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Valleys, alleys and roundabouts: innovating beyond a precinct

Singapore’s one-north is one of many innovation precincts popping up around the world. Anthony V/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Valleys, alleys and roundabouts: innovating beyond a precinct

Bringing together knowledge and innovation has become an increasingly important consideration for urban planners as they grapple with the expansion of a knowledge economy and its implications for economic competitiveness.

Inspired by Silicon Valley, knowledge-based urban development has become a widespread goal since the 1970s. Fostering precincts that concentrate on “knowledge generation and innovation” has become a priority for many cities all across the globe.

Beyond Silicon Valley, other global successful examples of urban knowledge precincts include Silicon Alley in New York, Silicon Roundabout in London, Orestad in Copenhagen, Brainport in Eindhoven, and one-north in Singapore.

In Australia, the Australian Technology Park in Sydney, Parkville Knowledge Precinct in Melbourne, and Kelvin Grove Urban Village in Brisbane are certainly emerging urban knowledge precincts.

Sydney’s Australian Technology Park is spread across 14 hectares. Threthny/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Some Australian cities perform well compared to global knowledge cities. Where Sydney and Melbourne enjoy the top-tier position with Boston, San Francisco, Helsinki, Toronto, and Vancouver, Brisbane follows them behind in the second-tier group with Birmingham and Manchester.

Nonetheless, even Sydney as a “global city”, Melbourne as a “knowledge city”, and Brisbane as an emerging “world city” have not yet fully utilised their potential to build successful urban knowledge precincts.

And besides Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, there is limited knowledge-based urban development practice in other Australian cities.

The Orestad precinct in Copenhagen includes housing. Wojtek Gurak/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Why confine innovation to a precinct?

A recent study that explores overseas and Australian urban knowledge precincts argues knowledge generated from these centres of excellence or islands of innovation should diffuse to the rest of the city.

Precincts like London’s Silicon Roundabout bring people together in multiple venues. Alper Cugan/Flickr, CC BY

Cafes, restaurants, cultural, sports and entertainment venues, and outdoor activities also bring together like-minded knowledge workers and provide an opportunity for exchange of their tacit knowledge.

In other words, the proximity of knowledge industries to each other means they don’t act only in isolation, but are at the centre of the whole network of innovation that runs through the city.

Urban knowledge precincts” often have two general objectives. The first is to play an incubator role nurturing the development and growth of new, small, high-technology firms, facilitating the transfer of university know-how to tenant companies, encouraging faculty-based spin-offs, and stimulating innovative products and processes.

The second objective is to act as a catalyst for regional economic development that promotes economic growth and contributes to the development of the city as a “knowledge city”.

Singapore’s one-north is a 200 hectare research and business park. We_like_it/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

While world-class infrastructure and networks provide the pull factor for investment, urban vibrancy does the same for talent. These precincts are formed either organically like Silicon Valley or planned such as Singapore One-North.

In either case, the most successful precincts generate a spill over effect to the rest of the city or region. A good example for this is the22@Barcelona precinct, which brought together the rich cultural heritage of Barcelona and local and international talent and investment to form a knowledge generation atmosphere at the redeveloped old industrial area located adjacent to the Olympic Village.

More work required

22@Barcelona is one of Europe’s largest urban regeneration projects. kodakhrome/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

For over three decades, Australian governments have been half-hearted in attempts to diversify the economy by aiming for a move towards knowledge economy. Partnerships that bring together public, private and academic sectors are required.

Kelvin Grove Urban Village is one such partnership involving the Queensland University of Technology, Queensland Department of Housing, and Creative Enterprise Australia. The idea is to have a vibrant village atmosphere where living, working, playing and learning are integrated, with “creativity” at the centre.

Although these three-way partnerships are an ideal method for developing knowledge precincts, in most cases public sector leadership and initiatives are needed to encourage the private sector.

Policymakers need to consider the increasing competition from other cities to attract investment and talent. A sustainable competitive strategy will require the private sector, academia and public to work together.

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