. The second is providing business support services to give start- ups the greatest chance of success and maximise the synergies between co-located businesses.”

The unique offering of innovation districts 

If patience and collaboration are both deemed to be vital, what about homing in on having a distinct USP? Or does an innovation district need to be more agile, catering to a range of disciplines?

For Ian Campbell, Executive Chair at Innovate UK, it depends on your overarching aim: “Multi-disciplinary districts are possible. However it depends on what your measure of success is – is it growth of a particular sector, or is it growth in the wider regional economy, which might demand growth across multiple adjacent industries.

“This is the rationale behind our Catapult and Strength in Places initiatives. You’re looking to marry local industry strengths with local expertise. You then identify where the gaps are and invest to create the conditions that innovation thrives in.”

Collaborate, not compete

Julie Wagner adds, “This pandemic has underscored the imperative of innovation districts – to provide high quality, walkable locales of innovation that aim to bring out the best of the plurality of institutions, companies and start-
ups to solve some our most vexing challenges. District leaders and players are “leaning in,” seeing themselves as crucial problem-solvers in this pandemic. Isn’t this what every person should want out of innovation districts?“

Alistair Cory, Director, Begbroke Science Park at Oxford University agrees: “You need innovation districts to coalesce for success. That means defining the shared goal and developing a plan to achieve it. Then – coalesce around it!

“People, ideas and action – not to mention a whole load of focused funding and resources – will make it happen over the long-term.”