Innovation and Inclusion: How One City’s Intention Is Paying Off

Last week on the seedsprint blog, innovation district expert Julie Wagner made the case that innovation district planners and designers ought to make inclusion a top priority in the development of their districts. (You can read Wagner’s guest post here if you missed it). Wagner explains that many innovation district designers do support building inclusion into their projects, but that the challenges of doing so are daunting. Not only must planners overcome centuries of inequality, but also layers of public and private bureaucracy, self-interest, and conflicting priorities.

As more and more cities turn to innovation districts as a means of jump-starting economic growth and urban renewal, innovation district proponents find themselves frequently defending their projects against the charge that “innovation districts equal gentrification.”

In light of all this, we wanted to know how innovation districts were meeting that challenge, as well as the broader goal of promoting diversity and inclusion in science and tech.

Here’s a look at one district that may be getting it right.

Leveraging “The Gig”

The City of Chattanooga, Tennessee, created the Chattanooga Innovation District in 2015, ostensibly to take advantage of the opportunities created by the city’s new highspeed internet infrastructure (known locally as “the Gig”). While most innovation districts are anchored by research universities, hospitals, or major science or tech-affiliated companies, Chattanooga’s is built around the local electric and telecom utility (the entity responsible for the Gig) and the eleven-story Edney Innovation Center, home to co-working spaces, startups, “collision” spaces, business services, and more. Directly across the street from the Edney stands Patten Towers, a low-income apartment building.

Chattanooga is late to the innovation district game, which has allowed planners to evaluate the successes – and failures – of older districts. The result is a district described in a Brookings Institution case study as a place “where stakeholders are undertaking intentional efforts to ensure that low-income and minority residents are key participants in, and beneficiaries of, the area’s growth and development.” None of this has been easy. One person involved in the planning told Brookings that involving so many constituencies slowed the process in the beginning. However, planners hope that their early work will help the project succeed in the long run.

The district’s intentional efforts have been realized in a variety of programs and initiatives:

  • TechGoesHome provides low-cost computer skills training, computer hardware, and internet access to area residents.
  • TechTown provides scholarships and science, technology, engineering, and math education to area students aged 7-17.
  • TechWorkforce, part of TechTown, offers adult education in software coding, communication, and other soft skills that startups and employers in the district demand.
  • Company Lab (“Co.Lab”) and LAUNCH are startup accelerators focused on attracting underrepresented groups to the entrepreneur community. (How do these efforts stack up? In 2016, 30% of Co.Lab participants were from minority groups and 64% were female, outpacing countywide numbers).  
  • Regional planning authorities have rolled out a variety of tax incentives to support affordable housing near the district (and throughout the city). Recently, the city government demonstrated its commitment by converting underused city buildings in the area to affordable housing and office space.

Despite all this, gentrification remains a stubborn fact. A 2018 study of Chattanooga’s innovation district found that between 2000 and 2015 (when the district was formally announced), the area was already undergoing “light gentrification.” Area households shifted “from lower class to lower-middle class and upper-middle class.” Spreading the wealth generated by science- and tech-led development is not an easy problem.

“Everyone around the country is trying to figure out how this works,” Marco Perez, vice-president of LAUNCH, told the Brookings Institution. “Chattanooga has a long way to go with regards to equity, but I think we’re the city that can actually figure out how to do it right.”  

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