The Melbourne Innovation Districts
Words by Mathew Bate
Photos supplied by City of Melbourne
It is estimated that, in developing nations like Australia, 25 percent of all jobs will be automated by 2030. In response, hyper-connected and ultramodern innovation districts are popping up in cities throughout the world.
Innovation districts stem from an emerging urban model that’s attempting to re-design the fundamental structure of our cities in order to intensify innovation and provide the bones for a new economic community. The first iteration of modern innovation districts looked something like Silicon Valley: vast suburban arteries containing geographically disconnected corporate hot-spots.
The potential of Silicon Valley is immense; by pulling over one-third of all venture capital investment in the US it has become one of the world’s leading start-up ecosystems. However, places like this operate in their own vacuum and are spatially siloed into regional settings. The new breed of innovation districts are different in that they exist in urban centre-points, are clustered to achieve maximum density and are inherently accessible to the residents that live, work and study around and within them.
While the term ‘innovation district’ is inherently contextual and apt to be misused, it has fundamental characteristics. Julie Wagner, co-author of the groundbreaking paper The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America points out, in an interview with the University of Melbourne, that an innovation district is where “anchor institutions and companies collaborate and connect with small firms, with accelerators, with incubators, with start-ups and scale-ups, and that it happens not just anywhere but happens in a geography that is compact and walkable, that’s amenity laden, that has retail and housing, that is, in its essence, an innovation community.”
So essentially, an innovation district is a collision between as many people as possible that intentionally facilitates knowledge sharing and new economic potential.
The University of Melbourne, RMIT and the City of Melbourne are in the process of establishing the ‘urban innovation district’, which will sit within the broader context of the Melbourne Innovation Districts (MID). The MID will join up, via the Metro tunnel that’s currently just a hole in the ground, three other innovation hubs as well: Fishermans Bend, Melbourne CBD and the Southbank Arts Precinct. The two universities are key players within the urban innovation district that extends as far south as the State Library and as far north as Melbourne University, including the new Queen Victoria Market and the Exhibition Building.
The University of Melbourne and RMIT are the ‘anchor institutions’ that Wagner refers to: research universities and organisations heavily geared towards research and development. Serving as a centrifuge, universities are often ideal to anchor innovation districts as they have large land holdings, attract immense numbers of students and are furnaces for learning, creativity and forward progression. The combined force of two major universities and the City of Melbourne is formidable and they have a bold agenda to lift Melbourne from its industrial past towards a future of holistic prosperity.
If it all seems very economic, well, it sort of is. But, it’s also a new way of organising huge groups of diverse people so that we can work towards raising the living standards of urban populations. “The trend is to nurture living, breathing communities rather than sterile remote, compounds of research silos,” explains writer Pete Engardio in his paper entitled Research Parks for the Knowledge Economy. The modern trend that Engardio is referring to is worth celebrating. For example, rather than becoming a perpetual victim to peak hour traffic the ambition of innovation districts is to create a central hub where, in many cases, cars are mostly redundant. If in the early 20th century we temporarily sidelined humans for the boons of industrial growth, the early 21st century seeks to achieve balance. Finally, it seems as though we’re building cities for people rather than GDP.
This entire discussion and consequential move towards radical re-urbanisation sits within a broader context – we are no longer operating in a ‘business as usual’ scenario. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that, globally, our urban settings will grow by around 3 billion people in the next 30 years, while rural population growth has already stopped growing. Artificial intelligence is already on our doorstep, climate change is undeniable and we’re dealing with global inequality of unparalleled proportions. All of this makes the future of our cities prone to unprecedented shock. This has revitalised an intense debate over city resilience, which is specifically defined as the ability to deal with said shock. But the future also holds unprecedented opportunity for collective human flourishing, social mobilisation and the potential to re-design and re-think how we inhabit high-density areas. Innovation districts offer a context where resilience is bolstered and we can experiment with city design.
While Melbourne is in a better state than many other large urban cities, it has large untapped industrial, inefficient or outdated buildings that can be transformed. The former Royal Women’s Hospital site, for example, has been approved for redevelopment. Renamed Melbourne Connect, the site sits directly opposite Melbourne University and is being developed in conjunction with property giant, LendLease. Lendlease’s Urban Regeneration Managing Director, Mark Menhinnitt, describes the site: “This purpose-built facility will set a new benchmark in education and industry collaboration that meets the highest standards of design and sustainability, while also honouring the site’s heritage and history.” The cross-pollination between educational institutions, industry and the general public in these districts go hand in hand with the general opinion that knowledge is now the most valuable commodity. Innovation districts, therefore, seek to provide the platform for social and informational mobility.
Finally, it seems as though we're building cities for people rather than GDP.
“Perhaps the greatest thing that comes out of an innovation district is not infrastructure but a change in attitude.”
So far, much of the MID is theoretical and is yet to be implemented; it is useful insofar that it sounds good, but the tangible results are yet to be felt. This also alludes to valid concerns as to how three major institutions, two of which seem to be direct competitors, can effectively work together, especially in the midst of heavy regulations from city planning. The more fundamental question as to what is actually meant by innovation, especially when applied to a future that is becoming increasingly unpredictable, is also uncertain. Whatever concerns we have over the ability for the MID to materialise is perhaps beside the point; the reason the MID is happening now is because it must. Melbourne’s current infrastructure is not equipped to adapt and thrive in the midst of unprecedented technological and social change.
The MID promises to be a place of experimentation, innovation, creativity and inclusivity, where Melbourne can thrive in the wake of massive population growth and a rapidly changing job market. But, importantly, the debate happening right now is crucial to its success and will test how flexible and reactive the MID is to public opinion. It could be said that these debates are, like the new buildings that will pop up, just another incremental step towards the collective good. The real challenge now is for the major institutions and government bodies to engage with the people that make up the city and build for them. But this might involve a shift in the way we think about a city. As Michael Trudgeon, a design director and professor at RMIT, proclaimed at the 2018 MID Design Symposium, “Perhaps the greatest thing that comes out of an innovation district is not infrastructure but a change in attitude.”