Innovation district

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Innovation districts are zones in cities where public and private actors work to attract entrepreneurs, startups, business incubators, generally with the aim of revitalizing depressed downtown areas.[1] The first, 22@ in Barcelona, Spain, was launched in 2000; as of 2019, there are more than 80 worldwide.[2]

Since the 1950s, entrepreneurial clustering has been led by the spatial geographic model of Silicon Valley: suburban corridors with sprawling research centers and campuses. In the late 1990s, Internet startups and creative companies started to cluster in downtown neighborhoods such as Silicon Alley (New York), Mission District (San Francisco), Shoreditch (London), and Silicon Sentier (Paris),[3] because of their central locations, abundant urban amenities, and low rents.[3] In the early 2000s, European and American cities began to mimic these areas through policy and planning. dedicating zones exclusively for the purpose of clustering entrepreneurs, startups, business accelerators and incubators.[1] These spaces are easily accessible via public transportation, wired for public Wi-Fi, support mixed-use development, and nurture collaboration and knowledge-sharing.[1][3][4]

Some innovation districts have helped cities add jobs, and shift economic focus from traditional industrial-based production to technology-driven services. A wave of academic research is examining these effects.[5]

Origins in Europe - Barcelona[edit]


Barcelona is credited with creating the first innovation district with its 22@Barcelona Project. In 2000,[6] the initiative began to redevelop the industrial El Poblenou neighborhood in the Sant Martí district of the city. Long the city's manufacturing heart and a production center for textiles, food, wine, construction products and metal structures, El Poblenou saw some 1,300 factories close between 1963 and 1990 and was largely abandoned.[6]

The 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona gathered thought-leaders in the city to begin crafting a plan to redevelop the El Poblenou neighborhood.[6] Over the next 7 years, transportation initiatives were created to connect the then-isolated space to more vibrant parts of Barcelona. In 1999, this project was completed with the opening of the Avinguda Diagonal (Diagonal Avenue), which connected El Poblenou to the downtown area's business district.[6]

In July 2000, a unanimous vote by the Barcelona City Council approved the Amended Metropolitan Master Plan for the redevelopment of the El Poblenou area.[6] The project was named the 22@ Project, representing a play on the previous urban classification name, "22a", that designated the exclusive use of an area for industrial production. According to the City Council, “Thus, 22@ Project is a permit to recover the productive vocation of the old economic hub of the city of Barcelona in order to create a new model of urban space according to the needs of the current knowledge-based society.”[6]

The 22@ Project[edit]

The approved project called for the redevelopment of 200 hectares (0.8 square miles) of abandoned industrial land in the El Poblenou neighborhood into an innovation district, with the goal of concentrating and building knowledge-intensive activities and companies.[7]

The project has 3 goals:

  1. Urban refurbishment: Restore the vibrancy of the El Poblenou area of Barcelona through economic and social development. The renewed territory will create a diverse, balanced environment with production centers, social housing, facilities and urban open space aimed at improving the quality of life and of the workplace.[7]
  2. Economic revitalization: Transform the neighborhood into a thriving area that attracts companies building technologically relevant and knowledge-intensive solutions for the Information Age.[7]
  3. Social revitalization: Create an urban space that encourages networking and collaboration among companies, institutions and residents of the area.[7]

Leaders of Barcelona recognized that this would be a multi-decade project and defined the scope of 22@ in their initial plans as follows:[7]

  • Potential total GFS: 4,000,000 square meters
    • Production Activity: 3,200,000 square meters
    • Facilities, housing, other uses: 800,000 square meters
  • Existing Housing: Regularizaiton of 4,614 existing homes
  • Social Housing: Creation of 4,000 new social housing units (minimum 25% rented)
  • New green space: 114,000 square meters of land
  • New facilities: 145,000 square meters of land
  • New jobs: estimated 150,000
  • Infrastructure Budget: €180 million

22@ Today[edit]

22@ is perceived as a success and has become the pioneering model for other innovation districts, including Boston's Innovation District. Today, 70% of the industrial land in El Poblenou has been refurbished, led by 141 individual plans for this redevelopment. 85 of the 141 plans approved are led by the private sector, which has built 700,000 square meters of renewed facilities and 1,886 new housing units in the area.[7]

Since 2000, 4,500 companies employing 56,000 workers have started in or relocated to 22@.[8] Approximately 72% of the total employees in 22@ are university-educated. The 22@ Project also calls for continual community education in information-driven activities such as coding, product design and IT service training. Many universities have also established a presence in 22@ such as Pompeu Fabra University, University of Barcelona, Polytechnic University of Catalonia and the Open University of Catalonia.[7] Several incubators and accelerators have been created such as Biomedical Park, the MediaTic building and Barcelona Activa.[7] The MediaTic Barcelona Growth Center is an innovation center that was built through public-private partnership.[9][10] The population of the zone has grown by 130,000 since 2000. Furthermore, the city's economic activity attributable to the El Poblenou territory has increased from 4% to over 15%.[7]

Origins in the United States – Boston[edit]

Mayor Menino's Vision[edit]

Boston's Innovation District is the first officially labeled innovation district to be created in the United States. Inspired by the success of the 22@ model, the Mayor's vision was to redevelop the mostly abandoned Seaport District into a hub for Information Age jobs and a new frontier for cutting-edge industries such as clean tech, health care information technology and mobile media.[11]

The restoration of the South Boston Waterfront began with the completion of the Big Dig in Boston.[1] This $14.6 billion project buried the formerly elevated Central Artery I-93 Interstate which previously cut off the waterfront from the rest of the city. Similar to the Diagonal Avenue in Barcelona, public transportation efforts were built to connect the Seaport to Boston's vibrant downtown and allowed mass commuting to this once-inaccessible part of the city.[1]

Mayor Menino’s vision for the Innovation District revolved around three core principles and three key strategies.

Core Principles:

  1. Urban Lab: Experimentation is central to the ethos of the Innovation District. Its creators want to use the space to experiment clean energy, citizen participation, transportation, and social infrastructure. Successes will be scaled and translated to benefit all neighborhoods.
  2. Sustainable Leadership: The redevelopment should maximize the 1,000 acres of waterfront land in the present while ensuring sufficient resources and enjoyment for future generations.
  3. Shared Innovation: All Bostonions should benefit from the shared idea economy and the products that emerge from the Innovation District.

Key Strategies:

  1. Promote collaboration: create a close-knit ecosystem and clustering to foster creative growth
  2. Provide public space + programming: establish an abundance of collaborative open spaces and organizations. Create District Hall, the world's first free-standing public innovation center.
  3. Develop a 24-hour neighborhood: build innovation housing, provide live-work spaces, attract an innovative nightlife, build cultural institutions, protect local parks and green spaces.

New Models of Spatial Innovation[edit]

Boston's Innovation District has pioneered new models of use for housing, company headquarters, shared work space and collaboration.

MassChallenge is the world's largest startup company accelerator and is located in the Boston Design Center, a massive 20th century warehouse in the Seaport. Successful startup applicants to its competition are provided free shared office space, expert mentors, marketing / media resources, funding opportunities and the opportunity to receive a portion of the $1 million in grants MassChallenge gives to the best companies. MassChallenge is a non-profit organization and is primarily funded via partners such as Fidelity Investments, Verizon, Oracle, AmericanAirlines and Microsoft. District Hall, located in the heart of the Innovation District, is the world's first public innovation center that has been created through public-private partnership.[9][10] The location provides civic gathering space where the innovation community gathers to exchange ideas. District Hall is a building that houses open workspace, classrooms, assembly space and flexible use ‘pods’. Most services and amenities at District Hall are provided at little to no cost.

Factory 63 is a converted shoe factory in the Seaport that has been redesigned to accommodate micro-housing units for Innovation District residents. The units are less than 600 square feet in size and are designed to encourage density and entrepreneurial collaboration. The building also provides low-priced office space for startups and entrepreneurs to build their companies. This live-work space model has proved a successful and popular real estate model in the Innovation District. Other real estate companies are remodeling once-abandoned buildings into similar Factory 63 models.

The Innovation District Today[edit]

The Innovation District is the fastest growing part of Boston today and has stimulated significant economic growth in the city. Since the District's launch, 5,000 new jobs have been created and over 200 new companies have formed. 40% of the companies located in the Innovation District share space in co-working spaces and incubators. Over 1,100 housing units have been constructed, including 300 innovation micro-units.

Soaring rent prices in the Innovation District have raised concerns that the rapid real estate development in the area is pricing out entrepreneurs and startup companies – the organizations and people the District is designed to attract. In just a few years, rents have increased 43% in the Seaport, with the average rent at $52.92 per square foot, approximately at the same level of Boston's affluent Back Bay neighborhood.[12]

Other Notable Innovation Districts[edit]

Cambridge (Kendall Square)[edit]

The Kendall Square innovation district is anchored by surrounding Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in close proximity to Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital and other world-leading research institutions. In the 1950s, MIT began deploying university-owned land to innovative private sector companies and developing partnerships with local organizations to support the commercialization of ideas stemming from the university.[1] In the ensuing decades, life sciences and pharmaceutical companies began to cluster in the area. Today, Kendall Square houses over 150 biotech, IT, technology and clean energy companies.[13] Firms such as Google, Microsoft, Amgen, Biogen and Novartis have large offices in Kendall Square.[13] Hundreds of startups have been formed and are headquartered in the Kendall Square area as well. Significant real estate development has occurred recently, with approximately 1,000 new housing units built in the area since 2005.[1]

Kendall Square is also home to the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), an organization headquartered in an MIT-owned building that rents office space to startups. CIC has pioneered the model of co-working space for entrepreneurs and knowledge-sharing in a high-quality environment. Founded in 1999, CIC has housed over 1,400 companies and attracted more than $1.8 billion in venture capital investment to its startups.[14] Today, over 600 startups are located in CIC.[14]

Philadelphia (University City)[edit]

University City in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a partnership of leading educational institutions, private sectors companies and local residents that aims to revitalize West Philadelphia through innovation and entrepreneurship. Members of the partnership include The University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The area has become a hub for life sciences, nanotechnology and IT companies in the past decade.[1]

The University City Science Center (UCSC) is the oldest and largest urban research park in the United States and acts as an anchor institution for University City. Founded in 1963, the Science Center is a collaboration of 31 nonprofits throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.[15] The UCSC has a 17-acre campus in West Philadelphia and houses over 2.5 million square feet of office space to startup companies and laboratory experiments. The campus also offers incubation, support services and programming assistance for entrepreneurs.[15] The co-working space also dedicates resources to migrate technology from the laboratory into the marketplace.

Seattle (South Lake Union)[edit]

Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood transformed in the late 2000s from a degraded low-rise industrial complex into one of the most thriving innovation hubs in the United States. In the early to mid-20th century, South Lake Union was a prosperous manufacturing center for Washington's biggest industrial companies.[16] Wood making, ship building and airplane manufacturing companies all were located in the area. However, South Lake Union experienced a significant decline in businesses and residents in the 1980s and 1990s.[16] However, as a result of major development plans by Paul Allen's Vulcan Real Estate, the neighborhood has persuaded the area's leading companies and research centers to relocate to South Lake Union.[1] In 2000, the University of Washington relocated its medical and bioscience campus to South Lake Union. Subsequently, the area has become a hub for some of the West Coast's leading science organizations including Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), Battelle, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, Seattle Children's Hospital and PATH. In 2007, announced it would relocate its global headquarters to South Lake Union. Amazon's relocation has accelerated residential housing growth and entrepreneurial activity in the neighborhood.[1]

Manchester (Oxford Road Corridor)[edit]

The Oxford Road Corridor innovation district is a square mile in the south of Manchester's city centre where two of the UK’s largest universities, the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University, are based alongside Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust. These organisations oversee the area in a partnership incorporated in 2007 alongside Manchester City Council and Bruntwood.[17]

The University of Manchester is a major centre for research and a member of the Russell Group of leading British research universities, it has a long history of notable scientific innovation including the isolation of Graphene, an advanced material with the potential to open up new markets and even replace existing technologies or materials. In 2004, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov isolated and characterised Graphene, this work resulted in the two winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 and sparked a "graphene gold rush". In 2014 a National Graphene Institute was established within the Oxford Road Corridor to develop commercial applications of graphene, more than 100 companies from across the world have since chosen to partner with The University of Manchester.

In 2015, The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) invited consortia, formed around geographic and technological themes, to apply to be involved in the science and innovation audit (SIA) process.[18] The Greater Manchester and East Cheshire SIA highlighted that 50% of the City Region’s science and innovation assets were located in the Oxford Road Corridor. Recognising the region’s ‘Core Strengths’ in Health Innovation and Advanced Materials, and ‘Fast Growth Opportunities’ focused on the future potential of Digital, Energy, and Industrial Biotechnology.[19][20]

In the 2018 Manchester City Council adopted a Strategic Spatial Framework for the Oxford Road Corridor to guide future development and protect the area’s unique innovation eco-system.[21]

The Oxford Road Corridor is home to a wide concentration of public, private, academic, and clinical institutions, generating 20% of Manchester’s GVA and providing 79,000 jobs. It is home to 50% of Manchester’s life sciences businesses, 74,000 students including 16,220 international students, with 42% of all students studying STEM related disciplines.[22] Property companies Bruntwood and Bruntwood SciTech have invested significantly into assets in the area, acquiring the Manchester Technology Centre in 2003 and developing Manchester Science Park, and Citylabs both of which have  designated Life Sciences Enterprise Zone status[23],and Circle Square which is home to over 35 digital tech businesses including Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Northcoders, Blair Project and Tootoot.

The Oxford Road Corridor also welcomes over 4,000,000 visitors per year to cultural venues including the Whitworth Art Gallery, HOME, Manchester Museum, the Royal Northern College of Music and Contact Theatre.

St. Louis (Cortex Innovation Community)[edit]

Cortex Innovation Community in St. Louis, Missouri, United States, is the largest innovation hub in the midwest region. It has generated 3,800 tech jobs in 14 years. Once it is completely built out, projections are for it to make $2 billion in development and make 13,000 jobs for the region.[24][25]

Detroit (Detroit Innovation District)[edit]

The Detroit Innovation District is a cross-sector initiative dedicated to curbing the city's economic decline and population loss through the attraction of technology companies to Detroit's downtown and midtown area. In 2014, Mayor Mike Duggan established the Detroit Innovation District Advisory Committee with Nancy Schlichting, CEO of Henry Ford Health Systems, at the helm of the organization. The initiative dedicated 4.3 square miles of greater downtown Detroit to house small business incubators, train local aspiring entrepreneurs, and attract anchor institutions to the area. The area comprises only 3.1% of the city's land area, but already hosts 55% of the city's jobs and 11% of all companies in Detroit.[1]

Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans, has served as an anchor-individual in Detroit who has assembled leaders from all types of Detroit organizations to revitalize the city. In 2009, Gilbert relocated Quicken Loans to the present-day Detroit Innovation District.[26] In 2012, he did the same and relocated Rock Ventures to the area. The success of Gilbert's companies and civic leadership has catalyzed the resurgence of technology companies and entrepreneurs in the city.[26]

Raleigh-Durham (Research Triangle Park)[edit]

The Raleigh-Durham area is home to one of the largest research parks in the world, Research Triangle Park. The park was a pioneering model in the 20th century for the sprawling research centers based in suburban corridors. It presently covers 7,000 acres of land and 22.5 million square feet.[27] Over 190 companies and 50,000 employees work in the Research Triangle Park and it hosts some of the largest biotech and pharmaceutical companies in the world, including GlaxoSmithKline and Cisco Systems.

Leaders of the Research Triangle Park in 2012 unveiled a master plan to reinvent the physical location of the park. Believing that the current layout was not conducive to collaboration, competition and knowledge-sharing, they recognized the need to redevelop office into an innovation district-like layout.[28] The 50-year master plan will be centered on a 100-acre site in the middle of the present-day Research Triangle Park in order to promote high-density workspace and living.[1] A new commuter rail system will also be developed in order to connect the Park to downtown Durham and Raleigh.[1]

Eindhoven (High Tech Campus Eindhoven)[edit]

The High Tech Campus Eindhoven (HTCE) is located in Eindhoven, Netherlands. This campus was originally established by Philips, and was thus the breeding ground for many successful Philips products as well as a large number of hightech startups, some of which became leading OEMs themselves─such as ASML and NXP. In 2003 the campus was opened up to other companies, and in 2012 it was sold to a consortium of external investors. The result was a substantial growth in the number of hightech companies and other residents – both large and small. The HTCE has therefore been praised as one of the best locations in the world for developing hightech systems and solutions.[29][30][31]

The HTCE currently hosts more than 140 companies and institutions, involving more than 10,000 product developers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and service providers. In addition to many high-tech startups, (units of) ABB, Analog Devices, Aquaver, Atos Origin, Dalsa, IBM, Intel, NXP and Texas Instruments are located at the HTCE.

Medellín (Distrito Innovación Ruta n)[edit]

The Innovation District of Medellín is a proposal for the transformation of the city: social, urban and economic, which seeks to convert the north of the city into an innovation ecosystem that concentrates citizens, entrepreneurs, companies and institutions within the knowledge economy, participate in joint projects and make Medellín a hub of Innovation in the World.

Developed in the area of the city with lower economic income, the northern area, the Innovation District of Medellin continues the tradition of this city in the last 15 years of investing where its citizens need it most, delivering a message to the entire city from some of its most vulnerable communities and creating a spearhead for a new future with social inclusion. With approximately eleven thousand people and about 40% of these still studying, the District has high educational levels, largely centered in the 4 universities that are part of its direct influence territory. The education and preparation of the innovative talent of the future are added to the many cultural and training activities promoted by the 48 institutions in the area that work with science, innovation, technology, health and citizenship, which harmonize with housing, neighborhood life and housing. traditional businesses of its residents. It is undoubtedly the commitment of the innovation district with the greatest component of citizen and social inclusion.

The District is also projected as a city living lab and business laboratory, which today has 235 important local and foreign companies, and a representative institutional presence with emphasis on Research, Science, Technology, Recreation and Wellness. Its very location and good electric mobility infrastructure Metro de Medellin, allow it to connect with the rest of the city. With the support of Ruta N and the leadership of the District, the economic evolution of the city is sought towards intensive activities in science, technology and innovation in an inclusive and sustainable manner.

Recent research[edit]

Many academic institutions and think tanks are analyzing the various models of innovation districts and their effects on economic growth and job creation.

Ed Glaeser, an urban economist at Harvard University, is pioneering research on the benefits of entrepreneurial clustering in urban settings. His work has concluded that “employment growth is strongly predicted by smaller average establishment size, both across cities and across industries within cities.”[5] Specifically, Glaeser studied the effect of a 10% increase in the number of firms per worker in a given city and concluded this was associated with a 9% increase in employment growth in the ensuing two decades.[5] Many civic leaders are leveraging the conclusions of Glaeser's work to demonstrate the importance of building startup accelerators, creating co-working spaces and encouraging density / collaboration in cities – all characteristics of innovation districts.

Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution has published a significant amount of research on innovation districts. He dedicated a section to innovation districts in his book The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy.[1] He and Julie Wagner also published an in-depth report in 2014 entitled “The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America.” In their research, Katz and Wagner discuss the components of successful innovation districts and the various models that have emerged in the past several years.[1] In 2019, Katz, Wagner and Tom Osha founded the Global Institute on Innovation Districts (GIID), an innovation district consortium and research organization. In conjunction with the launch of GIID, the organization published an update to the 2014 report entitled "The Evolution of Innovation Districts: The New Geography of Global Innovation." GIID launched with a steering committee consisting of innovation districts around the world, including:

  • Be'er Sheva Innovation District (Israel)
  • Melbourne Innovation District (Australia)
  • Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District (Scotland)
  • Innovation Quarter (North Carolina, United States)

A book on innovation districts written by Arnault Morisson titled "Innovation Districts: a Toolkit for Urban Leaders" was published on August 15, 2015.[4]

Proven Models[edit]

Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner identify in their 2014 report three primary models in how innovation districts are created:[1]

  1. Anchor plus: This model is characterized by the revitalization efforts / redevelopment centering on a leading institution in a city. The institution itself plays a vital role in redeveloping the surrounding real estate into innovation-friendly locations and attracting entrepreneurs, startups and talent to the area. The most frequently cited examples of this model include Cambridge, MassachusettsKendall Square and St. Louis’ Cortex district. MIT has significantly shaped the development of Kendall Square and Washington University has led the redevelopment of the Cortex district in St. Louis.[1]
  2. Re-imagined urban areas: Followers of this model focus the efforts of building an innovation district around degraded real estate, most likely in the outskirts of the city. Re-imagined urban area innovation districts are typically located along historic waterfronts that once served as thriving manufacturing hubs in the 20th century. It is common for significant investments in public transportation to accompany this model in order to reconnect this once-thriving part of a city to downtown residents. Examples of this model include Boston's Innovation District (redeveloped South Boston Waterfront), Barcelona's 22@Project (redeveloped Poblenou neighborhood) and Seattle's South Lake Union.[1]
  3. Urbanized science park: This model is characterized by re-imagining suburban or exurban areas into less sprawling, isolated geographies. Examples of this model include Raleigh-Durham's Research Triangle Park, which was one of the preeminent research corridors in the 1980s and 1990s. However, in November 2012, leaders of Research Triangle Park unveiled a master plan to reinvent the area to attract more nearby living and working, and promote physical spaces that encourage “random collisions” and open innovation.[1]


Among the criticisms of innovation districts, one of the most recurrent is the issue of gentrification leading the Brookings Institution to write an article around the question ‘Do innovation (districts) equal gentrification?’.[32] The fear of displacement, which is dominating the debate about gentrification, is hindering the discussion about genuine progressive approaches to distribute the benefits of urban redevelopment strategies. Place-based, knowledge-based urban development strategies, such as of an innovation district, can, in contrast to traditional capital-led urban renewal programs, bring additional benefits, such as enhanced innovation capacities and branding, to local stakeholders that can be more progressively distributed.[33]

In Chattanooga's Innovation District, the strategies that have been implemented to limit the negative externalities of the knowledge economy can be regrouped into three main categories: socio-economic, urban, and housing. The socio-economic strategy refers to the promotion of entrepreneurship to underrepresented groups in the entrepreneurial community through programs, such as mentoring, coaching, seed capital access, and entrepreneurial assistance. The socio-economic strategy also involves digital training and STEAM education as to bridge the digital and technological divides within the city's residents, through programs targeting young children, low-income communities, unemployed and underemployed persons. The urban strategy refers to a plan of action to make the downtown as a place interesting and welcoming to everyone, through placemaking, the creation of park and parkways, and events. More importantly, it aims to consciously shape programs to give to the most underrepresented groups a sense of ownership of the innovation district. The housing strategy refers to the creation of affordable housing. In the case of Chattanooga, it is pursued through property tax breaks to real-estate developers and through a not-for-profit organization, Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE).[33]


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