There are various schools of thought regarding the origins of life on planet earth. One of the most prevalent ones is that life originated in a “primordial soup” of organic molecules, and eventually evolved out of the oceans. Even if we don’t agree with this “soup theory”, what we can all agree upon is that life originated when the surrounding ecosystem was conductive.
This same logic can be applied to innovation as well. By providing the right ecosystem or environment, innovation can thrive. One such ecosystem is an Innovation District.
Amsterdam & Innovation districts
The Brooking Institution defines innovation district as “geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators. They are also physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired and offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail.”
Every year, more and more entrepreneurs and tech innovators seem to recognise the potential of Amsterdam as a hub for innovation. The city even won the European Capital of Innovation Award, in 2016, organised by the European Commission.
Much of the innovative streak of Amsterdam can be attributed to its innovation districts that have helped the city build its tech innovation and startup ecosystem, grow, attract and retain talent, evolve its economy from being industry-centric to technology-driven, as well as stay resilient in the face of crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic.
Set up by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS), Campus Amsterdam is a sustainable regional network of innovation areas and campuses. It is an open knowledge network that connects all innovation districts, campuses, labs and hubs in the Amsterdam knowledge region. Amsterdam is a treasure trove of innovation areas. 37 of these areas are connected to Campus Amsterdam, from the Marineterrein in the city centre to Innovation District Zuidas and from Prodock in the harbour to the Riekerpolder.
Last month, the City of Amsterdam announced a significant investment in the Campus Amsterdam project. As per the announcement, in the coming two years, the City of Amsterdam will invest €180,000 in this network to explore where even more connections and synergies are possible.
In order to better understand the significance of innovation districts and their impact on the city of Amsterdam, we caught up with Em. Prof. Dr. Jacques van Dinteren, President, Innovation Area Development Partnership (IADP). He is also the owner of Zjak Consult, a spatial-economic consultancy firm.
Dr. Dinteren specialises in spatial economic developments and planning. He analyses and advises on different types of work locations and multifunctional areas, and carry out market research for the (re)development of cities and parts thereof. He also focuses on specific themes such as regional economic development strategies and the spatial consequences of new ways of working.
In recent years, he has been focused on so-called innovation areas: science parks, innovation districts and industrial innovation areas. Together with Paul Jansen, he is the Founding Partner of IADP: the Innovation Area Development Partnership. In this partnership, consultancies and management of innovation areas work together. IADP is a member of IASP, the International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation.
Here are the edited excerpts:
SC: How have Innovation Districts helped in building the tech innovation and startup ecosystem of Amsterdam?
Dr. Dinteren: The city (and its region) is one of the most important innovation hotspots in the Netherlands in terms of start-ups, scale-ups, companies, R&D investments and so on. To support this – to my mind as an outsider – Amsterdam’s policy focuses more on the more functional aspects than on the physical ones. Think of the city’s Knowledge and Innovation Action Programme. When it comes to creating physical conditions, the Science Park Amsterdam plays an essential role, of course, but when it comes to Innovation Districts – which you specifically ask about – the developments are in the early stages.
Cumulus Park just got off (although the level of ambition seems to have been adjusted recently due to co-initiators having to change their priorities because of Covid-19). In addition, there is the Kenniskwartier (Knowledge Quarter) of the Vrije Universiteit and the Zuidas area in general could also develop into an innovation district. These areas are potential innovation districts that seem to focus more on the gamma than the beta sciences.
It also has to be said that, more generally, innovation districts in Europe are still developing. The United States is more advanced in this respect. This may be related to the space available in those cities, where the inner-city areas were often impoverished and offered plenty of room for new developments (the donut cities).
SC: How have the Innovation Districts of Amsterdam helped in growing, attracting and retaining talent in the city?
Given the stage of development of innovation districts in Amsterdam, little can be said about this. What is certain is that the municipality of Amsterdam has made attracting and retaining talent an important spearhead in its policy. As Innovation Area Development Partnership (IADP; iadp.co), we do have the impression that there is a clear connection because the very concept of innovation districts seems to appeal to the younger highly educated worker, given the distinctive characteristics of innovation districts.
SC: What are the key ingredients required for building a successful innovation district?
Dr. Dinteren: The innovation district is a relatively new concept. It might be a competitor, especially for science parks, as the innovation district often seems to be a better answer to changing demand by the management of innovative companies and knowledge workers, especially the young ones, in this fourth industrial evolution.
On the basis of research and interviews carried out by the Innovation Area Development Partnership (IADP; iadp.co), the following distinctive features can be identified.
One of the characteristics of innovation districts often is its centrality to active urban environments. As the economy becomes more specialised and knowledge-intensive, companies increasingly appreciate the way city centres achieve a high degree of face-to-face contact and informal meetings. The prediction that thanks to new communication technologies “distance is dead”, has not come true.
The innovation district is also characterised by an ‘open’ structure. There are no sharp borders and if borders are defined it is just for reasons of coordination. The Knowledge Quarter in London, for example, describes its territory as an area within a one-mile radius of King’s Cross railway station.
Moreover, these central locations give access to a broad pool of skilled and creative employees, who themselves appreciate the liveliness of inner cities, especially when it comes to shopping and leisure offers, cultural facilities and places to meet with others. Centrally located innovation districts can be reached easily by different modes of transport. But it is not necessary to travel or commute, as the district and its immediate surroundings offer a great variety of housing opportunities. This mix of functions makes the district dynamic and attractive for especially young knowledge workers. They seek a vibrant, small community with a mix of living, working and recreation.
The innovation district might have a mix of target groups. There are no statistics available that can prove this, but looking at the plans for innovation districts one gets the impression that creating a strong focus has no high priority. Research revealed that innovation districts in the United Kingdom are seeking to build strengths and develop linkages across a range of different sectors, recognising the benefits of inter-action between them. They have all succeeded in amplifying cross-sectoral activity. In this study is demonstrated that management organisations coordinate linkages between different industrial, educational and research activities.
There are as yet no hard research outcomes that make it clear that the success of an innovation district is dependent upon a university. The research that I have carried out suggests, in short, that the establishment of a university or annexe can help the development of an innovation district by creating trust and contributing to a positive image of the development. It is also interesting to note that universities themselves believe in the concept. Innovation districts can try to attract a university, but we have seen that there is also another model in which the university wants to develop an innovation district on its premises or adjacent to it.
In many plans for innovation districts, it is also assumed that such a development will have a positive impact on its neighbourhood and the surrounding neighbourhoods (in terms of inclusive growth). It is often stated that these neighbouring quarters are characterised by low incomes, lower education, et cetera.
It is imaginable that the development of an innovation district can create new jobs, but it is questionable that this will be limited to the surrounding neighbourhoods. It is also questionable that the creation of an innovation district will have an impact on the education level of the people in its direct environment by offering courses and having libraries open to these people.
Negative effects are also conceivable as the establishment of an innovation district can lead to pressure on the housing market, hence higher prices and the displacement of low-price rented housing.
SC: Are there any differences between innovation districts that are market-led and have grown spontaneously between the ones that are the brainchild of the city? How does one stack over the other?
Dr. Dinteren: From an innovation point of view networks, offer of services, availability of space, information – among others – are important and make it necessary to have an organisation that takes care of the creation of such a specific work environment and business climate. In the case of an innovation district, this will be an organisation of companies and institutions established in the area, maybe with (some) involvement of the municipality or other relevant parties (Chamber of Commerce, for example).
Because these areas are characterised by public spaces and a huge mix of property owners, public and private parties will have to work closely together to make the development a success.
SC: Since the development of Innovation Districts in Amsterdam are still in the early stages, what would be your advice to the city of Amsterdam on how to better develop these innovation districts and to ensure maximum impact?
Dr. Dinteren: First of all, the municipality will have to want to opt for innovation districts. Given the boost that such a district can give to the local economy, it seems to me that it is worthwhile for the municipality to invest in it, or at least to investigate the added value for the city. I can also imagine that the municipality believes that in large parts of the city the innovative activity is already so strong and present that creating innovation districts is not necessary. Nevertheless, it may be an interesting strategy to want to help develop these districts. It certainly has an image effect and, more importantly, can attract and retain young talent (which is also the municipality’s policy). Such a development can also contribute to more multifunctional neighbourhoods and liveliness.
If these special districts were to be chosen, I would first look at where there are already spatial concentrations of innovative companies. However, a neighbourhood with cheap buildings (preferably with an industrial look) may have a certain appeal and be the basis for a development that is primarily based on looks and low rents. Developing an innovation district from scratch is nevertheless no easy task. If it is clear where there is potential in the city, then it would be necessary to examine the extent to which the aforementioned success factors are already present in the area in question, or can be quickly developed. Given the nature of innovation districts, as IADP we have learned that successful innovation districts can only get off the ground in strong public-private cooperation.