What is an Innovation District?
In just the past few years, more and more cities around the globe have focused on the creation of Innovation Districts to boost their chances of being competitive in the rapidly advancing knowledge based economy. Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis are often cited as examples. In The Rise of Innovation Districts, the Brookings Institution defines innovation districts as “geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators. They are also physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired and offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail.”
Innovation districts also focus on placemaking assets and quality of life. Ideally, they are made up of everything people need to have a convenient, safe and engaged urban life. In this designated section of a city creative thinkers, entrepreneurs, innovators, students and people of all perspectives and backgrounds collide and collaborate to better and more quickly conceive and implement new ideas.
Birth of Chattanooga’s Innovation District
When it comes to innovation districts, Chattanooga’s is a bit of an outlier. Most districts are in larger cities and are anchored by major medical and/or higher education research centers. They encompass one to three square mile geographies compared to Chattanooga’s slightly less than a quarter mile area. But the decision to establish Chattanooga’s Innovation District (ID) was not haphazard. It was based on an assessment of the fundamental ingredients necessary for a successful district that reflects both Chattanooga’s innovation assets and community goals and values.
Chattanooga’s Innovation District was announced in January 2015 to fulfill a recommendation by the City’s Chattanooga Forward Gig, Entrepreneurship and Technology Task Force. This task force met for almost a year to develop ideas for making the city more competitive in the innovation economy. National thought leaders on innovation were consulted and visits made to other districts. The 140 acres downtown were selected because of the critical mass of dense uses in the district and the presence of innovation economy generators. Innovation District boundaries were to be considered for expansion as additional anchors developed.
Building on Chattanooga’s Strengths
The primary innovation asset in the ID is EPB, the city’s publicly owned telecommunications company and electric power distributor that established Chattanooga’s primacy in 2010 with its 600 square-mile smart-grid and gigabit internet service. This asset has begun to assert its value to researchers, first at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and UTC, and, since then, from around the US.
Other important assets that aid the district in energizing our innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem include UTC, Co.Lab, the Public Education Foundation (PEF), Lamp Post Group, The Public Library, the City of Chattanooga, The Enterprise Center, Society of Work, The Chamber of Commerce, Causeway, area venture capital funds; and a core group of tech enabled startups such as Bellhops, Branch Technologies, Skuid and Variable Technologies.
The Innovation District has the kind of qualities that give Chattanooga a decided leg up on many other districts and help attract and keep talent of all kinds. These qualities include walkability, high quality public parks and plazas, a dense mix of coffee shops and eateries, cultural attractions and amenities, and a mix of retail and housing options. In overlapping with the central business district, the ID’s proximity to major office employers and to UTC helps enliven the district and support small downtown businesses.