Skip to Content

Beyond the branding: Designing a 21st-century Innovation District

“Innovation district” is an oxymoron. Today many innovators could be anywhere as long as they have a laptop and a place to get a good cup of coffee. But creativity does have a spatial component, which is why Boston; Barcelona, Spain; Portland, Oregon; and a host of other cities have pinned their hopes for urban renewal on areas branded as Innovation Districts.


SEAPORT SQUARE

Click image above to view slideshow.


Both academic studies and common sense suggest that dynamic clusters of people working together are the source of most social and technological breakthroughs. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is trying hard to put this insight to work as new development on 800 acres of South Boston waterfront takes shape. He sees its tightly packed old warehouses on Fort Point Channel, a few newly built office and residential buildings, ongoing maritime industries and vast expanses of underused land as the place to be for the creative class.

But can an innovative spirit be built into a brand-new 6.5 million-square-foot speculative real estate deal proposed by the developers of Seaport Square and supporters in Boston City Hall? The corporate-size floor plates, distance from academic institutions and congested inner-city location don’t conform to successful Innovation District precedents. There is the potential for a clash of cultures—invention requires breaking down boundaries; renting property and collecting taxes is about erecting them.Historically, most centers of innovation have emerged organically in compact areas where complex webs of relationships grow over time. Fort Point Channel’s warren of brick-and-beam lofts, like parts of Brooklyn and San Francisco’s Mission District, have provided exactly the kind of small-scale, low-rent urban environment where innovators in hooded sweatshirts thrive. Rising rents have, unfortunately, been pushing these start-ups and artists out.

Across the river in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, MIT and new companies surrounding it offer a place for innovators in lab coats as they collaborate with compatriots in Palo Alto, California; Austin, Texas; and beyond. The well-furnished laboratories filled with PhDs and Nobel laureates create an environment where the next generation is mentored, and research can spin off profitable ventures down the street.

“Most successful centers of innovation have grown out of mission-driven institutions, like research universities, that create a kind of knowledge ecosystem in which new ideas and enterprises can take root,” says Janne Corneil, a principal at Sasaki Associates who has studied the relationship of institutions to their host cities. “They tend to have permeable boundaries that connect the public and private realms, link research to economic development and encourage collaboration between passionate people with diverse interests. Design needs to support these kinds of interactions.”

The Boston Redevelopment Authority worked with Seaport Square’s developers to get them to live up to the branding without an institution to jump-start the inspiration and Fort Point Channel’s hipster factor increasingly a thing of the past. Project permits require the inclusion of “innovation uses,” along with an “Innovation Center” cool-kid clubhouse, subsidized housing and space for start-ups, and ground-floor hangouts for cold beers and warm handshakes as part of the development deal. But the big, boxy buildings and formal streets and greens in preliminary drawings are the usual clichés of could-be-anywhere urbanism. The permeable, interconnected environments that might challenge orthodoxies and provide an architectural context for innovation don’t appear to be anywhere in sight. Subsidies for start-ups are terrific—but that brilliant kid in a T-shirt may prefer paying rent with friends in SoHo than accepting noblesse oblige in a corner of Boston with Dilbert.

The city may be better off mandating the kind of habitat in which an ecosystem of innovation can flourish—rather than the kinds of uses it thinks should inhabit them. Layered spaces, a multiplicity of entries and articulated volumes interwoven with delightful landscapes would embody an ethos of invention while allowing flexible rental space to adapt to market realities. Eight-hundred acres can accommodate some big, blocky buildings for the makers of blockbuster drugs but shouldn’t crowd out the small-scale spaces that will provide the habitat for the next generation.

While municipal officials focus on development within their borders, creative thinking—and financing— takes place across a much broader context. “Every city has its own unique set of strengths and weaknesses,” says development consultant Wig Zamore, who has worked on some of Boston’s biggest deals. “Historically, development efforts haven’t been coordinated, but working together, cities could develop policies that might benefit the entire region. Cambridge is filled with brilliant innovators who create revolutionary companies, but it has limited space for growth. Boston’s Innovation District can help relieve the pressure as companies become evolutionary and need more room and proximity to the airport.”

Cooperation would help keep businesses in the region as changing needs change the flavor of the neighborhood that works for them—without resorting to rebates and subsidies to get them to move from the city next door. The marketing efforts and money could focus on bringing in a mission-driven institution or satellite college that will help the area keep its edge.

Companies will come and go, and the uses in most buildings will change as innovation is redefined. Architecture and urban infrastructure endure. The creation of diverse types of interconnected spaces designed to inspire the imagination will create a district that supports innovation no matter what form it takes.


David Eisen AIA is a principal at Abacus Architects + Planners in Boston. He is the author of Boston Modern: The Spirit of Reinvention and writes frequently on design issues for a variety of publications. He received his architecture degree at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

 

Top image: Seaport Square will occupy the heart of the South Boston Waterfront’s Innovation District adjacent to the old warehouses along Fort Point Channel. Preliminary design shows building massing and the distribution of open space. Courtesy of Boston Global Investors.