‘I say the Boro’s gotta have an innovation district, and I mean she needs it today.” — Prof. Harold Hill.

That imminent city planner and band director is making a good point. All over the country, major cities have found that creating an innovation district has helped reverse urban decay, bring new economic energy to downtown areas and provide training and jobs to inner city people who need help the most.

Innovation districts vary by both their  specialty and size. The “Cortex” district, which has transformed  a former rundown part of midtown St. Louis,  focuses on the life sciences. It is only 200 acres. On the other hand,  South Boston’s waterfront district, home to both technology and life sciences companies, contains more than 1,000 acres.

No matter how they vary, however, a common theme is that innovation districts bring together business and civic leaders, who work enthusiastically toward the same goal.

Faux districts

The problem is innovation districts have been such a success in so many places that the term

"Psst, Bud! Wanna get in on the ground floor of my new innovation district. It already has a pharmacy and a laundromat. Act now. Land is going fast"
“Psst, Bud! Wanna get in on the ground floor of my new innovation district? It already has a pharmacy and a laundromat. Act now. Land is going fast”

has become a buzzword. Some developers have learned that marketing their property as an “innovation district”, when it has none of the qualities of one, can get them a better price for their land.

Innovation centers aren’t a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all solution for a city’s problems. But the Texas-based Kendig Keast Collaborative, which is preparing a 20-year planning study here, recommends that Murfreesboro get in the game.

An end to ivory research towers

The trend began with the realization that older science and research parks, like North Carolina’s iconic Research Triangle, are no longer working as well as they once did.

A Brookings Institution report says the old idea of a suburban, science and research park, with each tenant operating in isolated research fortresses, is not what modern companies want.

Collaborating while competing

It turns out that today’s most creative companies have learned that great ideas arise when companies collaborate and compete at the same time. That’s what makes innovation districts different from the traditional science park.

Innovation districts encourage a mixing of creative minds. They give a city a sense of place, a stimulating spot that attracts high tech workers. Where the old science parks were reached by commuters diving automobiles, innovation districts are usually within walking distance for their employees. Many have mixed uses, including multi-family housing and restaurants.

The key is to promote conversations among creative people

They also offer interesting places where talented people can gather and mingle after hours. These might include parks with water features, entertainment nightclubs, museums, and even health clubs. Perhaps the next iPhone will emerge from a casual conversation between two people whose paths crossed at a morning workout or who meet in a quiet walk in the park.

One model: Kendall Square

There are three basic models that innovation districts have followed:
One: A downtown district with a powerful anchor. Thia idea is exemplified by Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass., which was created in part by MIT. While there is no MIT here, MTSU is a powerful asset that should be involved in any local innovation district.
Forty years ago, East Cambridge was a mass of old factories, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, and chain-link fences..Today, the city’s  Kendall Square boasts 150 companies, some of them leaders in life sciences, technology and pharmaceuticals.

A reinvented urbana area: Boston’s waterfront

Two: Reimagined urban areas. This model shares some features of the first. The best example is the renaissance of South Boston’s waterfront.The district adjoins historic Boston Harbor and Logan Airport and lies at a juncture of two major interstate highways.

Redesigned science park

The third model is the outdated science park from the 1950s and 50s that has had to reinvent itself. North Carolina’s iconic Research Triangle is the best example of this model It is moving away from isolated research campuses to a more urban setting, with retail outlet, entertainment venues, restaurants,  coffee shops and multi-family housing.

Incubators and accelerators

But innovation districts are more than just social mixers for creative minds. Most have incubators to get a project off the ground. and accelerators to take over where the incubator leaves off.

Co-Lab, which operates in Chattanooga, is a nonprofit startup accelerator that supports companies ranging from street-corner mom and pop shops to tech startups.

Mentoring startups

It offers:

— Advice from local business leaders in their  areas of expertise, such as legal issues, finances and accounting, and marketing.

— Meetings with CO.LAB’s “Entrepreneur in Residence”  to refine  a startup’s goals and help it connect with the resources needed to achieve them

— Access to workspaces, desks, office resources, and meeting rooms

— The opportunity to connect with qualified investors.

While the innovation trend began in larger cities like Boston and St. Louis, the idea is filtering down to medium-sized cities like Murfreesboro. Chattanooga, to the south of us, bills itself as the first medium-sized city to go the innovation district route.

Innovation districts are built on a city’s assets

Chattanooga is leveraging three assets:

— Its anchor: The 10-story, 90,000-square-foot Edney Building, which will be the hub of the whole district.

— A revitalized and lively downtown, including a  $120 million of riverfront parks development and expanded downtown cultural institutions.

— What Chattanooga terms the fastest Internet network in the Western Hemisphere. The network basically piggy backed onto the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga’s investment in a “smart” power grid. EPB has installed more than 9,000 miles of fiber optic cable throughout a 600-square-mile area.

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— In an influential report released in May of 2014 (“The Rise of the  Innovation District”), the Brookings Institution publicized the innovation phenomena. You can read the full report at http://www.brookings.edu/about/programs/metro/innovation-districts  Last June, the authors, took another look at innovation districts a year after the original article. You can read about their conclusions at http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2015/06/24-one-year-innovation-districts-katz-vey-wagner