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The ‘Anchor Plus’ Innovation District & The Anchor Institution

Monday, 18 July 2016

R_150707_N102The 21st century has brought a big change to urban planning: the rise of the innovation district. Defined by The Brookings Institution as “geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators,” innovation districts have seized the minds of community leaders around the world, with districts already in Barcelona, Boston, Cambridge, London, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham, Seoul, and St. Louis, to name a few.

This multi-part blog series, by Luke Voiland AIA, will focus on The Brookings Institution‘s three models of innovation districts: the “anchor plus” model, the “re-imagined urban areas” model, and the “urbanized science park” model. Luke is a principal at Shepley Bulfinch and a leader in the planning and design of innovative learning environments.

The “anchor plus” model is an innovation district where large scale mixed-use development is centered around major “anchor institutions” and a rich base of related firms, entrepreneurs, and spin-off companies involved in the commercialization of innovation. As residents of the biggest college town in the United States, we are very familiar with this model.

Cambridge’s Kendall Square, the first recognized “anchor plus” innovation district, is a great example of this interaction through its relationship with MIT. Some believe that there are three key qualities that make an institution like MIT a legitimate anchor to the community. These institutions are generally embedded in a city, large in size and influence, and not for-profit. MIT meets these criteria — its centralized location in the Greater Boston area and its proximity to other leading research institutions make the Kendall Square District attractive to new and expanding companies alike.

But we believe this alone isn’t enough to create an anchor institution. These qualities give MIT the potential to be an anchor institution, but its focus on the local development of engineering and design, specifically in the life sciences and pharmaceutical industries, is the key driver for Kendall Square’s status as an effective incubator of innovation. Moreover, by deploying university-owned land to help grow these industries and allowing MIT affiliates to purchase intellectual property licensed to the university, MIT has created a development-friendly atmosphere in its backyard.

MIT also produces the creators and thinkers required to drive a hub of innovation. The Kendall Square District acts as a forum for these engineers and designers to share their ideas with their peers. MIT’s global and academic stature allows it to nurture this network of like-minded companies and people that then attract more innovative companies and people. In this way, the district fuels the economic development of both Kendall Square and Boston.

So the next question is: how do we, as designers, help make the next Kendall Square? We believe buildings that bring together an engineering focus, access to innovative design thinking, and business expertise will spur “Kendall-like” economic development. But do all innovation districts need these three elements, or can an anchor institution be born out of something else? As economic development efforts continue, what other elements can drive an innovation community?

- Luke Voiland

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