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Cities as a Lab: Designing the Innovation Economy

American cities, powered by design, are the idea engines of the domestic economy

By Brooks Rainwater, Director of AIA Public Policy

Cities can thrive in the 21st century by building transformational places that incubate creativity and adapt to future challenges and opportunities. The fabric of the city, with its people, buildings, commerce, and transportation networks, promotes relationship formation, business creation, and game-changing ideas. Innovative design is helping to strengthen urban economies and spur invention in cities across America. The AIA report “Cities as a Lab: Designing the Innovation Economy” describes how design can foster innovative approaches to American cities’ changing needs. As political and economic power increasingly finds its greatest expression through municipal governments, cities have become laboratories for innovation and change.

Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that will continue to increase rapidly—up to 70 percent by 2050. Cities and their wider metropolitan regions are increasingly asserting themselves as fundamental units of the global economy. The U.S. Conference of Mayors reports that U.S. metro regions alone comprise over one-third of the world’s 100 largest economies.

By designing both spaces and policy frameworks that cultivate dense business networks, cities can tap into the sustainable prosperity the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley have described in their book The Metropolitan Revolution. David Brooks of The New York Times also writes about the economic benefits of urban areas. For example, a 20 to 30 percent increase in patents occurs when employment density is doubled, according to the Philadelphia Federal Reserve. When companies move more than a mile apart, research by Syracuse University and the University of Toronto shows that intellectual spillovers that often advance innovation fall off precipitously. Add to this the partisan gridlock that has made new investments in urban infrastructure and economic development few and far between at the federal level and municipal governments are perhaps the most level, most willing, and most able component of civic leadership to further these trends.

“Cities as a Lab” covers myriad ways that the power of design is influencing the direction of cities with case studies from coast to coast:

    Boston’s Innovation District: Pioneering designers reshaped derelict wharves into a multidisciplinary hub for innovation and manufacturing, attracting 200 companies and 4,000 jobs to date. One example of the new innovation infrastructure is District Hall, on which the city of Boston collaborated with architects at Hacin + Associates, Boston Global Investors, and the Cambridge Innovation Center to envision the strategy and design. This 12,000-square-foot, 10-year experimental community hub will support events, exhibitions, and meetings that have no niche elsewhere in the innovation market.

    Research Triangle Park, North Carolina: Research parks are experimenting with site plans that create opportunities through proximity and knowledge exchange. A new 50-year master plan was unveiled last year by architects Cooper, Robertson & Partners that focused on how large corporate campuses must be reinvented as spaces more conducive to the smaller firms that now drive innovation.

    Downtown Project, Las Vegas: The Downtown Project is increasing density to at least 100 residents per acre, in contrast to the city’s current typical densities of between 10 and 25 people per acre. The project’s developers envision accomplishing this by building environments that promote collaboration while cultivating a complementary mix of small companies, restaurants, bars, and cultural amenities that can attract and create other projects.

    5M Project, San Francisco: A budding planned community of over 1,000 art and technology firms is inverting the development process to reinvent underused office spaces. Gensler’s recently unveiled plan takes the community skyward, with eight low-, mid-, and high-rise buildings comprising 1.85 million square feet of office, residential, retail, cultural, and public space.

    The Plant, Chicago: A vertical farm that feeds off city waste, growing produce and small food businesses was built in an abandoned meatpacking plant. SHED Studio architects worked with the development team to build on the building’s existing strengths: substantial thermal mass, reusable equipment such as walk-in refrigerators, and robust sanitation facilities.

“Cities as a Lab” shows how innovative design is strengthening the economy and spurring invention in cities across America. From district-scale solutions that build the relationship infrastructure to co-location that creates eco-systems for relationships to germinate, design is transforming places and fostering connections in imaginative new ways. City streets are being reimagined, temporary architecture is revitalizing dormant urban places, and parklets are creating new public gathering spaces. People are learning from one another in exciting new spaces, from robotic libraries to “makerspaces” that spark invention. Walls are being torn down as offices and houses are reconfigured to meet future needs and realities. Ideas and energy are flowing because cities are the places to be, and great design serves as the critical linchpin.


Meeting at the intersection of design, the arts, and technology, the nascent “maker movement” is helping revive light manufacturing. With the creation in 2006 of the first TechShop in Menlo Park, Calif., Jim Newton, former adviser to the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, has grown this prototyping and fabrication studio business into six markets with over 3,300 members. What’s more, the urban creatives who have migrated from the garage of old to this futuristic factory floor are building, molding, and creating everything from artisanal cake toppers to designer iPhone and laptop cases. New businesses have sprouted as a result. Big business has noticed, with companies like Ford sponsoring a TechShop to augment its own prototyping.

San Francisco’s TechShop may also point the way toward the future as part of the innovative 5M development—an ecosystem of relationships that allows art and tech people to meet and work together in its co-working spaces. This type of co-location of people, services, and space fulfills the needs of a creativity-based knowledge economy. 5M, in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, reuses and expands the San Francisco Chronicle building, presenting it as an emblem of the American spirit of reinvention instead of a sad, empty monument to a shrinking newspaper. Gensler is working to fully design this space for future needs that allow people to meaningfully interact with others they might otherwise never meet: techies meeting artists, craft artisans meeting advanced robotics engineers, investors meeting always-needy nonprofits. This type of bump-and-spark interaction can be created through innovative design solutions that reimagine existing buildings for uses that could have never been envisioned in the past.

Transformation and design

Whether transforming old spaces into new ideas or reacting to changing environments as they happen, design serves as a critical linchpin that allows cities to prosperously evolve. The ability to overlay quantifiable data-measurement systems into the built environment is changing everyone’s relationships with physical space, and allowing people to see things that would have previously been unimaginable. In all of this, good design is not an afterthought; it is instead the glue that creates great places. The cities that seize this moment have a unique opportunity to shape the future.


NCSU Centennial Campus in North Carolina. Image courtesy of North Carolina State University.

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Image courtesy of Paste in Place.

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Image courtesy of Paste in Place.

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Visit the AIA Regional and Urban Design Knowledge Community Website on AIA KnowledgeNet


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