Five Lessons From Hartford’s Innovation District

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This is a guest post by Glendowlyn Thames, executive director of CTNext. 

Innovation districts have caught on all over the world as an effective vehicle for transforming the economic vitality of a community through public-private partnerships, attracting both new talent and a critical mass of tech start-ups and young, high-growth companies.

I personally love the idea because done right, it brings together stakeholders who may not otherwise collaborate — universities, established companies, small businesses, office users and underserved residents — to share ideas around reimagining their community in the knowledge-based economy.

But “done right” is the key. The districts have been around for long enough that they have been deeply studied by Brookings Institution, among others.  For that reason, we know now why some districts sizzle while others fizzle out.

Here in Connecticut, we’re about two years into our own experiment called Innovation Places. We had the advantage of working with a couple of Brookings Fellows from the start, but we are still learning a lot.

If there is one overall message I’d impart, it is that these initiatives have to evolve from the bottom-up with the private sector and local community leading, rather than from the top-down with the public sector in the lead. These are collaborative efforts and the best ideas are going to bubble up from stakeholders, of which there are many.

Here are my five key takeaways for standing up these innovation hubs and leveraging community power to its fullest:

Find Your Innate Strength(s) and Focus. Innovation districts work best when they stem from an area’s organic strengths. Hartford, for example, is one of our four innovation districts. Considering that the city was already an international capital for insurance, it made sense to build the new innovation district around that industry. In this fourth industrial revolution, the insurance industry, like many others, fears disruption from the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence, quantum computing, etc. Many of the Hartford-based insurance companies had been flying out to Silicon Valley in search of the latest and greatest technology.  One of the goals of Hartford’s innovation district is a sector focus strategy to attract the kind of start-ups that can help the industry improve customer service and efficiency, better assess risks, among other things, and in the process reinvigorate the economy.

Get Major Institutions to Commit. Once a community has evaluated its core strengths, it’s time to make connections to the anchor institutions that help leverage and build off these strengths — whether they are private companies, hospitals, universities and research institutions, or local real estate developers. These established institutional players have as much at stake as anyone in preserving the attractiveness of their hometown communities. They play a huge role in attracting other talented entrepreneurs. Sometimes these institutions provide catalytic money, but they can also provide other kinds of soft support, like mentorship and space for innovation labs, and other knowledge capital.

Leadership, Leadership, Leadership. It is imperative to find the leaders who will sit at the table and make the district happen. It should be a diverse group of stakeholders, but it should also be people who are excited to commit real time. Ask yourself: Who has a vested interest in making sure the area’s natural assets are fully exploited and also protected? There is no way to get these people without investing a lot of time in research, phone calls and chasing down recommendations. This is where support from the public sector is critical. Mayors, local economic development officials, and other elected officials in leadership positions have the power of convening. Lean on them to use it.

Don’t Forget the Entrepreneurs and Community Builders. One lesson we learned the hard way: During planning, as early as possible, make sure to include the entrepreneurs already in your community, particularly those already active in community building. Perhaps this sounds obvious, but entrepreneurs are wired differently. They are often working so hard at getting their businesses off the ground that they forget to lift up their heads and see what is going on around them. While the community’s anchor institutions are essential, they should not dominate, or the initiative will flounder for lack of entrepreneurial zest. You need to reach out to them directly, tap them on the shoulder and say, “We need you to weigh in on this new district.” The tech founders will embrace strategies that focus on their talent needs: development, recruitment, and retention. Once you have their attention, they will be all in.

Create Metrics for Inclusive Community Involvement. Most innovation districts are working toward two primary goals: building their innovation ecosystem by attracting up and coming businesses, and revitalizing an entire community or a specific downtrodden area of town. Gentrification, sadly, has become a bit of a dirty word in many communities because local populations fear being pushed out – and rightfully so. Including the long-time residents of these communities in the development of the district is essential and needs to be measured. From the high-tech entrepreneurs to the food-cart owners, we actually track participation of underserved populations and local residents in the transformation that is taking place. We have other metrics, like how many hours of mentorship are being given, the number of companies scaling, improvements in perception of the area, and whether entrepreneurs stay after achieving some success. Like Peter Drucker said: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”.

Communities in St. Louis, Detroit, and Chattanooga are showing the blueprint can work. We have to keep learning and sharing what we’ve learned to ensure innovation districts remain a powerful vehicle to bring more communities together to create vibrant futures.

About the author: Glendowlyn Thames is the executive director of CTNext, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Connecticut Innovations, that supports startups and entrepreneurs with an array of resources that fuel the innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem across the state of Connecticut.