Three takeaways from the WRLDCTY Innovative City Summit
Earlier this week I attended a summit on The Innovative City. The conversation explored the rise of “Innovation Districts” - where a network of start-ups, research institutions, technology companies and others are concentrated in a physical space.
As cities like Ottawa try to reimagine our central business districts post-pandemic, there’s lots to learn from places that have built these “innovative” ecosystems.
1. "Build it and they will come" is not enough. Across the sessions, we heard about the importance of place governance and management as a key component of building Innovation Districts, or thriving neighbourhoods in general. The physical aspect of placemaking has to be balanced with the social - including programming that connects people to the space and each other.
I think it was Dr. Tim Moonen who said “place is not something you impose but something you foster”. It’s not enough to mandate people to go back to the office if we aren’t thinking about how to create opportunities for connection once they get there. It’s not enough to build beautiful community spaces if there’s no strategy for how to animate them.
2. Cities with strong innovation economies are not necessarily the champions of urban innovation. Sometimes the places with the strongest concentrations of technology companies and future-focused businesses are the ones with the worst affordability and inequity issues. When you do have both economic and urban innovation they can enrich and accelerate each other, but that dynamic doesn’t happen automatically.
As a city, we can make space and policy to encourage innovative business districts, but we need to apply that same spirit of experimentation and creative problem solving to our urban systems.
3. Yes, it needs to be a specific place. But that place is part of a network. One question that came up was whether the focus on Innovation Districts distracts from thinking about the future of the city as a whole. The consensus was that yes, it’s important to consider the wider context but that we do need to create and curate distinct spaces for innovation.
Emma Frost spoke about the importance of density, proximity and visibility to fostering the networks of trust required for true collaboration. Concentration allows for deeper connections and as a result more radical solutions.
She also spoke about the importance of “meanwhile” uses. The context of a place exists in time as well as physical space. When we take on long-term urban development we need to consider how to activate space in the interim, and involve people in the changing nature of a place.
Our central business district is ripe for reimagining. For years the anchor tenant has been the federal government, but we’re not going to rebuild a thriving core by hoping public servants come back to the office.
The recent SoPa launch is an interesting attempt at rebranding the area as a central entertainment district. Regardless of your thoughts on the name and positioning, the idea of coming together around a shared understanding of place is a good one. It can’t be just restaurants though.
We need a shared vision and strategic approach to bring our downtown back to life. It’s a complex challenge requiring some, ahem, innovative thinking.
I’ll end with one last bit of inspiration from the summit. When cities are forced to respond to new challenges it can cultivate an ethos of creative problem solving that reverberates for generations, making it more resilient and better able to capitalize on opportunities.