Innovation Buildings: The Future of Higher Education?

As colleges and universities plan for future growth and success while facing challenges like Covid-19 and the higher education cliff, they need to consider alternative ways to differentiate their institution and continue to be a destination for the best and brightest faculty, researchers, students and staff.

An emerging trend is to create innovation buildings or an innovation district on or adjacent to campus in order to fend off these challenges. These buildings / districts are typically focused on scientific disciplines (for example, life sciences, computing) and bring together the public and private sectors in exciting new ways to harness the power of collaboration, entrepreneurship, and innovation. The ecosystem that develops within the innovation cluster promotes shared research, economic development, and a private sector talent pipeline for the future. This article will help define an innovation building /district, provide examples of the benefits of these facilities to an institution, and utilize a case study to demonstrate how innovation buildings can transform existing campuses and catalyze the regional economy.

What are innovation districts?

An innovation district is fueled by a virtuous cycle: industry partners demand immediate adjacency to urban research institutions for access to talent and intellectual property; talented researchers demand adjacency to industry to interact, partner, and participate in funding to produce research opportunities; and, finally, workforce talent and supporting economic resources and community amenities are attracted to these research and industry partners. This development takes on different forms, including research parks, anchor-focused clusters, revitalized urban areas, and in some cases, entire innovation districts.

In each instance, these important economic hubs drive productivity and innovation more effectively than traditional development. Studies have shown that workers are 1.5 times more productive in these places where there is an agglomeration of knowledge, funding, talent, and specialized services.

Innovation today is enhanced by the forced interaction, or collision of people and ideas. Ideas are more collaborative and open than ever before, which has driven this unique real estate trend toward more adjacency, proximity, and density.

"Innovation districts are dense hubs of economic activity where innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, and placemaking intersect."
— The Global Institute on Innovation Districts
What are innovation buildings?

An innovation building takes the construct of the district and distills it down to a single building. The facility brings together the public and private sector under a single roof wherein faculty, researchers, students, and private sector "collisions" occur, collaboration is intensified, and the ensuing "vibe" of the building creates an environment not typically found on campuses. While Covid-19 has changed the commercial office landscape, innovation buildings thrive on human interaction and the need for hands-on access to scientific labs that cannot be done remotely.

How are they beneficial to universities and surrounding communities?

Universities can benefit from innovation districts/buildings in both direct and indirect ways. In the higher education arms race for highly sought-after faculty and students, an innovation district/building can be a differentiator for many universities and used as a recruiting tool.

Innovation districts/buildings can also provide additional revenue streams for universities that may be looking for alternative ways to bring added value to their campuses. The revenue streams/value creation stem from potential leases, spending money on campus, grants, sponsorships, etc.

The private tenants bring additional investment to campus, in the form of leases and job creation, which in turn attracts students, therefore increasing enrollment. The mix of university tenants and those in the private sector create an exciting ecosystem that is attractive to companies looking to hire high-tech talent, and students and faculty looking to partner with private industry.

The collision and retail space, typically on the ground floor, attracts the greater community and encourages them to interact with those already in the building. This mix of university, private tenants, and community creates buzz for all parties involved.

Unique attributes of an innovation-focused development

At its core, an innovation-focused development is first about the people and their work in these places. The real estate solution to bring about the development is merely a means to an important innovation end and brings ideas and solutions to inspire and help people thrive.

Second, the real estate needs to be activated and curated. This occurs by creating special places from the inside out; creating something for everyone. Through thoughtful design and programming, the facility should foster the core talent capabilities, attract complementary resources, and fundamentally drive collisions that lead to disruptive innovation. All of this is done in tandem with increasing benefits to the local community and bringing a diverse population to the innovation ecosystem.

Third, innovation districts provide a number of project opportunities to support the "live, work, play" districts, including: housing and mixed-use developments; neighborhood amenities, such as grocery stores and activated public spaces; and reimagined infrastructure, such as bike paths, pedestrian-oriented sidewalks and paths, and connections to mass transit .

Finally, while innovation districts offer clear benefits for industry partners and institutions, they also provide a path to equity for their surrounding communities. Many existing innovation districts are located near diverse low- and moderate­ income neighborhoods where up to 60% of residents do not have a college degree. Innovation districts provide a wealth of opportunities for existing residents to join the innovation economy through renewed educational opportunities, as well as through employment opportunities either directly from the industry or indirectly by jobs created by the development.

By leveraging nearby public transportation, innovation districts have an easy connection to the rest of the area, including disadvantaged neighborhoods, which helps make innovation districts accessible and inclusive to all.

How is Edgemoor uniquely positioned to create an innovation ecosystem on campus?

Whether you're planning to establish the beginning foundations of an innovation district/building or adding the crown jewel to an already thriving innovation hub, the Edgemoor team will bring our two decades of experience delivering higher education P3s and traditional commercial real estate projects to create environments of productivity and innovation where the public and private sector end-users thrive in achieving their goals.

At Edgemoor, we bring the real estate and placemaking ingredients together at the core of our thinking.

Preliminary Exterior Rendering
George Mason University Arlington Campus Expansion

When Northern Virginia was pitched as the location for Amazon’s second headquarters, the region touted its standing as North America’s top producer of tech talent and the leading metro area for public and private sector innovation. After Northern Virginia’s selection, the Commonwealth passed legislation committing more than $700 million to the state’s Tech Talent Investment Program over the next 20 years, with the goal of producing 25,000 additional graduates in computing fields by 2039.

As the largest university in Virginia that produces the highest number of computer science graduates, George Mason University (Mason) plays a key role in achieving this goal.

The Arlington campus expansion, which will house the Institute for Digital InnovAtion (IDIA) and the new School of Computing, will provide approximately 360,500 sq ft of university R&D labs, classrooms, offices, corporate innovation centers, incubators/accelerators and coworking facilities, along with collaboration and convening spaces and neighborhood retail.

This highly anticipated project will serve as a catalyst in establishing the “Rosslyn-Ballston Innovation Corridor,” furthering the region’s destiny as a premier tech hub, while providing community amenities to Arlington residents. The building has already attracted interest from potential tech tenants due to the location, proximity to Mason’s faculty and students, high-tech talent that will be co-located in the building, and one-of-a-kind collaboration space.

After a year-long procurement process, Edgemoor was selected to develop the Arlington campus expansion through a P3 in February 2021. The building is scheduled for substantial completion in Spring 2025 and Edgemoor will lease, activate, operate, and maintain the building for Mason and third-party commercial tenants.

This article originally appeared in P3 Bulletin's 2021 Higher Education Public-Private Partnerships Report.