From the Design Quarterly: Cities as innovation centers

May 22, 2019

With tech hubs and innovation districts, research universities have the keys to unlocking reinvigorated cities

BY Don Hensley and Pablo Quintana


In the past, research buildings or areas within universities were sealed-off. They were almost clinical spaces featuring easy-to-clean utility and probably few windows. Their inhabitants were serious, studious, and not often seen. All of that has changed now as educational institutions have realized they benefit from building a bridge between that research and real-world application, both to provide an experience for their talented researchers (and recruit more of them) and to more fully reap the rewards from campus discoveries and innovation.

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, for example, the university and medical campus were a magnet for innovation in medical technology, drug development, healthcare treatment—incubating ideas across the medical spectrum. But recently, the university observed that most of its research technology was being licensed by companies out of state. Keen to commercialize more research at home, universities like Johns Hopkins are exploring how best to accommodate business start-ups within walking distance of their own research labs.


Rendering of an innovation district.


An innovation hub for Baltimore

With FastForward 1812 in East Baltimore, Johns Hopkins has established a place where researchers can explore their ideas, hatch a business plan, and bring an innovative product to market. They married healthcare innovation labs with new technology innovation into a tech hub. Open to all start-ups, users can rent coworking space and lab space at the innovation hub. FastForward 1812 includes the start-up incubator space (it doubled the university’s start-up space), 8,000 square feet of offices and coworking space, 15,000 square feet of BSL2 wet lab space on the floor below, and the offices of Hopkins Tech Ventures—a workplace for approximately 80 staff who run the Hopkins incubators. Upon its opening, 19 companies took space at FastForward 1812—proving the need is real.


Read and download the Design Quarterly Issue 05 | Smart and Livable Cities


Design makes a difference

You wouldn’t think a university medical project would hire a studio that designs hip, open workplaces for D.C.’s tech sector to design an incubator for health sector start-ups, but in today’s cross-pollinating, innovation-focused world, that’s just what happened.

_q_tweetable:Good design gives a coworking space a sense of place._q_Hopkins officials wanted the building itself to offer the chance for collaboration, so they and Baltimore-based Design Collective looked to Stantec’s workplace studio in Washington, D.C., for input on how to create a collaborative, buzzing, “third place” with tech sector and coworking space energy at 1812. Hopkins was attracted to the energy and the vibe of spaces like WeWork, knowing intuitively that great work spaces attract talent.

And nothing has been as important to the success of coworking spaces as good design. Good design gives a coworking space a sense of place, provides opportunities for chance encounters and networking, catalyzing the social connections that fuel curiosity, discovery, and ultimately innovation—their raison d’etre.

The FastForward hub has the look of a raw, coworking space—think cool urban coffeehouse meets the hip tech firm. Head downstairs and there’s a community area that allows for chance encounters and unplanned collaboration before users reach their clean, controlled lab spaces.

With FastForward the university created an environment that elevates the synergy between researchers, educators, entrepreneurs, and industry. Those universities that are both keen to attract the best researchers and monetize a portion of their research activity now recognize that the tech hub, innovation lab and collaborative start-up space are new must-haves.


FastForward 1812, Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures incubator space in Baltimore, Maryland. (Stantec/Design Collective)


Thinking bigger in innovation districts

But let’s scale this innovative thinking up—how important is innovation to cities?

We’ve seen it driving the development of entire neighborhoods. The Brookings Institution calls Innovation Districts “dense enclaves that merge the innovation and employment potential of research-oriented anchor institutions, high-growth firms, and tech and creative start-ups in well-designed, amenity-rich residential and commercial environments.”

For years, developing economic districts were in suburban office parks and corporate campuses. That’s changing. Brookings researchers say that innovation districts are essential to provide more and better jobs in the urban core. And that innovation districts are better poised to achieve a higher quality of work-life balance.

Driven in part by tax incentives passed by the US Congress in 2017, private investment in “Opportunity Zones” is creating innovation districts are in a number of US cities, often connected to a Tier 1 university with a robust research program and a parcel of land that the university or city is keen to develop.

What’s in it for universities?

Larger tech hubs are often anchored by major universities, but stakeholders can also include big high-tech firms and other institutions as well as real estate developers. As an anchor tenant in the innovation hub or incubator, the university has much to gain.

In the past, researchers with an idea to bring to market would leave the university with their idea and go to a private firm to launch it. By keeping innovation close at hand in tech hubs, universities can develop a direct revenue stream from the research they support.

In a typical tech hub agreement, a university—in return for their students, faculty, research tools, and space—can enter into a patent agreement with company in exchange for a profit-sharing and some patent rights. This type of agreement unlocks a future revenue stream for the university.

But that’s not all. Those start-ups will become new businesses and are more likely to stay near the university or in the city, keeping the talent and business activity nearby. That drives increased value not only for the university but for the entire community.

There are recruitment benefits, too. Students will be drawn to access to the facilities and the potential industry connections within through their research, thereby creating a strong continuum from education to career opportunities.


Rendering of an innovation district, which can serve as a cornerstone of planned neighborhoods and is anchored by an innovation hub.


Investing in the livable city

Cities see investment in innovation hub-anchored neighborhoods as a way to support both entrepreneurs and local business but also as a way to revitalize areas that need economic activity. City planners want to invest in ideas that create livable areas in these districts, not just isolated office parks, so they’re counting on ripple effects that emerge when people live and work in a neighborhood.

Innovation is the cornerstone of new planned neighborhoods (like the one depicted above) in American cities. Typically, a city targets an underdeveloped district for growth and identifies innovation as a key economic driver for these innovation districts. Planners envision these new neighborhoods as affordable, diverse communities with easy access to transit, anchored by an innovation hub associated with a research university.

The start-up plans for an innovation district should include space for an innovation hub and coworking space for start-ups. Additionally, it should include buildings for workforce training, retail and commercial, and market-rate housing with a pedestrian-friendly connection to a subway or light-rail station.

Innovation districts—which serve as talent attractors, revenue generators, investment drivers, and their potential as city-builders—are a win-win-win for cities, universities, and developers. As a result, we expect them to proliferate for years to come.


About the authors

Don Hensley, AIA, LEED AP is an architect and practice builder working out of Stantec’s Plano, Texas, office.

Based in our Washington, D.C., studio, architect Pablo Quintana focuses on the design of progressive workplaces that use design and storytelling to elevate every day experience.

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