August 1, 2017
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How mayors can drive innovation in their cities

Local leaders play a huge role in creating economic opportunities through urban ‘innovation districts’

Uber built its Uber Technical Center in Pittsburgh and is developing an autonomous vehicle that it hopes will be able to transport its millions of clients without the need for a driver. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto was instrumental in helping the transportation tech company set up shop in the city. Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Large cities have always been hubs of culture and commerce. Now more than ever, as technology provides even greater opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs, cities big and small will be at the center of a new wave of innovation. As the leaders of these cities, mayors are in a unique position to leverage local assets to create stronger communities where all residents have access to economic opportunities.

Realizing the huge role that cities can play in this transformation, the United States Conference of Mayors, along with the Brookings Institution, and Project for Public Spaces recently created a handbook, “Advancing a new wave of urban competitiveness: The role of mayors in the rise of innovation districts,” to assist mayors and municipal leaders in championing “innovation districts.” Brookings defines these as “geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators, and accelerators.” These neighborhoods are walkable, accessible by public transit, and offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail—reflecting some of the most inherent assets of city living.

Innovation districts have been a beacon for renewal in some of the country’s most successful comeback narratives. Take Pittsburgh’s resurgence as an innovation and technology hub in the Rust Belt. Anchor institutions like Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh were instrumental in attracting corporate giants like Uber and Ford to the region. Today, in the neighborhoods surrounding these institutions, new housing, retail, and employment opportunities are growing, and downtown Pittsburgh tops many a list of best comeback neighborhoods.

Though building centers for corporate anchors is nothing new, the authors of the handbook differentiate innovative districts from “hyper-segregated business parks,” as those having three valuable assets. They are, from the report:

  • 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.

These dense urban hubs, full of innovative workers and firms, can be a driver for local economic growth because they “sit at the intersection of innovation, placemaking, and economic inclusion,” according to the handbook.

Three ways mayors can lead the way

So how can mayors use their own cities’ assets in building innovation districts? The authors describe three ways mayors can participate: as conveners, champions, and catalysts.

  • Convenors: Mayors can draw together local leaders to help facilitate creative partnerships that will serve to build up these districts. Mayors first must be armed with empirical data to persuade potential players, then they must meet with key stakeholders like local business leaders and CEOs, and identify where shared interests can be leveraged.
  • Champions: Mayors can use their natural leadership roles in the communities. They can share their vision for innovation and the role that a designated district will play. The mayor can play a lead role in developing a “strategic, action-oriented, plan,” and delegate roles accordingly. Further, the authors write, “Mayors can use their role as champions to ensure that innovation districts grow and develop in inclusive ways that encourage diversity, access to jobs, and fiscal stability.”

  • Catalysts: Mayors can use their legislative powers to influence particular outcomes, whether they be at the local, or even state, level. “Acting as a catalyst within the context of innovation districts means knowing how to apply, with deep intentionality, specific regulatory tools, regulations, and financial incentives, including the strategic reuse of publicly owned property.” In Pittsburgh, Mayor Bill Peduto was instrumental in helping transportation tech giant Uber move through regulatory hurdles in building its driverless testing grounds in the city. “We have become the center of artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles,” the mayor said in a recent interview with The Atlantic.

In an era when federal dollars are harder to come by, especially at the state and local level, city leaders feel the pressure “to design, finance, and deliver multi-sector economic development initiatives that were once seen as the responsibility of higher levels of government.” With innovation districts, mayors have an extraordinary chance to create economic growth and opportunity for their cities.

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.