Creating innovation hubs key to NC’s economic future

Over the past 50 years, innovation has been traditionally fostered in corporate campuses and suburban corridors, such as Silicon Valley and Research Triangle Park, that have been relatively isolated and accessible only by car.

But as a recent Brookings Report on the “Rise of Innovation Districts” points out, there is a new model of innovation emerging: one in which leading-edge anchor institutions (such as universities) and companies connect with start-ups, business incubators, and accelerators in physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically wired communities that offer a mix of office, housing, and retail.

These innovation districts, say Brookings authors Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner, are “re-conceiving the very link between economy shaping, place making, and social networking.”

Communities that embrace this “open innovation” economy stand the greatest opportunity to win the war for talent and build a globally competitive edge. Those who stay stuck in old models of economic development risk getting left behind.

In North Carolina, we have a few communities that are leading the way. Durham, for example, has resurrected itself as a hot spot for the creative class – filling its downtown warehouses with hundreds of entrepreneurs anchored by significant investment by Duke University. This includes the newly announced “Durham Innovation District” that will feature one million square feet of office, retail, and residential space, functioning as a downtown research hub with an emphasis on life science companies.

Leading the way

Raleigh is also investing in a strong urban core, vibrant artistic communities, and green spaces connected to walkable neighborhoods and diverse communities. Raleigh’s Union Station reflects this spirit. Scheduled to open in 2017, the $80 million public transit investment will further bolster the city’s warehouse district – a booming entrepreneurial and arts community within a few blocks of downtown.

Research Triangle Park is jumping on the urbanization trend with the launch of Triangle Commons – a dense 300-acre development with a planned hotel and conference center, housing, a science and technology high school, and seven million square feet of office space, including the recently a launched entrepreneurial hub called the Frontier.

Charlotte is also seeing a boom in its urban center. Through investments like the new BB&T baseball park downtown to the almost 7,000 housing units and 2.9 million square feet of office space under construction in the city center, it is no surprise that neighborhoods like Uptown and South End have seen the number of 20-34 year olds living there jump by 300 percent since 2000.

But while the Triangle and Charlotte are flourishing, many communities across North Carolina are not. According to a 2013 N.C. Innovation Index, our state is 24th nationally when measured against 38 measures of innovation. This is because the majority of our communities are having a hard time transitioning to a knowledge and innovation-based economy. We have too many residents who are under-educated and unemployed or working in low-wage, non-tech jobs. We also have too many industries that aren’t on the leading edge of innovation despite the strength of our state’s academic research and development.

New innovation effort

To address this challenge, the Institute for Emerging Issues, along with nine partners including Forward Impact, has launched InnovateNC. This intensive, two-year, multicity learning collaborative focuses on catalyzing innovation-centered economic development among and between participating cities. In response to a request for proposals, 18 communities outlined their commitment and vision for accelerating inclusive innovation in their local economies.

Through a highly competitive process, Asheville, Greensboro, Pembroke, Wilmington/Carolina Coast, and Wilson were recently selected to participate in InnovateNC. Among the winning ideas: Asheville strives to leverage its national climate data center by building a robust climate science innovation economy anchored by a 26,000-square-foot incubator called the Collider. Greensboro hopes to expand its burgeoning entrepreneurial community with increased opportunities for its robust immigrant and minority populations.

Pembroke aims to build a downtown innovation district that creates entrepreneurial opportunity for its diverse population, including the local Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Wilmington wants to strengthen its emerging innovation ecosystem in the marine and life sciences, and Wilson is looking to build a diverse, entrepreneurial economy on the backbone of the community-owned Greenlight Gigabit Network.

In the next two years, these five communities will create local innovation councils, develop a data-driven innovation plan, and meet regularly to share lessons learned and explore opportunities for collaboration.

For North Carolina to emerge as a true innovative leader, we need to invest in these kinds of efforts statewide and create innovation hubs for the 21st century – or risk getting left behind.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.