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Beyond Innovation Districts: Why Peripheral Communities Matter

Innovation in peripheral communities

By Jon Glasco.

How and where can cities accelerate innovation as an economic development strategy? In recent decades, many urban leaders attempted to answer this question through investments in innovation districts. “More than 80 innovation districts have been identified in cities across the globe,” according to Carla M. Kayanan, a researcher at University College Dublin.

A report from A. D. Little says an innovation district “is a dense geographical area of supportive economic activity focused on innovation, which is near to one or more institutes of higher education, often in an urban environment that is ripe for regeneration.” A Brookings Institution policy paper defined innovation districts as “geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators, and accelerators. They are also physically compact, transit-accessible and technically-wired.”

The cities of Rotterdam, Paris and Barcelona receive high marks for their success in developing innovation districts and in some sense applying the Silicon Valley model to economic growth and urban challenges. “Silicon Valley is, in many ways, the forerunner of the global innovation district concept. Adapting the innovation district idea to a European context, the 22@ district emerged in Barcelona in the early 2000,” and is considered by many as a model of development after converting an old, industrial area into a center of innovation.

As a rule, the aim of an innovation district is to empower sustainable and inclusive development. However, it is unclear if today’s innovation districts actually deliver inclusive benefits to society, businesses and innovators throughout the city and its surrounding area or only to those who live, work and invest in the districts.

Scholars question if the concentration of innovation resources in dense urban areas neglects opportunities in peripheral areas (where peripheral in this context includes small towns, rural areas, marginal communities and smart villages). In the Journal of Economic Geography, Johannes Glueckler and co-authors claim the periphery is often assumed to be inherently disadvantaged in comparison to the city center, where the drivers of innovation are believed to be most accessible. “Such arguments suggest that urban areas grow because they are central, while being central because they grow.”

Rather than focus on urban centers (and the perceived advantages of density and proximity), research indicates policy makers should consider how to allocate resources and promote collaborative innovation in peripheral communities within and outside metropolitan perimeters.

Daniel Sarasa, a smart city strategist and director of the Zaragoza City of Knowledge Foundation writes that “innovation districts do not seem like the end of the road as a mixed strategy for healthy economic and urban development.” The economic influence of 22@ in Barcelona is undeniable, but the innovative potential in other areas has been underestimated, says Sarasa.

While innovation districts are applauded, Jakob Eder, from the Austrian Research Promotion Agency, writes about the current bias toward a planning framework based on concentration of resources and “a focus on radical innovations which occur less frequently outside of cities.” He suggests a factor in the resource concentration bias is that most marketing and financial support for innovators and smart city initiatives is available in urban agglomerations and may not recognize opportunities in peripheral communities.

“Rural areas are known to suffer from resource constraints, infrastructure scarcity, seasonality of business, lack of access to local and global markets … and the slow adoption of digital technologies.” In spite of these barriers, many peripheral areas are known for strengths in agritech, digital agronomy, food sustainability, renewable energy, logistics, tourism and green economic development. “Although often depicted as marginalized, rural areas are not new to innovation. Agriculture and food technologies have enormous potential in terms of sustainable food production,” says Teresa Graziano, a researcher at the University of Catania.

The European Network for Rural Development (ENRD) believes mutually supportive links between rural and urban areas are essential in creating smart and sustainable development in Europe. An ENRD publication describes how “social objectives go hand in hand with economic and environmental sustainability, and vibrant rural areas are essential for all, including farmers and urban citizens.” The ENRD says rural communities across the EU are implementing initiatives in energy, mobility, broadband and climate change—which represent the building blocks of smart villages. Digital technologies enable rural innovators to improve rural-urban linkage and offer opportunities in regional projects, digital innovation hubs and entrepreneurial ventures.

Why should smart cities cooperate with rural areas in terms of innovation and development? At a recent European event, Radim Sršeň, deputy minister of regional development in the Czech Republic, stated: “For territorial cohesion to happen, we need a holistic approach, interconnecting the concepts of smart villages, smart cities and smart regions.” Sršeň emphasized that Europe needs to reduce the differences in development between urban and rural areas through investment funds and creative policy measures. “Without thriving rural places, we cannot have a sustainable and resilient Europe,” said Janusz Wojciechowski, Europe’s commissioner for agriculture.

In the U.S., the Biden administration made a commitment to innovation projects in cities, regions and remote areas by approving $1 billion in grants to 21 cities to rebuild regional economies, promote inclusive recovery and create higher-paying jobs. The grants include funding for numerous areas that encompass a core city and its surrounding area. Winners of the grants plan a variety of projects “from developing workforce training programs and connecting workers to jobs to deploying solar energy on former coal land”. According to the White House, “equity was a key consideration for finalists, with a focus on rural, tribal and coal communities.” Will these cities and peripheral communities find ways to innovate beyond urban boundaries and co-create inclusive regional solutions? Eder says “peripheral areas can be linked via organizational, cognitive, and technological proximity to other (core) areas and use these forms of proximity in their innovation process. Therefore, geographical distance is no longer the whole story.”

Looking beyond innovation districts and linking innovators in peripheral areas with smart city initiatives should yield mutual benefits through knowledge sharing, collaborative ecosystems and actions to improve regional resilience and sustainability. After all, small towns and rural communities are already connected with cities in symbiotic ways through business and social interaction and the continuous flow of people, products, services and capital.

This article is published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Kyle Glenn via Unsplash

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Last modified: 06/01/2023
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