Is This Michigan’s Future? Some Initial Thoughts On Innovation Districts

Bruce Katz of the Washington, DC based Brookings Institution recently turned a group of us on to the concept of Innovation Districts as a way to foster a rebirth in ailing rust belt cities. At first I, like I am sure several others, greeted the talk of this new economic development tool with some healthy skepticism. Many of us in Michigan have been witness to presentations on all kinds of fool-proof ‘silver bullet’ schemes over the past decades that didn’t go beyond the conceptual stages. Even worse, some of them actually did! And, well, let’s just say that if state economies were built on producing outdated batteries (tax credits) that were manufactured inside casinos (gaming revenue) located in bombed-out neighborhoods (renaissance zones) then we would have nothing much to worry about in the Great Lakes State today. But, as we now know, they aren’t. So the work continues.

Which brings me to Innovation Districts. Bruce and his colleagues at Brookings have done some excellent research on the matter with partners from across the globe. Building on the solid principles of leveraging 21st century assets, utilizing open source technology platforms, and fostering cutting edge public/private partnerships, they have documented how several regions around the world are realizing real economic growth as a result.

One such place is Barcelona. Despite Spain’s well publicized economic perils, the city and the region are doing very well in comparison and much of the credit goes to the 22@ Barcelona Districte de la Innovació. Created in 2000 in the struggling, older industrial area of Poblenou, the district works to integrate urban innovation (the city), economic innovation (the companies), and social innovation (the people) into a modern-day live/work/learn/play powerhouse. Building on its own set of distinct assets, the district has seen huge growth in start-ups and new firms locating in the area (7,500+), jobs (130,000) and infrastructure investment (180M Euro). It has also protected or refurbished over 100 historically important sites. The city’s willingness to redraw the rules for the area (allowing private decision-making and investment to flourish) played a key role in the process.  The more I learn about the process, the more it intrigues me.

Agbar Tower in Barcelona. Boy, if Freud were alive today...

There are certainly critics of 22@ Barcelona, namely some local residents who disagree with the direction and scope of the development. I am looking into this as well. Any comments from readers, pro or con, are certainly encouraged.

I think innovation districts will get a fair and thorough review in Michigan. Cities continue to learn about them. Gov. Snyder is listening intently. And, a group of us who grind every day trying to reimagine and repurpose the state’s growing collection of once-mighty urban places have our interests peaked. If we can figure out which levers to pull from a policy standpoint, a high mountain to climb on its own, then we’ll most likely face equally rough terrain passing the necessary legislation on the political front. But, this just might be a concept worth the effort.

Now, if we can only fit some new casinos into this proposal…