Urban Innovation: Building 24/7 Innovation Districts

A new era for higher ed

In an increasingly digital world – one in which many students and researchers are asking “why should I leave my house?” and “why should I go into debt?” – universities must consider what their physical environments and cultures offer that would compel students to return.

Flinders University Plaza Redevelopment and Student Hub, Adelaide, Australia

ACU St Brigid Health Sciences Building, Ballarat, Australia

We know that collaboration is key but, in an era that allows us to do that effectively in the digital realm, what do we physically need from universities and research institutes? The answer is simple – the facilitation of meaningful networks that foster a sense of belonging and a greater purpose. We need spaces that safely and organically link individuals, disciplines, and organizations with training, research, and enterprise. We need spaces that incubate talent, foster experimentation, and connect students to the types of cross-disciplinary experiences that will prepare them for
future employment.

In short, we need a new educational prototype that prepares students for a highly networked future where innovation can emerge from districts that foster a new collaborative ecosystem of partnerships comprising stakeholders from the private sector, public sector, and academia.

Designing for the next gen of innovators

Ten years ago, a survey by Gallup found 77 percent of students in grades 5 through 12 said they wanted to be their own boss, 45 percent planned to start their own business, and 42 percent said they would invent something that changes the world. Today, many of those students are reaching university age – demanding a campus that helps them fulfil their entrepreneurial aspirations by providing them with essential resources and like-minds to collaborate with.

Despite this, some traditional education spaces still largely support the myth of the lone genius

– featuring discipline-based floors and buildings that deliberately keep occupants in separate, subject-based fortresses. Over-subscribed to the idea of the solitary scientist experimenting away amongst her test tubes, or the brilliant academic doggedly scribbling away in his outlandishly low-lit cubicle, these often inconveniently located spaces are a recipe for isolation.

Designers, planners, and architects must create ways for students and researchers to influence each other

Now more than ever, learning spaces need to be purpose-built for innovation. Designers, planners, and architects must create ways for students and researchers to influence each other, to incubate shared and diverse talents, and to associate with a plethora of disciplines and expertise. Universities of the future must develop into generative places where ideas can be tested, implemented, disassembled, and recreated – ultimately connecting with industry, governments, and communities.

Deakin University Law Building, Melbourne, Australia

Deakin University Law Building, Melbourne, Australia

Co-location is central:

Connecting people, purpose, and place

Melbourne Connect, a former hospital that Woods Bagot has redesigned as a series of three new connecting buildings, is a space that aims to encourage this kind of connection. Developed by the University of Melbourne in partnership with a consortium led by Lendlease, the project is focused around a central ‘oculus’ and publicly accessible open space – creating ample opportunity for university staff and students to connect with researchers, local and international businesses, government and start- up companies.

Melbourne Connect works to push learning forward by co-locating with industry.

As a result, students are given access to leading expertise in fields like artificial intelligence, data science and robotics and – in turn – these businesses can access future talent, with both gaining elevated employment opportunities.

Melbourne Connect, Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne Connect, Melbourne, Australia

Modular flexibility that adapts to change

Innovation districts also need to be able to respond to the evolving physical needs and capacities of their users over time. Woods Bagot’s ongoing work in South Australia redeveloping Mitsubishi’s former car manufacturing plant in Tonsley Park to create the Tonsley Innovation District has been an exercise in this kind of planned evolution. Starting with the project’s 61-hectare masterplan in 2011 and followed by the creation of the Main Assembly Building (MAB) and Pods with modular building specialists Tridente Architects in 2017, Woods Bagot continues to work closely with Tonsley’s community of researchers and educators to ensure the design meets their changing needs.

Tonsley Park Redevelopment, Adelaide, Australia

Eight thousand students attend Tonsley each year with TAFE SA’s Building and Construction trade training and Flinders University’s College of Science and Engineering both located on site. Deliberately positioned towards the centre of the district among the aforementioned start-up and industry tenancies, students from both the TAFE and university are given structured and unstructured opportunities to innovate with their neighbours – attending training and presentations, undertaking research or sharing equipment. Shared amenities and floorspace – breakout, food and beverage, meeting and presentation spaces – double down on creating opportunities for spontaneous conversation.

Tonsley Park Redevelopment, Adelaide, Australia

Tonsley’s flexibility means that start-ups like Micro-X – an award winning ASX listed x-ray technology company – do not outgrow their spaces. Since its establishment in 2015, Micro-X has expanded multiple times within Tonsley’s MAB, growing to span over 2,000m2 thanks to the designs’ adaptable Pods. This highly functional approach keeps innovation within the district – start-ups located at the centre of the site are able to expand without impacting the larger businesses closer to the districts’ border.

Tonsley Park Redevelopment, Adelaide, Australia

Innovation districts are an investment in the future of our cities.

Both Tonsley and Melbourne Connect are examples of how innovation districts provide a unique model for how aging assets can be restored and revitalized to bridge together mixed-use housing, office, retail, transit, and a robust technology infrastructure to contribute towards placemaking and improve communities. The introduction of these kinds of spaces – in both the CBD setting of Melbourne Connect and city-adjacent Tonsley – enhance the quality of life of the residents of the neighbourhoods they’re located with increased amenity, resources, revenue and employment opportunities.

Melbourne Connect, Melbourne, Australia

By including a mix of workplaces for entrepreneurs, learning spaces for universities, retail and public services for workers and residents alike, the 24-hour district creates networks of opportunity across the board: entrepreneurs are connected to mature businesses, universities and investment; children receive safe care while their parents further their education; emerging innovations can be tangibly piloted in the fabrication workshop; students can have direct access to potential future employers, and there is access to mixed use housing, robust technology infrastructure and public transit for all.
As part of the consortium, Woods Bagot worked with the University of Melbourne’s facility management model to create attractive and accessible spaces that would appeal to start-ups and industry. The teams’ careful masterplanning enables academia, industry, government and adjacent communities, such as start-ups, incubators, accelerators, makerspaces, to physically cluster in proximity to improve networking opportunities and facilitate the exchange of ideas. Meticulous planning, workshopping and collaboration with the university from the outset has yielded a better design outcome.

Fostering the collective hive, physically and digitally

To be successful, future innovation districts must work on three levels: digital, programmatic and as a stage.

The digital level would enable the creation of networks beyond those that physically occupy the space by connecting like-minded individuals. This level would connect with the off-site start-ups and accelerators as well as being a portal for live recordings, chats, virtual galleries, wiki and more. The digital learning experience is not in competition with the physical – it has simply been elevated to equal importance.

Macquarie University Spatial Experience (MUSE), Sydney, Australia

Macquarie University Spatial Experience (MUSE), Sydney, Australia

The programmatic level choreographs the space with a strong consideration for how users might use and travel through the district and creates relationships between relevant offerings. This level understands the role of the building as teacher and ensures that research and learning are visible, product designers can find the prototyping lab, students can find a quiet space to study and beyond. Even the ease of getting a coffee on the way to class is up to careful planning. The needs of future users carefully inform every programmatic dimension.

The stage – or the physical infrastructure – must be able to bring all the required people and activities into formation and provide a platform for their diverse requirements. This level executes the programmatic level in a physical space and provides the brick-and-mortar framework for a seamless flow of movement. The stage is planned to be flexible, adjustable and empathetic – responsive to the needs of its users.

Creating hyper-local cultural and economic incubators

The role of each level also includes the task of integrating with the wider community. The digital level would create connections with local business, the programmatic should choreograph relevant links internally and externally, and the stage should create public spaces for the wider community.

Future innovation districts should reflect their adjacent neighbourhoods by speaking to the cultural connection and history of the places they inhabit – thereby inclusively representing the wider community.

Revitalizing neighborhoods & repurposing industrial assets

Innovation districts also present an opportunity for the public sector to invest in revitalizing abandoned industrial assets to create thriving place-based innovation ecosystems.

Nan Tien Education and Cultural Centre, Wollongong, Australia

Nan Tien Education and Cultural Centre, Wollongong, Australia

Decades of research have demonstrated the value of investing in multi-sector businesses that are geographically co-located, and – by connecting education and workforce programs in economically distressed neighbourhoods – the public sector can create a means for communities that are currently disconnected from the knowledge economy to finally engage with the innovation economy.

This newer vision for innovation districts creates an opportunity to transition away from the concept of isolated commercial entities which do not contribute to local communities to facilitating and supporting the growth of small businesses, creating long term growth prospects for all individuals with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion. By creating the space for minority entrepreneurs and MWBE-owned businesses it provides investment in local talent and of equal importance sets an example of what is possible for minority youth.

As we near the end of 2021, our globe faces several major crises: a public health emergency, the threat of climate change, and widespread systemic racism. There has never been a more pressing time for entrepreneurs to help our cities tackle some of the greatest challenges of the 21st century and innovation districts have a significant role to play in addressing global social, economic, and environmental challenges.

Mitigating these challenges will require an innovative approach to investing in our communities that fosters more diverse economic growth, promotes social equity, and taps into communities of practice to solve these complex and interconnected crises.

Innovation districts offer a way to catalyse learning, invention, and economic growth by facilitating meaningful knowledge exchange networks. They also have the potential to forge new livelihoods, better prepare future generations, and create culturally and economically diverse mixed-use neighbourhoods.

Patrick Daly

Talk to Patrick Daly about Urban Innovation: Building 24/7 Innovation Districts