Barcelona, Spain. Boston, Massachusetts. Auckland, New Zealand? The creation of innovation districts is an urban planning trend that has emerged in cities across the globe - and many are asking if Auckland's North Shore could be next. The notion has been bubbling away for some time but there's currently a groundswell of activity to really get the idea off the ground.
Massey University, industry leaders and Auckland Council have partnered to undertake a research project dubbed Grow North. This project aims to identify the obstacles and opportunities in developing an innovation district in Auckland's north.
What might this look like? At this stage, this is an open question, but after interviewing a broad range of interested stakeholders, several key features have been identified. The first is the recognition that an innovation ecosystem already exists, both virtually and physically. There are hotspots of collaboration and co-working peppered throughout the area north of the Harbour Bridge - and these must be fostered rather than shut out of a newly-established ecosystem.
The vision that is emerging is not of a single location, but of a series of closely connected sites. Albany, Takapuna and Orewa are the most commonly suggested centres, given the activity already taking place in these places. Each will develop its own culture and focus - whether it's tech geeks or social innovators - but all three would need to collaborate to create a single regional identity.
There must be an identifiable and meaningful brand that people can coalesce around. The district needs a heart and good transport connections are a must, between the three locations but also linking Auckland's north with the central city and Northland. A free light-rail link seems the most obvious answer so many locations are strongly networked together.
Another crucial factor is ensuring the local community is included in the vision. Those who might not automatically consider themselves part of the "innovation ecosystem" must still feel welcome. A public innovation centre must be part of any development: a place to hold workshops and lectures, where school groups can visit and art installations can be displayed.
These areas need to incorporate mixed development sites so they can become hip, vibrant and diverse. They need robust infrastructure, from high-speed broadband to public and commercial spaces for co-working and shared services. Buildings must contain a mix of shops, restaurants, offices and residential apartments to provide spaces where people live, work and hang out.
We often hear that regions want to become the "next Silicon Valley" but that is impossible. The growth of industries, occupational trends and the values that support them are created by history and culture, shaped from the identity and geography of the place itself. We must not forget, too, that Silicon Valley is not enviable in all ways. It struggles with a growing wage gap and the glass ceiling for women and ethnic minorities, not to mention overwork, the stress of competition and traffic congestion.
While cities often see innovation districts as a model to stimulate economic growth, as a concept innovation is not limited to the realm of for-profit business development. An innovation district has the ability to address issues of social justice and inequality, education and working "smarter". It should help to identify and solve problems, including the "wicked" and intractable problems of our times.
The most successful innovation districts are a mash-up of diverse sectors, where organisations are open with their communication and collaboration. Our diversity is also our best source of innovation. We already have the advantage of this country's biculturalism and, increasingly, multiculturalism and multilingualism. Immigration, particularly of highly skilled and educated migrants, often leads to increased innovation and patents.
Universities also have an important role and the North Shore has several campuses that can contribute by developing and attracting talent. We teach creative and critical thinking, the history of ideas and collaborative work. But education in an innovation ecosystem will focus these modes of thinking on problem-solving and disruption of the status quo, bolstered by new courses in coding, project management and innovative leadership.
Supporting this will be innovative lab space on college and university campuses that draw together public, industry and government interests to work across disciplines. I see on-campus student hatcheries that link to business incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces in the community.
Auckland's north already has many prerequisites for an innovation district, including universities, incubators like the ecentre and supportive local government. It seems to me the right mindset and culture also exists and the region is beginning to embrace its own, distinct identity.
This is a 10-year plan, but one that is within reach with the right support. With the necessary infrastructure and a meaningful brand, the region should have no trouble becoming a magnet for talent and innovation. The economic and social benefits flow from there, including new ventures, additional jobs, wage increases, and better living spaces and quality of life.