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Brookings veep: Boston’s Innovation District symbolic of broader trend

Gleaming new buildings, like the one at Fan Pier that houses MassChallenge, are examples of what’s possible when cities invest in creating innovation districts.
Gleaming new buildings, like the one at Fan Pier that houses MassChallenge, are examples of what’s possible when cities invest in creating innovation districts.

What’s going on in Boston’s Innovation District is special.

Special, but not unique.

In just a few years, a run-down part of the city has become a destination for exciting new companies. That sort of turnaround doesn’t happen easily, and it certainly doesn’t happen everywhere.

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But other cities are enjoying similar urban revivals by creating innovation districts of their own. This broader trend was the subject of Thursday night’s keynote address by Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, during the Innovation and the City conference at Boston’s District Hall.

Katz argued that the recent recession highlighted weaknesses of traditional business models and underscored the need for innovative companies in technology and life sciences to drive a new economy. In theory, he said, leaders in Washington should recognize this and set national policy accordingly.

“Minor problem: We don’t have a national government,” Katz cracked, taking a jab at congressional dysfunction.

The way he sees it, the responsibility to innovate has fallen on state and municipal governments, and the private sector. And in several places — including Boston — public and private leaders are rising to the challenge.

Atlanta, Philadelphia, Seattle, Brooklyn and even Detroit made Katz’s list of promising innovation hubs. The last three, like Boston, have targeted neglected areas along waterfronts for redevelopment.

And though we don’t call Kendall Square an innovation district, it is a top-notch example, he added.

One thing all these places have in common is a blend of anchor institutions (think MassChallenge and Vertex Pharmaceticals on the South Boston waterfront) and ambitious startups. They also require some basic building blocks: World-class universities help, and so does a good public transit system. Complain about the T if you want, but the Red Line really has become a beltway of innovation.

Katz’s advice to other cities is to learn from these examples but to be realistic about their local assets. It’s hard, after all, to match what we’ve got here.

“You want a frank and objective audit of what’s your starting point,” Katz said. “Don’t be fanciful. ‘Oh, we’re going to build an innovation district like the one in Kendall Square.’ What, are you high?”

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