Across the United States, from urban to rural areas, public- and private-sector leaders are coming together to build innovation hubs. Relative upstarts such as the Indianapolis 16 Tech Innovation District and Tulsa Innovation Labs are positioning themselves as new centers of innovation, drawing inspiration from established ones such as Silicon Valley and Boston. Currently, the opportunity to launch new hubs is especially ripe given there is nearly $2 trillion in new federal funding designed to boost US innovation, competitiveness, and national security over the next decade.
Innovation hubs are geographic areas that bring together R&D institutions (such as tech-enabled corporations, universities, and medical facilities), as well as venture capital, incubators, and start-ups. They fall into three categories: smaller districts, midsize tech hubs, and larger cross-regional ecosystems, with the latter being by far the most complex but potentially impactful (see sidebar “Ecosystems, hubs, and districts: A short primer”).
Think tanks and businesses have published papers defining the value proposition of innovation hubs and offering ways for companies to participate in the hubs that already exist. While these papers generally address the what and the why, this article builds on those perspectives to explore how public- and private-sector leaders could launch and scale an innovation ecosystem anchored in existing regional assets or accelerate efforts that are already underway.
Below, we outline the potential benefits of innovation hubs and offer six essential steps that leaders can consider for building and nurturing an ecosystem that promotes vibrancy, attracts top talent, and creates new and significant opportunities for economic and social development. The playbook we’ve created is based on our experience designing and developing best-in-class ecosystems and on our data analysis of more than 100 innovation districts and tech hubs. It addresses key elements of building an innovation hub including prioritizing sectors, attracting talent and investment capital, mapping strengths and opportunities, and identifying ways to support the effort.
Creating an innovation ecosystem is a significant undertaking, and success often pivots on how well those who lead it build relationships with new and established companies and institutions, fill gaps in the business landscape through investment, and address the specific needs of workers and residents.
6. Cultivate a vibrant, diverse community and a sense of place
Innovation industries have long been notable for their lack of diversity and inclusion. Less than 20 percent of the people employed in engineering jobs are women, for example, even though they earn a majority of undergraduate and advanced STEM degrees. Black workers make up 11 percent of total US employment across all sectors but only 9 percent of STEM workers, and the gap is even more pronounced for Hispanic workers. Closing that divide will depend largely on the enrollment of members of historically marginalized communities in STEM education, and progress is currently poised to move slowly. Our research found that at current rates of change, racial and ethnic parity in higher education is still 70 years away.
To redress the imbalance, successful ecosystems can catalyze diverse, inclusive community building and shared prosperity—“inclusive growth.” Leaders can begin with a firm understanding of their starting point to promote equity goals and then develop initiatives, together with community anchors and education institutions, to ensure that the voices of residents are included in the ecosystem’s development and that opportunities benefit everyone, not just transplants to the area. Partnerships with community-based organizations are also critical to ensure that existing residents are not displaced as rents rise and new public spaces are created. Ecosystem leaders can even steer investment to create opportunities for disadvantaged communities and company founders from underrepresented groups (see sidebar “University City Science Center”).