Innovation districts must leave no one behind locally

Globally, the digital economy has benefited some communities and individuals, while leaving others behind, to effectively widen the social divide and poverty lines. Universities and innovation hubs must take care to address local economic, social and cultural needs.

This was the key message emerging last Tuesday during the British Council’s Going Global 2017 conference discussion in London on whether innovation districts are a city panacea or an urban myth.

Centre for London Research Manager Kat Hanna says internationally a new urban model is emerging in cities that have higher education institutions at their hearts. Innovation districts are compact geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-up enterprises, business incubators and accelerators sharing ideas and open innovation.

According to the Washington-based research group Brookings Institution, innovation districts can spur productive, inclusive and sustainable economic development and grow employment while simultaneously addressing the rising poverty and social inequalities in cities.

“Their ability to achieve these, however, rests on leadership and for many innovation districts, the Triple Helix collaborative leadership model of industry, universities and government is proving to be a strong foundation,” Hanna says.

However, often sited on urban regeneration projects isolated from other commercial interaction, she says the challenge comes in attracting young professionals into the district and developing local skills. University of Newcastle, Australia, Vice-chancellor and President Professor Caroline McMillen says when the towns themselves have been developed around the university or an industry now in disruption, the challenge broadens to include retaining graduates within its borders.

In Newcastle’s case, it is particularly relevant when “the burning lights of Sydney” are only two hours away and mining as the economic anchor is diminishing.

King’s College London President and Principal Professor Ed Byrne cites several global examples where innovation centres have been established with links to the nearby university that have spawned significant entrepreneurship, job creation and research and development in high-tech arenas.

In China, there was the opportunity to bring 30 million people into a high-tech urban environment, while in India there are currently 300 students reading for doctorates attached to another university. Their tuition is wholly funded by Indian business as the basis on which to grow the next generation and the Indian economy.

However, Byrne adds, it is not only the experts who must matter when creating inclusive cities and innovation districts. Universities must assume responsibility for creating the situation where some people have benefited from the digital economy and others have been left even further behind in the fight against poverty and improved living standards.

“In the world of the future, production will be one thing, but quality of life another when more than 70% of the population will be living in cities,” he says.

The cost cannot be a social one

World Bank Senior Education Specialist Roberta Malee Bassett says governments, higher education institutions and business must recognise there are costs attached to development and innovation hubs. However, that cost cannot be a social one borne by the poor and those left behind in an increasingly expensive city in which to live and work.

In working in developing countries, she says, there are opportunities for lowering the cost of industry and thus boosting job creation and economic growth. However, typically, no one wants to work in innovation and start-up entities, aiming rather for “jobs for life” in government.

“These students do not attend university to work for themselves or create growth and employment, but to work within the safety of sheltered employment in government,” she says.

McMillen counters that in Australia, the role of universities in innovation hubs or districts cannot discount the surrounding communities and their cultural issues. The University of Newcastle has more than a quarter of its students from indigenous Australian communities, many without the requisite points to qualify for university entrance but who excel under the correct circumstances to graduate with doctorates.

Universities were obliged to create graduates with a social conscience where entrepreneurship emerges within the realm of their society’s needs and demands. They must also look at the realities within their communities, like Newcastle where 40% of the working population may be without employment in 30 years’ time as mining diminishes.

“Graduates are questioning their social enterprises; have the confidence to make changes to their societies and can build in a social conscience when working in business and the broader community. Part of the solution is creating a new culture within universities that can drive the capacity for social entrepreneurship within innovation,” she says.

Malee Bassett concludes that innovation hubs must reflect the social and cultural requirements. Establishing a multi-million-dollar centre blue-sky Silicon Valley experience among people eking out an existence to put food on the table will not change the poverty and economic struggle.

“Hence, innovation looks different depending on the country and may start with taking stock of the assets currently available before duplicating the investment with limited funding,” she says.