Opinion
Front Lines

Our Next Bold North Move

Dynamic cities are developing innovation districts.

Our Next Bold North Move

As a board member on a variety of Twin Cities civic organizations such as Greater MSP, I am always struck by the seriousness of intent demonstrated by my fellow board members—many of them CEOs of other leading companies—in addressing the challenges of workforce development and capacity-building for our regional economy.

Even now, basking in the afterglow of the Super Bowl festivities, local leaders are focused on the future: What comes next in terms of maintaining our regional competitiveness in a world marked by ever-increasing economic, social and political change?

Key among our region’s challenges are factors such as the rapidly changing demographics of our working-age population, the return of industry to the urban core and increased interest in tightening the industrial supply chain across all business segments.

In other words, we have to work harder than ever to sharpen and reshape our regional competitiveness to keep up in the global, technologically fueled economy.

Our region is not alone in grappling with these changes, but it is incumbent upon we who live here to deal with them. And I can think of no more pressing issue facing us than that of workforce capacity-building. The talent shortage that many predict will hit the Twin Cities in the near future is not something to take lightly. We have time, now, to plan how to address it, and I believe we have the answers within our grasp, too.

It seems the five requisite strategies for addressing the coming dearth of talent, on a regional basis, are to:

  • Improve social inclusion.
  • Support and acknowledge innovative talent.
  • Connect talent to the community.
  • Connect talent and employers.
  • Close near-term talent gaps.

As we move to a knowledge economy, the demand grows for open economic and social ecosystems, more cross-cultural and cross-industry collaboration and more urban-oriented infrastructure development in areas such as mass transit and work-live communities.

Many of these trends meet in a relatively new development space, the “innovation district.”

The Brookings Institution identifies “innovation districts” as a global megatrend with staying power. The early trendsetters include cities in Europe (Barcelona, Berlin and Stockholm), Asia (Seoul) and North America (Atlanta, Baltimore and Detroit). Importantly, these districts are often located in emerging urban neighborhoods in need of both new ideas and new investment. In fact, Brookings reports that 45 percent of innovation districts (or urban research parks, as they are sometimes called) are located in or near disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Note the word “emerging.” The ground must be prepared before the innovators come to work. In downtown Detroit, for example, Quicken Loans led the way, plunking its headquarters into the heart of a city seen by many as terminally maimed by the collapse of industrial America. The move sparked a true renaissance in Detroit, unleashing a wave of creative entrepreneurial energy to fuel the city’s comeback. Quicken, with its bold move, set a tone and raised expectations for the entire city.

The Quicken example shows the power—and necessity—of a private-sector anchor point for the success of an innovation district. The goal of these districts is to foster sustainable business ventures—based on innovative ideas and approaches—with local job creation as a byproduct. To that end, the public and private sectors must work hand-in-hand to set the conditions for a combination of diverse entrepreneurial interests in one tight-knit community.

So what does an innovation district look like? It should be:

  • Geographically compact.
  • Transit-accessible.
  • Technologically wired.
  • A mixed-use built environment: office, industrial, retail, housing.
  • Educationally diverse; even in technologically focused innovation districts, the workforce typically breaks down as 40 percent of people with high school or associate degrees, 40 percent with four-year college degrees, and 20 percent with advanced degrees.

And there needs to be a starter culture in place, as in the Detroit example: an anchor business or institution serving as the center point to an ever-expanding cluster of startups, business accelerators and established businesses to cross-pollinate and support each other. As the district develops, so do the talents and capacity of local entrepreneurs—and their employees. Naturally, a local ecosystem will spring up to support the district, bringing with it an abundance of new jobs and new educational opportunities.

Innovation districts provide a clear path forward for local decision-makers, public officials, heads of large and small companies, universities, community colleges, neighborhood community leaders and business organizations to step toward a stronger, more sustainable, inclusive community.

When the innovators succeed, we all succeed in today’s economy. Who’s in?

I am, whether it’s with the collaborators at the Days Inn site in Midway or in north Minneapolis, where we’re set to anchor our corporate headquarters in what could be the most innovation-ready neighborhood in the Twin Cities.

Let’s do it together, to scale. In the meantime take care of yourself and each other. tcbmag

Ravi Norman (RNorman@ThorCon.net) is the CEO of Thor Cos., a holding company for development, design, construction and consulting businesses. He holds degrees in economics, business management and finance from the University of Minnesota.

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