The Eight Elements of a Successful Innovation District


With a major renovation in the works, Houston's new innovation district should seek to have these characteristics.

Corridor with people walking

With a major renovation in the works, Houston's new innovation district should seek to have these characteristics.

Thursday, Rice University and the City of Houston – along with a whole host of community partners ranging from Station Houston to University of Houston – announced that the old Sears building in Midtown will be transformed into the anchor of Houston’s new innovation district.

The Sears building – owned by Rice – is a 75-year-old art deco masterpiece buried under the rubble of several lousy renovations, some of which were designed to barricade the building from the urban neighborhood around it.

It’s a great start: Stripping the building to its core will provide a rich and exciting location for innovation economy startups and activity surrounding those companies. And given that, should jump-start the innovation stuff, which (as Houston’s recent experience with Amazon HQ2 revealed) needs a rocket boost to make the city more competitive.

Even though the Sears is an architectural gem and a potentially magnificent space for startups, one building does not an innovation district make. A successful innovation district is built off of efforts like the Sears building, but it requires lots of moves and lots of components to really fly.

Recently, my longtime collaborator Mary Jo Waits, one of the nation’s leading economic development experts, identified eight characteristics of a successful innovation district. She did this work as part of a project for the Phoenix Innovation District Steering Committee, but the lessons are universal – and Houston’s leaders would do well to bear them in mind as our innovation district moves forward.

Although I helped Mary Jo with the Phoenix project – and I agree that the eight characteristics are important – these ideas are all hers. The underlying idea is that even if a big city like Houston or Phoenix has all the components required to build an innovation economy, the effort isn’t likely to be successful unless they’re all in close proximity to each other and engage in a kind of ongoing mash-up.

The eight characteristics are as follows:

1. An innovation district is a platform for all kinds of activity.

An innovation district doesn’t serve as host of only one type of activity – research, for example, or business startup efforts. Rather, a strong innovation district serves as a platform for all kinds of activity – research, investment discussions, education and training, arts and culture and a wide range of other things that brings a wide variety of people in a variety of settings to stimulate innovation. This type of district implies a certain physical setting, specifically, an urban setting that offers a wide diversity of uses and activities.

2. It’s got a critical mass.

At the core of any successful innovation district are the innovators, creatives and entrepreneurs themselves, and so a high concentration of these folks is key. They might be scientists and engineers at research institutions, or researchers and students at universities, or entrepreneurs and artists at collaborative spaces, or employees and executives in established firms. They are inevitably women and men, immigrants and veterans, twenty-something techies and retirees. They are found across all sectors—health care, clean energy, information technology, food service, digital and fashion. But the point is: you need a lot of these folks—a critical mass.

3. It’s an ecosystem as much as a place.

It’s easy to think of an innovation district primarily as a place. But that’s only part of the story. More importantly it’s an ecosystem—a special environment finely tuned to help innovators, creatives, and entrepreneurs—present and future—connect with the resources and people they need to move quickly to take advantage of opportunities to generate new ideas, create or grow new businesses, and compete globally. But it’s a wide-ranging place where all the different types of people and professionals are located and can come together on a daily basis.

4. It’s got a long-term agenda.

If you look at the most successful innovation districts around the country – whether it’s SoMa in San Francisco or Chelsea or Brooklyn in New York – it’s important to understand that they weren’t successful overnight. In most cases, it took 20 to 25 years for the innovation district to blossom fully. And the job is never done. Once it’s well developed, an innovation district will stay successful only by evolving with technology, global and economic trends and building on its strengths over time to nurture new generations of researchers, entrepreneurs and companies.

5. It’s got civic visionaries as well as business entrepreneurs.

Most of the people involved in an innovation district will be entrepreneurs seeking to build their own businesses. But it’s important to understand that business entrepreneurs alone will not guarantee the success of an innovation district. That’s because the innovation district itself is an entrepreneurial venture. Civic visionaries – politicians, civic leaders, and, yes, some business owners – must be committed to nurturing not just the startup businesses being created but the innovation district itself.

6. It’s a combination of “big moves” and “small wonders.”

The Sears renovation is a “big move” – a major step by a major institution to create an anchor that will transform the district. And that’s really important. But innovation districts also require “small wonders” to succeed. These are the small-scale restaurants, public gathering spaces and the like, that make a vibrant urban center. They are the small-scale “maker” spaces, street food incubators, angel investor clubs, neighborhood entrepreneurship clubs and so on, that provide a broad innovation ecosystem in which all forms of creativity can take root and thrive. Together, big moves and small wonders give an innovation district both the scale and the texture required to succeed.

7. It’s geographically bounded.

There’s a great temptation to make sure the innovation district encompasses everything and everybody – downtown, Rice, UH, the Med Center, Uptown. But an innovation district won’t work unless it is bounded in a small geographical space such as Midtown. Boundaries spur collective action and nurture economic growth in an intense way. Districts tend to mobilize diverse stakeholders to develop a vision and form a community. They encourage city departments, real estate developers, business leaders, universities and foundations to coordinate policies and investments. At the same time, an innovation district that is geographically bounded can’t be a closed campus. It must also be open to encourage random interaction.

8. It’s an anchor for the regional and state economy.

An innovation district can sometimes create concern that economic development opportunities will become too concentrated in urban locations, meaning that outlying areas and the people who live there will not benefit. But a concentration of assets and activity in an innovation district is often the best way to ensure that a region has a competitive advantage in an increasingly fast-moving, innovation-driven economy. The spinoff economic benefit can drive economic growth in an entire region or state. And it can plug into the rest of the region’s economic infrastructure. In Houston, for example, new products might be able to take advantage of the city’s robust manufacturing infrastructure, thus providing middle-income jobs all over the region.

The renovation of the Sears building is only the beginning of Houston’s innovation district. All by itself, it will surely hatch exciting new businesses and help revitalize Midtown. But if Houston aims for the eight characteristics above, the Sears building can serve as the anchor of an innovation district that can transform and diversify the region’s economy.

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6100 Main St. MS-208
Houston, TX 77005-1892


Physical Address

Rice University
Kraft Hall
6100 Main Street, Suite 305
Houston, TX 77005-1892

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