The Rise of Innovation Districts and the 21st-Century City

Metropolis’s Susan S. Szenasy talks to Elkus Manfredi Architects about innovation districts and new kinds of work and workplaces in our cities.

For the past two years Metropolis’s publisher and editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy has been leading a series of discussions with industry leaders on key issues surrounding human-centered design. On September 22, 2016, she talked to representatives from Elkus Manfredi ArchitectsDumontJanks, and the Cambridge Innovation Center about how innovation districts around the world are provoking new thinking about the ways we build and grow cities, and how new kinds of work and workplaces help define this growth. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation. 


Engines of Economic Growth

Susan S. Szenasy (SSS): Innovation districts are emerging all over the world, including the United States. Many of them are popping up near universities. These new urban settlements are being shaped by innovators who arrive with tech and other skills. What are some major takeaway characteristics of innovation districts?

Alan Fein, chief operating officer, Cambridge Innovation Center (AF): Two conditions are absolutely necessary. The first is obvious—there has to be a wellspring of ideas and people who come to these areas because they want to effect change—and the second characteristic is infrastructure. You can’t just plunk these things in the middle of a desert. Without adequate housing, jobs, and transportation, these places fail. As the president of the Kendall Square Association (KSA) here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I’ve seen the innovation district of Kendall Square grow. During my time at KSA, I became very interested in thinking about innovation from a district-wide perspective as opposed to just emerging from one organization. I spent a year visiting different innovation districts around the country and came to realize that innovative organizations are the engines of economic development and growth.

Ricardo Dumont, principal, DumontJanks (RD): Most incubation and innovation originally came out of research universities. They play a central role in the development of innovation districts. Universities were faced with decreased federal funding for research, so they themselves had to innovate and reimagine partnerships. As soon as you bring in the private sector, you’re bringing in host communities and neighborhoods. The goal is to provide a setting that lets knowledge and innovation emerge from these intense collaborations, and to do that you need housing, job programs, and transportation, which
is at the heart of what a city is supposed to provide.

AF: To touch on that point, the universities in the cities that we’ve worked in played enormous roles in creating these districts and working with governmental institutions to make them happen. They are invested in these places because they are going to be around longer than the IKEAs of the world or even the developers of these districts.

David P. Manfredi, founding principal, Elkus Manfredi Architects (DPM): Absolutely. The universities are big stakeholders. Very often they are the origin of the ideas, and they have great stability. When you look at the president of a university, you are looking at an average tenure of around six to eight years. The mayor of a town might only be around for one term and answers to the electorate. Surely the university president answers to the board and the alumni, but the university is positioned to take a long-term view. In thinking about how they are going to maintain the trajectory of the research they’re doing, they are also thinking about how they are going to influence the environment. At the street level, these places thrive on interaction, and what that means for universities and the private sector is that they are suddenly in the business of building the public realm and dealing with issues of how ground-floor spaces get leased or how retail shops use their parking spaces. One of the fascinating things about innovation today is that innovators want to be around other innovators, and we need to create spaces where they can think and work in public. The world of private corporate research campuses with security gates is being turned upside down.

SSS: The connection to pedestrians and the community really does matter. Some work obviously has to be behind-the-scenes, but a lot of it can be more publicly perceived. How are these businesses changing the community?

AF: Big data exists in all of these industries, which changes the way people work. It has contributed to the change in the funding model as well, but it tends to break down the silos that universities have been known for over their history and creates new fields across disciplines.

Kendall Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2016)

Courtesy Elkus Manfredi Architects

The Stanley Building at the Broad Institute, Kendall Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2016)

Courtesy Peter Vanderwarker

Rise of the Mission-Based Economy

RD: I think we’re beginning to see the rise of a mission-based economy. Whether companies have a world health mission or a world energy mission, young people today gravitate toward working together in an ecosystem to solve these problems. It’s not the big guy coming in from the outside to say we need to do this, but it’s people coming together to produce the ideas that can then transform the world’s needs. Dispersal is the enemy of innovation. You cannot have this historical postwar model of a dispersed economy, transportation system, and suburban environment because it is no longer going to provide the type of innovation that we desperately need today. One of the great assets of a city like Boston or Baltimore is its compactness. More people are likely to bounce into one another, so that’s why a company like DumontJanks is asking “Do we actually promote less dispersal and more compactness?” This raises the issue of density, which so many people are afraid of.

Building Community

SSS: That’s a generational fear. Research on Generation Z gives every indication that the world this group will want is mission-based. They will be flocking into the dense areas where these opportunities lie. It’s amazing how quickly things move. These areas attract great housing and high-end grocery stores that serve this innovative, well-salaried group of people. This leads to the question of gentrification. Will locals have to move out of the area?  We can’t afford to do that anymore. What is the plan of helping those local groups? Is there a plan?

AF: What should happen in one of those districts, if it’s working well, is the creation of new jobs to support all sorts of economic life. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight, and one company is not responsible for creating these types of opportunities. But if you put these organizations together you can begin to provide opportunities like job training programs for existing com-munities. A good example is in Mission Bay, which brought in a new University of California, San Francisco campus. The first task of the developer was to create housing that would specifically counter the possibility of gentrification and bring in transportation and other infrastructure that enabled residents to be a real community. It could be the priciest neighborhood in San Francisco if it wasn’t developed in that direction.

RD: In DumontJanks’s experience in Baltimore, we worked with Johns Hopkins Hospital, city leaders, and the private sector to rethink the entire 80-acre medical campus, which was next to one of Baltimore’s most neglected areas. We worked with that coalition to repair streets, created new public spaces and two new public schools that were staffed and funded by Johns Hopkins University, and added a new housing policy that allowed up to 20 percent of affordable housing integrated within each of the area’s new developments. What ends up happening is that the city, the university, and the private sector build their own workforce around the community. It makes better business sense to invest in the community since they are investing in their future researchers.

SSS: This interdependence is encouraging as we begin to admit that the traditional urban-planning model was based on racial discrimination.

DPM: It’s no coincidence that most of these districts like the ones emerging in St. Louis or Boston have grown up adjacent to historically blue-collar residential neighborhoods. There is both benefit and friction between them as they evolve in different ways, but you’re getting at something that’s really, really important; for all of the success in Kendall Square, there is always the peril of it getting too expensive. I think if we build better transit modes and get people in and out of their workplaces more effectively, we more effectively integrate neighborhoods and innovation districts.

SSS: Speaking of the history of these places, are you shocked that companies are moving into historic buildings instead of asking architects to design new ones for them?

DPM: We’ve had the good fortune over the last 15 years to work intensively in Kendall Square and the Seaport District in Boston. Even though there are a lot of differences between them, what the two districts have in common is that there was a basic stock of historic buildings available. In Kendall Square
it was the candy manufacturing buildings like NECCO and Squirrel Brand, and in the Seaport District there were these abandoned Boston Long Wharf buildings. When you look at these buildings today, they are occupied by some of the biggest biopharmaceuticals in the world. I remember walking through these buildings in 1988, when we started Elkus Manfredi, and some of them had no roof—most of them had no glass in the windows—yet these are the places where innovation really started. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that they were inexpensive to renovate and occupy, so they became incubator spaces. Innovators are looking for open spaces with lots of daylight, high ceilings, and the opportunity to get lots of infrastructure capacity. We think of them as black boxes.

SSS: Boy, that’s a breakthrough for architects.

DPM: You’re right. For my profession, it’s learning not to over-design a building. You have to look at the space and figure out how to make it as flexible as possible. The innovators moving in don’t know what the science is going to be in five years, so they need spaces that give them the flexibility to accommodate what we can’t yet anticipate.

Seaport 2016. Boston, MA

Courtesy Elkus Manfredi Architects

Liberty Wharf, Seaport

Courtesy Peter Vanderwarker

Who Are Today’s Innovators?

SSS: I’d like to dig down and ask who these innovators are and how they’re in turn shaping their communities. What does innovation look like today?

AF: Innovation can occur in a variety of fields. We don’t discriminate as to what industries will populate our buildings, but the area has to have some assets. If you go to our buildings in Cambridge, they’re filled with people who have come out of labs at MIT or the Broad Institute and are thinking about information technology, biotechnology, energy, and robotics, for example. The culture at MIT breeds that. If you go to St. Louis, there’s a financial industry that’s as important as the agricultural industry and many of our clients are in those fields, whereas in Rotterdam we have more design clients because that’s the workforce that populates their innovation communities. It can spring up in any of these environments in a different way, but what unites them is the previously mentioned notion of creating density.

SSS: The next step I’m waiting to hear about is the connectivity between these innovation districts worldwide.

AF: I don’t think we have that yet, but we might slowly be heading toward it. Imagine if we had parallel organizations in all of these cities like Cambridge, Berlin, Rotterdam, St. Louis, and Dublin from which we could learn about the conditions for success. That would be fantastic.

SSS: I don’t see innovation districts as a trend. We’re witnessing a major shift in culture, technology, behavior, and land use.

AF: It is bigger than we imagine, but I think it stems from one thing that is really important to keep in mind and that’s the idea of a mission. When you connect these districts globally, it really does involve changing the world, and every one of these efforts and districts has to start with that premise. Otherwise, it can easily devolve into a lot of disparate efforts.

DPM: I completely agree with that. We have the assets, and it is about making connections between them. We’ve just summarized really well a series of trends, such as the importance of investment in our infrastructure, how our access to data and technology has changed our lives, and how our children want to live. It’s forcing us to really think about why we want to be in cities, why density is so important, and why proximity is the catalyst to innovation. They are separate threads that all come together around what is really a shift in global innovation.

Susan S. Szenasy speaks with panelists during a Metropolis Think Tank conversation at Elkus Manfredi Architects in Boston

Courtesy Elkus Manfredi Architects


This Metropolis Think Tank conversation is presented in partnership with DuPont Surfaces, Lutron, Sunbrella, and Teknion.

Panelists: David P. Manfredi, FAIA, LEED, AP, founding principal, Elkus Manfredi Architects; Ricardo Dumont, principal, DumontJanks; and Alan Fein, chief operating officer, Cambridge Innovation Center. Moderator: Susan S. Szenasy, publisher and editor in chief, Metropolis.

Categories: Cities, Think Tank

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