Bruce Katz, the Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution and well-known author presented The Rise of Innovation Districts: The New Geography of Innovation to a packed house yesterday. The McLean County Regional Planning Commission hosted its 11th Annual Community Information Forum at the Marriott Hotel in Uptown Normal and Mr. Katz was its distinguished guest speaker.

Mr. Katz informed the hundred plus attendees that what the innovative economy wants is to be in places where you can live, work and play. But more that there has been a transformation where we have been moving from a “closed” innovation system to an “open” system. This not only reinforces density and a mixture of use but cities. And what those cities look like and how they operate as is more important than ever.

With more people living in cities now more than any time in history, the demands and needs of a city’s workforce and employers has shifted as well. Innovation Districts, while still somewhat of a new concept for smaller metropolitan areas, are a progression from past models of research parks and industrial districts.

Innovation Districts Defined

Communities such as Boston, St. Louis, San Francisco and Seattle are utilizing Innovation Districts as a mechanism to modernize their local economies. As defined by the Brookings Institution, Innovation Districts are geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators, and accelerators. They are physically compact, transit-accessible and technologically wired and offer mixed-use housing, office and retail.

The form and function of Innovation Districts differ markedly from community to community. Locales can use Innovation Districts for creation and expansion of firms and jobs by assisting companies, entrepreneurs, universities, researchers and investors; expanding employment and educational opportunities for disadvantage populations and spurring redevelopment. Innovation Districts can also be used to reinvigorate and refine downtown areas. Common threads of any Innovation District are technology, and strong public-private partnerships between government, businesses, and institutions (both educational and medical).

Uptown NormalHow Can You Build An Innovation District?

Katz went on outline that no two cities are alike and that they all have their own unique strengths, collaborations, and visions. The fundamentals necessary in building an Innovation District are that you must create your network, audit your assets, and put strategies for success in place to execute.

The location of the presentation may have been strategic. Uptown Normal has undergone significant developments in the last decade and looks and feels much like what Mr. Katz was referring too. It represents the “Anchor Plus” model which includes a civic institution like Illinois State University as the anchoring entity that leads into a mixed-use center of activity.

Whether or not Innovation Districts will materialize is up to the communities of McLean County. As Mr. Katz pointed out, those who were in attendance during this presentation are most likely going to have the biggest stake in altering the trajectory of local innovation. If the public, corporate and civic stakeholders are willing to make the changes to adapt to this new way of business, then the places we know now today may appear to closely resemble the current leading innovating cities at sometime in the near future.

To learn more about Innovation Districts, please visit brookings.edu. For information on the McLean County Regional Planning Commission go to mcplan.org.