Introducing the Atlas of Innovation Districts
Updated: Jun 26
Aretian is an urban design and analytics startup that is pioneering new methods for transforming complex data into strategic insights for urban design. Aretian was founded with the belief that society urgently needs new analytical tools for understanding our communities in order to confront pressing issues like social inequality, climate risk, and aging infrastructure.
Cambridge, Massachusetts - Aretian and Opinno are announcing the launch of the world’s first Atlas of Innovation Districts. Aretian has conducted an in-depth analysis of 50 major Innovation Districts in the US, studying their urban design characteristics, industry specialization, innovation performance, growth typology, demographics, knowledge economy, income, and economic impact on their local communities. The Aretian team, led by Harvard researchers and co-founders Jeremy Burke and Ramon Gras, has also begun to analyze each district’s historical evolution over the last twenty years.
The Atlas of Innovation Districts began as Jeremy and Ramon’s joint thesis in Design Engineering at Harvard University. The success of the project inspired the duo to found of Aretian | Urban Analytics and Design, and their Atlas of Innovation Districts project has matured into a rigorous methodology for describing how Innovation Districts generate high-quality employment opportunities and shape a resilient knowledge-based economy.
Aretian started with a basic question: how can communities achieve equitably-distributed prosperity? This question led them to explore the role of innovation and knowledge-intensive activities in building economies that resist disruptive effects of trends like automation, globalization, and artificial intelligence. Early analysis showed that these trends tend to have fewer negative effects on the workforce in cities with robust knowledge- and innovation-based economies. Furthermore, their analysis suggested that more innovative economies tend to have higher social mobility and more equitable wealth distribution. Armed with these insights, the team set its focus on Innovation Districts. They quickly recognized that there has been no formal, data-driven, and rigorous definition of what comprises an Innovation District, nor a comprehensive review of what makes some districts fail and others succeed. There were no standard quantitative metrics to describe what characterizes such communities, the types of activities they host, and why and how they should be promoted and designed in the future. This lack of systematic understanding means that city planners, local and regional governments, and industries, lack adequate tools for building strategies for equitable economic development through innovation. This was the team’s eureka moment: an opportunity to provide a framework and analytical toolkit for understanding innovation’s role in generating prosperity.
By analyzing the 50 most well known Innovation Districts in the United States, Aretian has developed the first ever database, fundamental metrics, and analytics engine to describe them in all their complexity. As a consequence of creating this model, the team has also shed light on hundreds more areas that were previously not considered to be Innovation Districts in a formal sense. From the model, it is clear that innovation pays off: Innovation Districts currently host slightly more than 3 million jobs, of which nearly 998k (32%) have an innovation-related component, as compared to an average business neighborhood, where only 17% of employees have a knowledge-intensive nature. On a per resident basis, Innovation Districts host 9 times more employees, accommodate 15 times more innovation-related jobs, and generate 20 times more innovation-related sales than average neighborhoods. On a per employee basis, they produce 3 to 4 times more inventions and new solutions than average neighborhoods.
Innovation Districts are also powerful economic drivers for the communities beyond the district. For every innovation-intensive job an Innovation District supports, it generates an additional 4 to 5 production and service oriented jobs. This produces an exponential benefit to the rest of the city, as the advantages of concentrating talent and knowledge-intensive activities in Innovation Districts cascade through the supply chain to related industries and businesses.
It is important to understand that high-functioning Innovation Districts do not develop by accident. They result from intentional, holistic planning and design work, integrated with good organizational design and public policy. The Atlas of Innovation Districts seeks to understand the recipe for a high-functioning Innovation District in light of all these factors.
In constructing the Atlas, Aretian developed a series of new metrics and indicators to measure the quality and quantity of innovation taking place in a given area. One of these is innovation performance, an indicator that summarizes how spending on innovation leads to outputs with concrete economic benefits. The Atlas shows that 45% of areas belonging to an Innovation District operate in the top 5% of innovation performance nationally, with 24% of areas in the top 1%. Studying innovation performance and other key indicators helped the Aretian team to accurately predict the two selected cities for the locations of Amazon’s new headquarters as well as the issues which emerged from those selections. Based on insights from across Aretian’s innovation metrics, some of the most promising up-and-coming Innovation Districts include Austin ID (TX), San José Boomerang (CA), Saint Louis Cortex Innovation Community (MO), North Carolina Research Triangle (NC), Pittsburgh Innovation District (PA), and Purdue (IN).
The Atlas will be released in two stages. First, an initial descriptive report of the top 50 districts will published through Aretian. Second, a more extensive digital version will be shared through an interactive map of the Innovation Districts, describing the overall innovation economy of the United States. This launch is based on their Atlas of Global Innovation Platform, which currently encompasses the USA and Catalonia, Spain. The team plans to include more regions in the Atlas in the near future.
The Atlas itself is the product of Aretian’s proprietary Urban Analytics and Design Engine: a data-driven model that leverages complex systems analysis and network theory to provide unique insights into how urban environments function. Through this system, Aretian will help cities and companies understand their opportunities for future prosperity through specialization strategies that unlock their untapped competitive advantage.
As the co-founders note, “the methodology behind the Atlas of Innovation Districts can provide a rigorous, data-driven roadmap for urban designers, economic development policymakers, private institutions and investors, and other civic decision-makers to promote urban development and economic growth in a more sustainable way. The purpose is to liberate the latent human potential of communities by means of complex systems analysis and high-quality design interventions.”