Urenio Watch Watch: Innovation Clusters

New Handbook for Making Successful Innovation Districts

This handbook, entitled Advancing a new wave of urban competitiveness: The role of mayors in the rise of innovation districts, offers concrete strategies for mayor and their administration to facilitate the rise of innovation districts. It is the result of a collaborative work between the United States Conference of Mayors, the Brookings Institution, along with the Project for Public Spaces.

Innovation districts are defined as small geographic areas within cities where research universities, medical institutions, and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, accelerators and incubators. These districts are also physically compact, transit-accessible and offer mixed-use housing, office and retail. According to the authors of this handbook:

(Innovation districts) represent a new geography of economic development, indicating a radical shift from previously isolated suburban research parks toward amenity-rich, hyper-connected areas in our city cores.

In this context, this handbook offers a guide for how American cities can become stronger and more competitive by identifying and leveraging innovation districts.

Unlike the hyper-segregated business parks and residential districts that have been constructed for decades in many cities and suburbs worldwide, innovation districts include a range of distinctive traits and assets. More specifically, they contain three categories of assets:

  • Economic Assets: the firms, institutions and organizations that drive, cultivate, or support an innovation-rich environment.
  • Physical Assets: the public and privately owned spaces (buildings, public spaces, streets and other infrastructure) designed and organized to stimulate new and higher levels of connectivity, collaboration and innovation.
  • Networking Assets: the relationships between actors (individuals, firms and institutions) that have the potential to generate, sharpen, and/or accelerate the advancement of ideas.
All innovation districts contain these three assets. Photo credit: Brookings

The following illustration depicts the concentration of economic, physical and networking assets within one node of an innovation district – the size of a full city block. While a district commonly ranges in size between 300 acres and 1,000 acres, creating a critical mass at specific nodes or a key corridor, which then extends over time and space, is proving to be a smart and successful strategy.

– Among the physical assets, we can see a walkable street grid, public spaces designed to boost interaction and active and comfortable shops and cafes in the ground floors.

– Among the economic assets, we identify a mix of institutional, company and start-up spaces in close proximity, major research facilities as well as tech transfer offices supporting commercialization.

– Among the networking assets, programming in terms of incubating new enterprises, accelerating learning and strengthening networks is fundamental.

A node of an innovation district and the concentration of economic, physical and networking assets. Source: current handbook.

The handbook concludes by highlighting some of the many vital roles for mayor to play to boost urban competitiveness:

  • Shaping early conversations about the value and ideal location of an innovation district
  • Using their pulpit to outline a vision of leveraging homegrown economic strengths into a more robust innovation play
  • Serving as the chief spokesperson for the city’”conveying the district’ s distinctive assets to potential investors and companies outside the region.
  • Reforming regulations or re-imagining government properties as a means to unlock a district’ s real potential


  • Section 1: Introduction
  • Section 2: An overview on innovation districts
  • Section 3: 12 principles guiding innovation districts
  • Section 4: An audit of city assets’”Identifying the potential for an innovation district
  • Section 5: Mayors as conveners’”Engaging local leaders to consider a district strategy
  • Section 6: Mayors as champions’”Playing a visible role to advance an innovation district
  • Section 7: Mayors as catalysts’”Using city powers to strengthen an innovation district
  • Section 8: Conclusions

  • Download the handbook here.