KPF Design Principal Elie Gamburg was invited to contribute to ‘Innovation Districts: Designing Inclusive Places’, a research report from New London Architecture.
Read Elie’s viewpoint below, and find out more about the NLA report here.
Innovation Districts: Variety and Inclusion
As ‘innovation districts’ proliferate, it is important to consider what makes them different from other neighbourhoods, or the science-research parks that were their antecedents. Not all innovation districts are the same, and not all deliver on the promise of catalysing new ways of thinking, working or collaborating. What is required from the built environment to encourage the gestation new ideas, support the economy and deliver a vibrant sense of place? That is, how do we drive innovation?
At KPF we have been asking these questions in projects around the world, from Boston’s Seaport (described as ‘a poster child for innovation-led economic revitalisation’), to Songdo City in South Korea (which helped the country pivot, post financial-crisis), and Vinegar Yard in London (which will be one of the first projects in the SC1 Life Science District). We would posit that the unique aspect of innovation districts is their ability to bring together creative people who would not meet otherwise, enabling them to work in close proximity and to meet socially. Referred to as a ‘triple helix’, innovation occurs where academia, industry and governance intersect. If everyone in an innovation district would have met anyway, it means the physical district has not contributed to the development of new ideas.
If ‘chance’ encounters can result in new projects, research, and collaboration, how can we design for them? Research in life-science and technology already happens at university campuses and across research parks. Successful neighbourhoods already bring people together. It is the harmonious combination of both that we as designers (as well as urbanists, developers and policy makers) can ‘choreograph’ to result in a successful district.
Our goal, as designers, ought to be the provision of specialist space for science, design, engineering, and making, alongside the creation of meaningful places, programmes, and events that bring a broad audience together, time and again.
Latent in this definition, is a focus on the ‘built fabric’, in terms of the kind of buildings we make, spaces we provide and places we create, and also the ‘human fabric’, namely the diversity of the community that is created and the events, spaces and activities provided.
In terms of the built fabric, innovation districts can supply the types of spaces that are currently hard to find in cities – often these need larger floor plates, higher ceilings, and more flexible plan arrangements than planning policies currently allow. Combined with these specialist spaces, we need a balance of programmes that make these neighbourhoods liveable and desirable: a variety of housing types, urban amenities, and a mix of open and cultural spaces. Critically, these programmes, whether housing, cultural or others, should be curated to attract the greatest possible diversity of people – from local residents to international experts, graduates to CEOs, and companies ranging in size and maturity from start-ups to industry leaders.
This approach sees diversity as an asset and it is the key differentiator that will enable an innovation district to enable new ways of thinking. In London, and elsewhere, the potential for these districts to leverage existing neighbourhoods and their populations, and to attract new and increasingly diverse constituencies, will be key to their success. Rather than designing for the few, the ability to accommodate a variety of uses and users, to create rich experiences and to connect people will be the measure of these districts’ success.