A talk on the rise of urban innovation districts — as well as discussion of Reno’s own innovation assets and potential — were the focus of a March 5 program sponsored by the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada and UNR.
Typically connected to universities, medical centers or large research-oriented companies, the districts — or zones — tend to draw people and businesses to a compact and dense area where collaboration and commerce take place.
The program, attended by several hundred people at UNR’s Crowley Student Union theater, featured a talk by Jennifer Vey, a Brookings Institution fellow, who discussed the proliferation of innovation zones nationwide.
After touring Startup Row and Midtown in Reno with EDAWN and city officials, Vey, who is based in Baltimore, said the areas are two examples of innovation districts gaining ground.
“As an outsider, I can feel the energy,” said Vey. “I get a sense of (economic) optimism here.”
She defined an innovation district as places where large firms, startups and anchor institutions merge and connect with amenities, incubators and other centers that help foster new ideas and boost entrepreneurship and employment.
If you look at it from an economic development perspective, government officials want their cities to be vital economically, Vey said. “They recognize increasingly the importance that innovation and an innovation economy plays in that, they clearly want to create jobs, they want to (see) well-paying jobs and they want to have vibrant dynamic places in their city that people want to live and work in.”
The innovation movement has transformed place such as Seattle, Boston and Houston — famous for urban districts nicknamed “Eds and Meds” — and trickled down to midsize cities like Chattanooga, Tenn., as well.
“You see this patterns (of innovation) developing in 5-, 10- and 15-year periods,” said Vey. “It’s not an overnight thing,” she said of the economic momentum characteristic of these districts.
In some places, the efforts have been government-led or the result of public-business collaborations. In many parts of the country, innovation zones take root organically — and not from “some master plan from an official,” said Vey.
Innovation zones or districts have been multiplying across the country in the last decade. A May 2014 Brookings report found that in recent years, a rising number of innovative firms and talented workers are choosing to congregate and co-locate in compact, amenity-rich enclaves in the cores of central cities. Rather than building on greenfield sites, companies in knowledge-intensive sectors are locating key facilities close to other firms, research labs and universities so they can share ideas and practice “open innovation,” the report states.
Vey said Reno has the right roots for innovation. “You are starting to see innovation district activity around startups,” said Vey, adding that the next 5-10 years will tell the tale.
One area leader said a formal designation of an Innovation Zone in Reno’s center city could signal a new era.
“Reno is at a turning point,” said Mayor Hillary Schieve, just back from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Fellow mayors like Bill DeBlasio of New York and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento both sought Schieve out to complement her on the new companies relocating to the area.
They can see the potential and the economic opportunity, said Schieve.
“I felt like a proud mama,” said Schieve, adding that everyone seems to realize that downtowns matter now much more than in years past.
Schieve said fostering the growth of such a district will include many partners at the table: the city, UNR, EDAWN, existing employers and entrepreneurial startups.