"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.
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.
Can there be an atmosphere of "innovation" without a university presence in the neighborhood?