Regional benefits of a healthy innovation district



A recent paper by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.- based public policy organization, got me thinking about the ongoing transformation of the Flint’s urban core and its significance for the broader region. That is, the interconnection between the city and the suburbs.

The article, titled “Assessing your innovation district: Five key questions to explore,” surveys how urban areas can foster job creation, economic opportunity and serve as engines of community revitalization. The questions posed, and defined, are:

Critical mass: Where are your region’s highest concentrations of innovation assets? (i.e., Companies today need to be able to interact with researchers, inventors, and entrepreneurs, as well as with other firms, to define new products and identify new markets.)

Innovation capacity: Is the district leveraging and aligning its distinctive advantages to grow and strengthen firms’ innovation capacity?

Diversity and inclusion: Does the district have an inclusive, diverse, and opportunity rich environment?

Quality of place: Does the district have physical and social assets that attract a diversity of firms and people, increase interactions, and accelerate innovation outcomes? (i.e., Dense, walkable, and highly connected areas help nurture the increasingly collaborative and open culture of innovation.)

Leadership: Does the district have the leadership necessary to succeed? (i.e., District leaders can play a variety of roles in fostering a new culture of collaboration and collective impact, whether by serving as champions of a district vision, conveners that mobilize stakeholders to engage, or catalysts of action.)

Flint scores well, despite what you might have read, seen or heard elsewhere. Still, you might be thinking: What does that mean for the rest of Genesee County? Building a better Flint is not a zero-sum game for the rest of Genesee County. In a thriving metropolitan region, there is room for both a flourishing urban center and prospering suburban communities. Noted urbanist Richard Florida, writing in the online magazine CityLab, said “the better way to think about the geography of innovation is not city versus suburb but city and suburb. If cities are the centers for more cutting-edge innovation, the suburbs remain home to the big established companies that require large campuses to house their activities and people, and which tend to engage in a lot of patenting.”

Flint & Genesee can succeed in a similar fashion.

The city’s innovation assets – defined by its cluster of higher education institutions, health & wellness facilities, business incubators, connectivity, diversity and collaborative stakeholders – complement the established manufacturers, healthcare providers, research and development facilities, and information technology firms spread throughout the region.

Downtown Flint has the makings of a true innovation district. Of course, there are challenges but real progress is being made on multiple fronts. As the city works to address the outstanding questions in creating and maintaining a healthy innovation ecosystem, Genesee County will gain, too.

Speaking of ecosystems, read about our region’s the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the March-April issue of AND, the Flint & Genesee Chamber’s bimonthly business magazine. You can find it online at

Tim Herman is the CEO of the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce.

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