Why Detroit Is Fertile Ground for an Innovation District

By  |  August 29, 2013, 6:55 PM


With 90-percent occupancy rates, 10,000 new jobs, a brand new Whole Foods, and the repurposing of a long-abandoned GM building as a design center, midtown-downtown Detroit—soon to be linked by a new rail line—is poised to become the country’s next “innovation district,” suggest Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley in The New Republic this week.

What’s an innovation district? A metropolitan hub, they say:

“Where the density of innovative institutions and companies … begets still more new businesses, new products, new export opportunities, and new jobs.”

In Barcelona’s innovation district, for instance, 4,500 new businesses and thousands of housing units sprang up in under a decade. Katz and Bradley point to research arguing that, despite our ability to network globally and work remotely, physical proximity among potential collaborators is key to innovation. Urban density, therefore, makes for the most fertile ground.

Even across the knowledge-intensive industries—biotech, telecomms, semiconductors—there are so-called “spillover benefits” to being housed so closely that chance encounters are within walking distance.

But Katz and Bradley say an innovation district is about more than those companies and industries:

“What really makes it hum is people, not just those who live and work there, but also networks of leaders in institutions like medical centers, philanthropies, non-profits, zoning departments, and local businesses. These leaders need to be committed to connecting an inventor, an entrepreneur, and a crew of first-rate workers. They need to be knowledgeable about how to make real estate development deals happen in urban areas, using the complex public and private financing mechanisms that are often required before a market fully takes off. Even after losing more than one million residents since its peak, Detroit still has these people, and they are committed to the city’s success, now more than ever.”

“This,” Katz and Bradley propose, “is how the Detroit economy could, slowly but surely, regain traction.”

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