Eugene And How It Fits Into The Rise of Innovation Districts

Part of the reason that the Bay Area is known the world over as a tech hub is quite simple–it represents a large proportion of companies within a large population center. Being in large cities increases general access to business ecosystems, research institutions and talent pools. Over the past few years, a new urban concept called the Innovation District is attempting to bring that access to smaller areas.

The Innovation District concept reflects a fundamental change in thinking about how and where innovation happens. RAIN Eugene supports the concept of Eugene developing an Innovation District by collaboration and inclusivity. One of the main points of an Innovation District is bringing as many different points of view to the table as possible.

In 2014, the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, authored a report on this new model. In 2016, Brookings’ Scott Andes gave a presentation at the Hult Center as a guest of RAIN Eugene. That helped kick off the conversation, which has continued here ever since, with many of the leaders in Eugene’s business and tech communities strongly supporting the idea of Eugene developing an Innovation District,

“When Scott spoke here and the Brookings Institution released their study, this was right around the time that RAIN Eugene was starting, the Technology Association of Oregon was starting,” says Joe Maruschak, executive director of RAIN Eugene. “That study caused a lot of people to ask if Eugene could be an Innovation District.”

Our downtown area has already informally been called an “innovation district,” but with formal acceptance would come a formalized plan to move forward. One benefit would be a unified vision for growth, or in other words, “everyone rowing in the same direction,” says Maruschak. Bringing everyone to the table would mean that efforts aren’t duplicated and resources are being fully utilized to result in positive outcomes.

Part of the concept of developing an Innovation District is gathering information to recognize the challenges that our area faces, then innovating our way out of them. This takes involvement from everyone affected, which, quite simply, is everyone. Effectively managing growth requires input from city government, business leaders, technology leaders, education leaders, affordable housing advocates, arts and culture advocates, building developers, and, of course, the general public. That’s both a challenge and a benefit of moving toward being an Innovation District–the people who participate in an Innovation District are the people who choose to show up.

What is an Innovation District?

Unlike a Research Park, which is a collection of physical buildings in proximity, or an Innovation Hub, which could be one building, an Innovation District is a geographic area. It’s a zone where innovation is visible and public. But more so than a place delineated by blocks on a city map, it’s an ecosystem. Perhaps most importantly, it’s the result of a collaborative discussion between all (or as many as possible) stakeholders in an area.

In the Brookings Institution’s 2014 report, it called Innovation Districts “the ultimate mash-up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments—all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine.”

With the right mix of players and when the right conversations take place, Innovation Districts can be leaders in generating solutions such as sustainable economic growth, responsible land use, improved education and increased opportunities for new generations of workers along with an inspiring arts scene.

Why Do Innovation Districts Matter?

The Brookings Institution gives five key reasons why Innovation Districts matter.

Job growth – Innovation Districts allow metropolitan areas to grow jobs in ways that cross industries. People with different experiences and expertise are brought together in ways that lead to innovative jobs. For instance, tech can combine with life sciences, parking garages can become art galleries (as is already happening in Eugene), education can combine with finance, investments can coexist with charity (already happening in Eugene) and art can combine with tech (there are already examples of this also in Eugene).

Empowering entrepreneurs – The ecosystem concept ensures that startups grow with a network of support. Coworking spaces and business incubators provide shared, affordable resources to foster growth.

Better and more accessible jobs – The Brookings Institution says that a substantial number of emerging Innovation Districts across the United States are close to low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, which brings resources and opportunities to disadvantaged populations.

Engines for sustainable development – Denser residential and employment patterns reduce a population’s dependence on environmentally unsustainable development. Innovation Districts maximize existing infrastructure and promote responsible growth.

Raising revenue – Federal resources are diminishing, but Innovation Districts can help

metropolitan areas raise revenues and effectively distribute that revenue as investments in infrastructure, public safety, affordable housing, education, and other necessities.

Where Are They?

In Europe, the first Innovation District began in Barcelona, Spain, in 2000. That movement crossed over to Boston, Massachusetts, in 2010, inspired by Barcelona’s success. Berlin, London, Medellin, Montreal, Seoul, Stockholm, and Toronto contain examples of evolving districts. In the United States, districts are emerging in Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cambridge, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Diego, Raleigh, Brooklyn, Chicago, Portland, Providence, San Francisco, and Seattle. Boca Raton and Delray Beach, both in Florida, are developing Innovation Districts.

Chattanooga is the first mid-sized city with an established Innovation District. Chattanooga is similar in size to Eugene, and people here are looking to that city for examples of successful implementation.

Eugene’s Ingredients for an Innovation District

Back in February, Eugene’s Institute for Policy Research and Engagement undertook a study to determine whether we had the ingredients to be an Innovation District and what those ingredients are. While the results of that study are not yet available, early consensus is that yes, based on the Brookings Institution’s measurements, we do have the necessary ingredients.

“Our assumption was, yes, we did have the necessary things,” says Maruschak. “All the measures say we already have what we need for an Innovation District, we just aren’t doing it.”

IPRE is part of the University of Oregon’s School of Planning, Public Policy and Management (PPPM). In addition to a renewed focus on IPRE (formerly Community Service Center), PPPM is proposing a new doctoral program in planning and public affairs that would include concentrations in sustainable transportation, housing affordability and land use, and diverse community engagement.

Having an institution of higher education is one key element that leads to a successful Innovation District. We also have business cultivators including Fertilab. The Technology Association of Oregon is focused on ensuring that tech companies have access to the resources they need to establish entities here and grow them. Community events like Hack for a Cause and King Pong, among many others, spark different types of interaction and collaboration. High-speed internet in the downtown core and accessible places such as Barn Light where people are known to congregate also facilitate bringing people together.

When Andes spoke here, he confirmed that Eugene has many of the ingredients to build a successful Innovation District downtown. Andes pointed to the University of Oregon, Northwest Christian University, and Lane Community College, high-growth tech companies, game developers, marketing and advertising firms, and architecture and design studios as examples of economic assets.

We have physical assets in the form of bike lanes, public transportation, and a bike rental program (which we didn’t have at the time of Andes’s visit). We have affordable workspaces in the form of co-working spaces, “maker spaces,” and open spaces and common spaces where people can interact. We have business development resources such as Fertilab, Eugene RAIN, and the statewide Oregon RAIN program, Lane Community College’s Small Business Development Center and the UO’s MBA program which provides a focus on entrepreneurship. Connected Lane County provides connections between K-12 schools and the business and tech communities. Access to capital and investors is a big challenge, but we’re starting to figure this out in the form of venture catalyst programs that are moving into rural areas around the state.

Attracting and Keeping Entrepreneurs

No one would dispute that Silicon Valley has heretofore been America’s technology capital. But the August 30 edition of The Economist reported that startups and the people that power them are leaving Silicon Valley in droves. Last year more Americans left San Francisco County than moved in. According to a recent survey, 46% of respondents say they plan to leave the Bay Area in the next few years, up from 34% in 2016. In 2013, Silicon Valley investors put half their money into startups outside the Bay Area. That number now is closer to two-thirds.

The primary reason given for this mass exodus is how much it costs to live and work in the Silicon Valley area. Startups may pay at least four times as much to do business in the Bay Area than they would in nearly any other American city. One outcome of this is that other cities, such as Eugene, such as Chattanooga, are becoming more attractive.

In the late 1960s, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Chattanooga the most polluted city in the nation. Since then, city leaders have drastically reduced pollution, increased parks and trails and anticipated growth. The city’s more recent investments in high-speed internet and building renovations are creating an ecosystem for business development. Now, Chattanooga’s Innovation District is 140 acres in the center of its business district. In 2016, the New York Times reported that Chattanooga’s Innovation District was attracting and keeping entrepreneurs. At the time of this article’s publication, more than $700 million in new retail, office and residential space was planned within the city’s Innovation District.

Eugene is growing like Chattanooga was and is. Eugene is attracting entrepreneurs. Eugene is attracting established, high-growth companies. The challenge now is to acknowledge that changes are coming and bring everyone together to make the most of these changes in a positive way. And an Innovation District can make that happen.