The emergence of innovation districts in the United Kingdom: progress and lessons

Paper for the 36th IASP World Conference: The 4th Industrial Revolution: areas of innovation and science parks as key boosters for a successful transition
Nantes 24 – 27 September 2019

  • Tom Bridges BSc, MSc, MRTPI, Leeds Office Leader, Director Cities Advisory, Arup
  • Paul Jansen MSc, Cities Market Leader Europe, Arup / Founder Innovation Area Development Partnership (IADP)
  • Prof. dr. Jacques van Dinteren, director Zjak Consult / Founder Innovation Area Development Partnership (IADP)


Innovation districts are urban areas with networks of knowledge-producing organisations such as universities, research bodies, teaching hospitals, cultural institutions, and knowledge-intensive businesses. Innovation districts are becoming the locations of choice for spin-out, start-up, and scale-up science and technology driven firms, as well as for larger businesses undertaking research and development.

There has been previous work on innovation districts in the US and London, but the UK story is less well-known. This paper looks at the progress and lessons from the six innovation districts that form the UK Innovation Districts Group. Whilst these projects are at different stages of development, their success to date and future potential is clear. Through major investments in new campuses and cultural buildings, public spaces, physical and digital infrastructure, and proactive curation of social, research and business networks, innovation districts are emerging as some of our most significant and productive economic locations.


In the 1980s and 1990s ideas about the West European economy changed from service economy or post-industrial society into knowledge-based economies. Innovation was considered crucial to be able to compete worldwide and, by doing so, to prosper economically. From that moment on the generation of knowledge, the establishment and growth of networks of business and knowledge institutions and the availability of high-quality education (and in the end a high-quality workforce) were considered to be essential to hold or strengthen economic positions. Information and communication technology play an important role in the networks needed: the exchange of data, information and knowledge. But this technology seemed to make distances disappear. That is why three decades ago the concept of ‘death of distance’ was introduced. It questioned the necessary proximity of persons in the case of knowledge exchange. The concept did not hold. Areas of innovation, such as science and technology parks, still had a reason for existence. However, it was realised that, as the economy became more knowledge based, it was both spatial proximity and high densities of face-to-face contact as well as being well incorporated in global networks that makes the exchange of information and ideas, and hence innovation, successful. Knowledge driven firms value being in locations where they have wide access to a skilled workforce, and which can provide the spaces and networks for people, firms, researchers, clinicians, entrepreneurs, creatives and investors to collaborate, compare and compete.

Thanks to agglomeration effects it is the cities and urban agglomerations that have the best opportunities for companies and institutions to innovate. Within these urban agglomerations the areas of innovation, where innovative firms, universities and other institutions cluster, still play a role. In recent years the typology is even broadened. Initially areas of innovation consisted of science and technology parks and industrial innovation campuses, but in the 1990s a cautious, new development was detectable. There was a steady growth of start-ups and for most of them science parks were too expensive or (still) had too much a focus on real estate instead of managing and stimulating the local networks. Former manufacturing districts and city centre fringe seemed to be more attractive for this group of entrepreneurs thanks to the low rents. The real estate market saw new opportunities and started to create ‘creative factories’ in old buildings. Restaurants, copy shops and other service activities detected the new opportunities and new, unplanned developments occurred. Examples in London are Old Street Roundabout (also known as Silicon Roundabout) and Shoreditch. These kinds of developments made local governments curious and made them think of helping to create such districts – now known as innovation districts – to stimulate the economy and, at the same time, rehabilitate old (industrial) areas in their cities.

Poblenau Quarter in Barcelona used to be a very important, large industrial district and is generally considered to be the first government led development of an innovation district in Europe. Almost at the same time comparable developments started in the United States. Members of the International Association of Science Parks (IASP) noticed the trend and it eventually led to changing the name into the International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation (still abbreviated as IASP). But for somewhat unclear reasons a publication by the Brookings Institution ensured that the concept of innovation districts came to the centre of attention in 2014.

Many innovation districts in the United States have since then been standing in the spotlights, but the UK story (with London as an exception) is less well-known, despite the success achieved by the first wave of innovation districts and the huge potential of others. As a result, there is a risk that the UK will not grasp this opportunity fully. We need to ensure that innovation districts secure the investment and support necessary to maximise their success. Arup have worked with the UK Innovation Districts Group to assess the progress made by innovation districts, factors for success, issues to be overcome and the priorities and opportunities for the future. The research has included a review of literature and interviews with those involved in innovation district projects. This paper describes some intriguing developments in the UK. Based on these and other developments (which can be found in the full report; Arup, 2018) a series of recommendations to make the most of the opportunities innovation districts offer is set out.

The six innovation districts that were the focus for the research

Manchester: Oxford Road Corridor

Co-located on the Corridor are two universities, five specialist hospitals, local government, entrepreneurs, global businesses, cultural assets and an Enterprise Zone. The Innovation District is underpinned by world-class research and has particular specialisms in advanced materials and health and life sciences. An ongoing series of transformational investments has created an environment that has seen exceptional jobs and GVA growth. This pro-active approach to place-shaping has supported the development of a wider mix of uses and has seen improved public realm and shared spaces; the introduction of ‘Dutch cycle lanes’ and traffic restrictions; development of new cultural facilities; and the integration of leading-edge smart city technologies. Targeted business interventions have focused on accelerating innovation, commercialisation and improved health pathways.

Glasgow West End and Waterfront Innovation District

This area is an ideal environment for innovation. It boasts one of the world’s largest hospitals, a top 100 research-intensive university as well as cultural facilities on the banks of the River Clyde. With the main partners – Glasgow City Council and Scottish Enterprise – and the support of the Scottish and UK Governments and the wider business community, Glasgow University is establishing an innovation district that will help push Glasgow into the top rank of global innovative cities. Within the innovation district, Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum and the Riverside Museum combined rank 10th in all UK visitor attractions. Glasgow also boasts one of the most successful music venues in the world – the SSE Hydro. The West End and Waterfront area also hosts the BBC, STV and other media companies, together with the University and its own significant art and museum collections. The redevelopment of the city’s historic Kelvin Hall, believed to be the first place in the world to combine major collections with health and wellbeing linked to sport under one roof.

London: Knowledge Quarter

Within a one-mile radius of King’s Cross (approximately a 10-12-minute walk) is a remarkable cluster of organisations spanning research, higher education, science, art, culture and media.

Individually, they offer resources for specialists in numerous fields, from architecture and the arts to biotechnology and veterinary science. The Knowledge Quarter brings together over 85 cultural, research, scientific, business and academic institutions both large and small under one umbrella. The Knowledge Quarter fosters knowledge exchange and collaboration between staff and users of cross-disciplinary communities to exchange ideas, expertise and evidence. Developing networks to encourage collaborative projects, training, commissioned research and access to funding, engaging a wide variety of audiences and benefiting the local research community.

Leeds: Innovation District

The Innovation District will be focused on the academic and economic strengths of the city, particularly health innovation, engineering, financial and business services, data analytics and digital technologies. Digital pathology innovation is the core of the development as Leeds is a globally leading centre in this field. The development boasts the largest online pathology repository in the world. The collaboration between Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust and the University of Leeds has created a number of novel spin out technologies and applications. For example, their strategic partnership with Leica Biosystems has led to full digitisation of their pathology lab and establishment as the Leica Global Centre of Excellence in Digital Pathology. Digital Pathology provides significant opportunities to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to increase the speed and consistency of cancer diagnosis.

Liverpool: Knowledge Quarter

In the heart of Liverpool’s Knowledge Quarter are two University campuses, the School of Tropical Medicine and the Royal University Teaching Hospital, as well as Sensor City and the Materials Innovation Factory. Interesting to see that also the Liverpool Science Park is established here (two buildings). Eye catcher, among others, is the Centre of Excellence in Infectious Disease Research (CEIDR), launched in 2017 by the University of Liverpool and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and focuses on translational partnering in infectious diseases. CEIDR provides a single point of access for the industry into a broad infectious disease expertise base in Liverpool for translational activity and helps to develop relationships with industries. Apart from innovative firms and institutions and learning Knowledge Quarter offers a mix of cultural activities, theatres, cafés, restaurants and the likes.

London: Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

In this area, where the Olympic Games have been held, a new Culture and Education District will be developed, focussing on education, innovation and enterprise. Already two universities are established here (including the Advanced Propulsion Centre and the High-Speed Sustainable Manufacturing Institute) and three more will be located here soon. Based in the former Olympic Press and Broadcast Centre, Here East provides space for start-ups and companies, offering a high-quality work-environment. Special attention is given to programmes that support these entrepreneurs and help building linkages between companies and universities.  For Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the Knowledge Quarter at King’s Cross is an inspiring example. It is even suggested to create a link between the two developments, as they are only seven minutes away by high speed rail link.

Main Features and Typologies of UK Innovation Districts

The research identified the main features of UK Innovation Districts, which are set out in Figure 1. There are three main categories of actors.

First, there are knowledge producing anchor institutions such as research universities, major teaching hospitals, and other research bodies. In some UK innovation districts this includes cultural institutions. Professional bodies such as the Royal College of Physicians (in KQ London and Liverpool) are also important. Many of these organisations are investing significantly in new buildings and campus developments, and in doing so seeking to reflect an increasing importance of supporting local economic growth as part of their mission.

Second, there are knowledge intensive firms that value proximity to the knowledge intensive anchor institutions as well as each other. These firms range from start-ups and spin-outs from universities and other publicly funded organisations, fast-growing technology-driven scale-up firms, to larger corporates who locate part of their research and development and intrapreneurship functions in innovation districts. The engagement of angel investors and venture capital is also a necessary feature for success.

Third, innovation districts require the development of the right type of physical spaces: workspaces; collaboration space; infrastructure; and public spaces.  A range of workspace is needed to accommodate and facilitate the growth of knowledge intensive firms of different types. This may include specialist physical requirements for lab space. Formal and informal spaces are needed to foster collaboration and interaction between organisations and their people, including co-working space, spaces for met-ups and conferences, as well as cafes, bars and restaurants. Increasingly, high quality public realm, good physical and digital connectivity and a strong amenity offer and vibrancy is needed to support informal interaction and networks, as well as creating an environment that is attractive to knowledge workers and occupiers. The management, programming and curation of activity in these spaces is important, in addition to the physical design.

A proactive and coordinated approach to building the right softer networks and relational infrastructure between the different actors is essential for a successful innovation district.

Government is also an important stakeholder.  At a national level UK Government directs research spend in the context of its National Industrial Strategy, and there is scope to focus and join-up this investment more effectively within places, including Innovation Districts. National and local government also have research intensive departments or agencies that contribute to the success of innovation districts. Example include NHS Digital in Leeds, the Financial Conduct Authority or Transport for London at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. City Government also have a significant role in the planning, promotion, leadership, governance and public sector investments necessary to make innovation districts a success.

It is possible to identify a physical typology of UK Innovation Districts, as set out in Table 2.

Increasingly knowledge intensive jobs are clustering in the CBDs of UK cities. Several cities such as Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and Newcastle are expanding the physical size and economic contribution of their city centres through regenerating and connective city centre fringe innovation districts.

Others are creating or enhancing separate new urban quarters that are well connected with the CBD and other economic assets. The most high profile example is the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London which has benefited in huge transport infrastructure investment to connect it to central London and Canary Wharf, as well as to surrounding centres and neighbourhoods. Other examples include the Glasgow West End and Waterfront Innovation District where recent and current investments in a major expansion of the university campus, a new hospital, and new conference and exhibition facilities are being brought together to create a coherent urban district. In Knowledge Quarter Liverpool, new campus and commercial development is creating a vibrant urban district.

There is still a role for out-of-centre science and technology parks, particularly for land-hungry uses such as manufacturing and transport technology.

Figure 1. Main Features of UK Innovation Districts

Schema 1

Table 2. A locational typology of UK Innovation Districts

Schema 2

Progress and Lessons

This paper looks at the progress and lessons from the six innovation districts that form the UK Innovation Districts Group. These projects are at different stages of development. Some projects, such as Oxford Road Corridor and Knowledge Quarter Liverpool are well-established. In these cases, there are ambitious plans to build on the achievements to date. Other projects, such as Knowledge Quarter London and Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, are building on the growing networks of knowledge producers in their areas, with a focus on enhancing collaboration, securing investment and promoting their areas’ strengths. Projects such as Glasgow’s West End and Waterfront Innovation District and the Leeds Innovation District are at early stages of development with huge potential.

All innovation districts are seeking to build strengths and develop linkages across a range of different sectors, recognising the benefits of interaction between them. They have all succeeded in amplifying cross sectoral activity. This is based on an understanding of particular areas of expertise, informed by evidence (including Science and Innovation Audits). This approach combines a broad-based approach along with a focus on specific strengths, seeking to increase agglomeration and knowledge spill overs. There are also similarities and potential linkages between innovation districts, and the potential to build on collaborations between academic institutions.

There are differences between innovation districts in the way in which they seek to support entrepreneurship. Providing incubation and collaboration space and support is an important focus of most (but not all) of the projects. There are differences in the extent to and the way in which these spaces are curated by research-intensive organisations. In some cases, the approach to supporting business start-ups and scale-ups is integrated within wider approaches to business support in relevant cities and city regions. However, in other cases there is not a structured approach to attracting and growing firms within the innovation district. There is a view amongst some of the stakeholders interviewed for this project that more could be done to build the wider ecosystems of support for commercial spin-outs, start-ups and scale-ups.

Cultural institutions and attractions are becoming increasingly important component of innovation districts. Several innovation districts include, or are close to, significant cultural or visitor attractions, and they are securing new investment from cultural bodies which want to move into these areas or upgrade their existing facilities. Several also include arts and cultural academic institutions and departments. This adds to the offer of innovation districts. It provides an important area of academic research for some, one of which is relevant to the economic trend of increasing synergies between technology and the arts. Cultural institutions also create a buzz, vibrancy and activities in evenings and at weekends, helping to retain the student population post-graduation.

Innovation districts are supporting inclusive growth. Some innovation districts are involving partners and organisations in initiatives to forge links with schools and young people in the surrounding areas. This increases awareness of, and access to, the range of learning and career opportunities available to them, providing mentoring, advice and work experience. Innovation districts are creating new public spaces and amenities for residents of nearby areas, and through physical investments are linking these residential areas to education and employment opportunities.

Successful innovation districts require substantial capital investment in infrastructure and place shaping. A feature of well-established, successful innovation districts has been large-scale capital investment in public realm and infrastructure. More investments are asked for by digital infrastructure. This is an important ingredient for success. Several innovation districts are developing strategies for investment in advanced digital infrastructure, including fibre to the premises, 5G, and sensors and Internet of Things systems, and are putting in place frameworks for exploiting the research and economic potential of the data that will be generated from this. They are becoming exemplars in the context of the smart cities agenda and are creating new platforms for testing and developing advanced urban services. And talking about investments, it is obvious that a proactive and enlightened approach to development is required to build the right type of business space to attract and accommodate the right type of occupiers. More attention is paid to the way the design of buildings can help to create linkages and an image of openness. Whereas previously buildings and spaces between them faced inwards, increasingly the design of new buildings and campuses are facing outwards. The aims are to attract people into these buildings and spaces, encourage and facilitate interaction between people and animation, and improve connectivity with other assets and areas.

As said before, the concept of an innovation district initially was a spontaneous one, without any governmental meddling. Given the potential of such developments, that seem very well to fit new demands by companies and institutions, leadership and coordination are essential to successful innovation districts. A feature of all the projects considered for this research is that they are being championed and steered by the relevant university Vice Chancellors, NHS teaching hospital trust chairs and Chief Executives, and local authority/development corporation Leaders and Chief Executives. The successful projects have been prioritised for investment at a city or city region level.

Good leadership and coordination need a clear vision and plan, which can flex over time. Many of those interviewed stressed the importance of setting a clear vision and masterplan and embedding this in planning policy to provide a clear and consistent framework for development. Whilst it is important that this can flex over time, several interviewees identified the risk of allowing or bringing forward development that offers a short-term commercial gain, which may not be in the long-term best interest of the core mission of innovation districts.

Several of those involved in the interviews and discussions through this research spoke about the importance of linkages between innovation districts and wider networks as economic assets in their cities and city regions. The general view is that innovation districts can provide a useful focus for promoting innovation across the economy of a wider city or city region area.

Conclusion and recommendations

Government should prioritise support for economic growth in the places and initiatives where it has the greatest chance of a return on its investment. Innovation districts are enabling our cities to create the new products, processes, technologies, and high growth firms that will drive productivity growth. They are supporting the creation of new, high quality jobs in accessible locations, regenerating parts of our cities, and supporting inclusive growth. A clear conclusion from the research is the importance of development the right softer networks and relational infrastructure between actors in innovation districts alongside the approach to developing the right buildings and physical infrastructure.

The main conclusion from this research is that government should prioritise place-based investment in innovation districts to boost productivity, support inclusive growth, and to deliver the Industrial Strategy.

Innovation districts and knowledge quarters are emerging as transformational projects which are driving economic growth. Knowledge intensive jobs and firms are increasingly clustering in or near city centres where innovators, entrepreneurs and R&D intensive businesses can benefit from access to a wide pool of skilled people, university researchers, healthcare clinicians, and knowledge spill overs. This is a result of people and organisations collaborating, comparing and competing across different sectors. Cities, universities, teaching hospitals, cultural and professional institutions are supporting and capitalising on this trend through significant investments in new buildings, campuses, workspace, and public realm which are creating new urban districts and engines of more productive growth. These projects are at different stages of development in different locations, and there are a range of approaches and areas of focus. Generally, the focus on innovation has emerged in response to a physical regeneration opportunity and reflecting how new infrastructure and place-shaping has attracted innovative organisations into areas.

Universities, hospitals and cultural institutions are recognising their role as anchor institutions for economic growth. Cities are recognising the need to support initiatives to boost productivity and to attract and grow the firms that will create the new products and processes to create, and sustain, wealth in the future. And enlightened developers are recognising the opportunity to support new patterns of working, living and leisure in urban areas.

The full potential of innovation districts will only be realised if there is stronger support from different tiers of government, and if all cities and innovation district projects ensure there is a clear focus and sufficient resources (both in developing and delivering these projects), and by working more closely together. Through a renewed focus on support for innovation districts, the UK and devolved governments and cities can help deliver against the aims of the Industrial Strategy, secure accelerated productivity, support inclusive growth, continue to reshape and regenerate our city centres, and build the networks of collaboration to create the firms, products and processes to drive forward our city economies.

We would like to end with the following recommendations (details can be found in the report; see ‘further reading’):

  1. Government and cities and city regions should prioritise innovation districts to support the delivery of the Industrial Strategy;
  2. Innovation districts should build on their existing work to help lead the way in increasing productivity through inclusive growth;
  3. Innovation districts should work together more closely as a national network;
  4. Cities, city regions and innovation districts should continue to secure capital investment in public spaces, physical and digital infrastructure, and new buildings in innovation districts;
  5. Government, LEPs and Combined Authorities, and cities should invest in developing the hard and soft networks to support business growth in innovation districts.

Further reading

  • UK Innovation Districts Group & Arup (2018), UK Innovation Districts and Knowledge Quarters. Driving more productive growth. London.
  • Van Dinteren, Jacques; Paul Jansen (2018), The university as a catalyst in innovation district development. Paper for IASP World Conference 2018.
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