This insight was first published as part of NCUB’s State of the Relationship 2021 Report. Read the report in full here.

Covid-19, net zero, and ongoing regional inequality in the UK: it’s quite a list of challenges, and together they provide a compelling set of reasons to focus harder than ever on what it takes to really marry innovation with a mission for a place. Innovation districts, while by no means a panacea, can help to drive local economic growth, generate new ideas, and build links between communities.


Innovation districts are built with proximity in mind. Often at the heart of urban development or regeneration programmes, they are designed not just to be spaces for offices and labs, but to be places explicitly created to welcome the communities they are based in. We know that “friction” is at the heart of creativity: we are inspired through interaction with the people and spaces around us. Successful innovation districts build in this “friction” as a feature rather than an add-on: through place-making that creates interaction between those you wouldn’t otherwise encounter, through programmes which actively include participants from across backgrounds, and through engagement with local communities to foster a shared sense of ownership and drive unexpected exchanges of ideas.

As those of us working in innovation districts can testify, it is an art more than a science to continually bring forward the right pro-innovation physical spaces with the networks, tailored support, services and amenities to match. At the same time, the task is to inspire the institutional buy-in and the confidence and involvement of communities. The rewards are tangible – more capable clusters of mixed organisations, better-defined start-up ecosystems with more diversified investment, new solutions and services, opportunities to ‘grow-your-own’ talent, and more of a lasting sense of local pride and belonging to a place.

Driving these economic and social returns can take a number of forms, and innovation districts can implement a range of programmes depending on local objectives. These can include to:

  • Develop a skills pipeline for current and future businesses: While many innovation districts are formed in partnership with local universities, it is also crucial to create opportunities for communities outside the academic sector. Innovation City Belfast recently partnered with TechTalent Academy and Amazon Web Services to offer a free, 12-week, full-time skills development programme on cloud computing. This had the dual objective of providing entry-level talent for local employers, while providing job opportunities in tech for under-employed or unemployed residents – both critical for the long-term growth of Belfast’s digital economy.
  • Support early-stage SMEs in growth: Innovation districts can create an ecosystem of start-ups and spinouts and provide support at scale for them to grow. The BUILD programme in Leeds City Region invited entrepreneurs with ideas to address pressing challenges (e.g. clean energy, financial inclusion) to join a 12-week programme, where they learned core skills to build and scale a business. Participants were also given access to the broader business community in Leeds, ranging from later-stage start-ups to corporates and investors.
  • Provide infrastructure for businesses to test new technologies: Innovation districts can provide a unique opportunity for companies to trial emerging products. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London has thousands of people living and working on-site, ranging from schools to shopping centres to head offices, and as a result is well set-up to act as an urban test bed. Trials have ranged from early-stage deployment of e-scooters, which influenced the regulatory framework governing e-scooters in the UK, to testing how the gamification of fitness via an app changed people’s physical activity and health.