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Corporate Innovation & Research Moves From Suburbs To Cities

About 15 years ago, most chambers of commerce would likely say cutting edge corporate research was happening in suburban business parks, according to Bruce Katz, a centennial scholar at the Brookings Institution.

But that same research today is more often happening in urban locations.

Katz called those new urban research cores “innovation districts.”

A collection of mayors from across the country stopped in Pittsburgh Monday to explore ways to grow their own innovation districts using the Steel City as a model.  

An innovation district is defined as a relatively small geographic area where companies of all sizes, researchers and investors cooperate and share ideas to grow a specific industry. The districts are usually centered near advance research universities.

Katz said two key shifts are driving the change: a new desire by companies and entrepreneurs to collaborate on innovation and a new desire by knowledge workers to live in urban settings.

But one challenge in Pittsburgh, and other cities hosting such districts, is finding ways to make sure people without college degrees also benefit from the revitalization. A working group of the U.S. Mayors Conference is trying to “crack the code on how the innovative economy can work for all segments of the community.”

“Not all of these companies require people with doctorates in engineering from Carnegie Mellon,” Katz said. “They actually require people with certain kinds of technical skills, which you can get in community college or even through the high schools.”

Along with helping local residents get additional technical education, Katz said cities can also encourage sustainable growth through land use and zoning laws that support a “mash-up of residential, innovative and retail uses,” along with affordable housing options.

Katz said spurring economic growth is increasingly falling on municipal governments.

“Particularly at a time when our national government and state governments are mired in partisan rancor,” Katz said.

The Brookings Institution stresses not every city needs to have world-class research universities like the ones found in Pittsburgh. Katz said Chattanooga is using a public utility that has built a robust internet infrastructure and one of the world’s smartest energy grids to attract energy research.

He said each city is different and will have to fill a unique niche by focusing its energies on assets and places where people want to be. He said while the market might drive the initial growth cities must nurture and guide it if it is to reach its full potential.

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