Innovation districts are more important than ever, so how do we make sure they grow and thrive?

Innovation districts – places where the public and private sectors work together to attract start-ups and exciting new business incubators with the aim of revitalizing an area - are an important feature of a City Region’s economic and social strategy. They bring together in one place research institutions such as universities, high tech businesses and public sector organisations, creating the necessary conditions for collaboration to thrive and creativity to be sparked. Right now, solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, from potential COVID-19 vaccines to data systems for tracking and tracing are being worked on in innovation districts around the country, so it’s essential we do not lose momentum and continue to support their development.

Ultimately, the success of an innovation district depends on its success as a place. Examples such as the Glasgow City Innovation District are already thriving because they have been able to attract tenants like the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship, the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre, and the UK’s only Fraunhofer site; Europe's largest application-oriented research organization. All have brought in their expertise and investment from around the world. But these tenant organisations don’t just appear from nowhere, they choose places that have been well considered and designed to meet their needs. 

Creating places in a post Pandemic world

At Arcadis we believe that great places are created by looking at the five fundamentals of placemaking, as set out in our recent report Liveable Places. These are - Funding, Collaboration, Design and Public Realm, Sustainability and Community. Understanding how these fundamentals have been impacted by COVID-19 is vital if we are to deliver the successful innovation districts of the future.

For example, the way we look at design and public realm has already been turned on its head. Good placemaking has always focused heavily on how long-term health and wellbeing can be promoted through access to healthcare amenities and public open space. However, we now have many more questions to consider, such as how we create workplaces where people feel safe and empowered and how we create and adapt high streets that meet the requirements of social distancing and enable safe sustainable travel. 

Sustainable Development

It was a lamentable fact that focus turned away from sustainable development after the last recession of 2008 and there are worries that similar economic challenges may create a negative reaction as we recover from COVID-19. 

Innovation Districts provide a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that economically vibrant and socially inclusive developments can be planned and created showcasing zero carbon and resilience.

Community at the heart 

More than ever communities will need to be at the centre of the development process, from the outset right through to completion. In the short term, this has been made more difficult with public meetings no longer an option. Yet, in the long-term, innovations in digital engagement are enabling us to widen transparent participation and move beyond speaking to the usual groups involved in the process. These new audiences can provide insight and suggestions not previously considered, helping placemakers to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Innovation and the ‘new normal’ 

Funding and delivery will remain a challenge, and with an overall reduction in private capital widely expected, more thought will have to go into exploring innovative funding models. However, the health tech and life sciences sectors are most likely to experience continued growth and they are sectors which thrive best under the innovation district model, making such schemes enduringly attractive investments.

With private capital in short supply, public/private collaboration will also be essential to get innovation district projects back on track. There will inevitably need to be a greater focus on public sector borrowing at the local level to stimulate major development schemes and take out some of the investor uncertainties to create the right conditions for the private sector to do what it does best. 

It’s still too early to say what best practice placemaking will look like in the ‘new normal’ but there’s every likelihood that the solutions to the new challenges we face will be developed in innovation districts themselves, and for this reason alone, we need to prioritise their success.


Graham Hill

Cities Executive for Scotland Ask me a question
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