In the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the once struggling manufacturing town of Chattanooga, Tenn. is quietly orchestrating an economic success story. Claiming the fastest and least expensive broadband speeds in the western hemisphere, “gig city” has successfully attracted capital, talent and industry, actively positioning itself as a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship.
Not only is Chattanooga leading with the creation of its superfast broadband, but it is charging ahead with the development of an innovation district downtown.
More and more we are seeing cities create innovation districts — which cluster talent, startups, established firms, nonprofits, cultural assets, and more in places that incubate creativity and serve as labs for far-reaching concepts and policies —
to harness new ideas and technologies. The closed innovation environment of yesterday, where businesses cloistered amongst themselves in suburban office parks, has given way to open environments in cities where ideas can move freely.
Innovation districts have been shown to usher in new eras of prosperity in some of the world’s largest cities — from Boston to Barcelona and beyond — but do they have the same effect on smaller metropolises? This question was confronted head-on when Chattanooga, a city of just under 200,000, announced its plans to become the first mid-sized American city to establish an innovation district.
Everywhere can’t be Boston or the Bay Area, but they shouldn’t try to be. Cities must build up from the ground up to capture what makes them unique.
Key lessons arose in the Chattanooga experience that are critical for other cities seeking to grow their innovation footprint:
As the creation of thriving innovation districts has essentially been a large-city phenomenon, a mid-sized city like Chattanooga faced certain challenges. One critical way in which the city met those challenges was by working across the business, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors. The city used its natural environment, critical assets, and technological advantages — primarily the
Gig gigabit internet program, the critical asset that has helped draw in technology firms and other creative professionals.
Dream big, but be realistic
Any city can dream about becoming a magnet for innovation, but those dreams must be couched in the reality of what the city has to offer. Chattanooga, and many other cities, know they must stem the brain drain of talented young people to other cities. And to do that, the city had to highlight its’ critical assets, whether it’s the local university; the far-reaching municipally-owned utility; or the existing companies that want to expand locally. The innovation district, in a sense, created a focusing point to leverage those assets and create opportunities, from work to retail to cultural touchpoints that serve to retain highly-educated millennial graduates.
Use “anchors” as catalysts
Innovation districts need “anchors” — universities, existing industries, cultural attractions — and Chattanooga’s district, like many others, has a number of traditional anchors. From an economic development standpoint, the foresight of developing the Gig created a broadband backbone for the city that made it the envy of others nationally and globally. This affordable infrastructure brought in businesses and convinced others to stay and grow their companies. Not only has this brought attention and investment, but it has helped Chattanooga establish itself as a regional technology hub, punching above much larger cities in the southeast.
Getting the people equation right
Quality-of-life issues are incredibly important as cities build their innovation districts. Early on, Chattanooga had a strong focus on getting the people equation right and making sure that cultural assets such as coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and other critical meeting spots were provided. But one of the biggest things to overcome was a cultural perception that downtown was for people in suit, not t-shirts — an environment that thrived from nine to five and then closed down. The strong partnerships forged among city leaders, the private sector, nonprofits, the university, and foundations proved crucial to moving the innovation district forward.
Define the innovation district
Finally, it is critical to get the real estate and land use decisions right. In Chattanooga’s case, city leaders placed an emphasis on the centrality of the innovation district downtown. They wanted walkability to be a primary component, and as any good urbanist knows, a circle with a quarter-mile radius provides the ultimate focus for that. Keeping the district dense and well-defined sends clear market based signals for growth and success. Additionally, if zoning changes are needed — particularly to support mixed use development — cities should keep these in mind and plan accordingly.
In short, clearly articulating the definition of the space allows the city to create a thriving place.
Time will tell whether the innovation district will successfully take Chattanooga’s downtown to new levels of prosperity and spread momentum into the surrounding city and region.
But a little over a year after its launch, the signs are positive.
Innovation districts help bridge gaps and build partnerships across sectors, creating larger ecosystems that foster heightened creativity and technological breakthroughs and thereby further transforming cities into “innovation labs.” The interactions that take place in these talent-focused areas attract funding and investment and, in turn, help drive the vitality of the city. By amplifying what is great about cities and concentrating key assets, innovation districts drive economic growth and bring people together to germinate ideas and create the next big thing.
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