You know the concept of innovation districts as urban pockets that connect anchor institutions, influential companies and startups to stimulate commerce and new developments. Think of certain blocks within University City where you can find universities, research orgs and accelerators within a few blocks of each other, or even in the same building.
But in what ways should cultural context matter to those areas? How can the surrounding community benefit from the work happening inside them?
Technical.ly Assistant Editor Stephen Babcock led a discussion on the topic at the inaugural Amplify Philly @ Home event with Tracy Brala, VP of ecosystem development for University City Science Center and executive director for Venture Cafe Philadelphia; Leigh-Ann Buchanan, founding executive director of Venture Cafe Miami; and Sally Guzik, director and general manager of Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) Philadelphia. The panelists shared their insights on cultivating inclusive spaces, building community trust and helping their organizations adapt.
Guzik emphasized the importance of connecting with a community before starting work there. She previously worked in Houston and Miami, and when planning her move to Philadelphia, Guzik recognized the challenges that come with being unfamiliar with the people you’re charged with serving.
She found a solution in meeting with residents six months before the building she now works in — University City’s 3675 Market — was constructed.
“What’s worked for us is [understanding how] to build trust quickly when you don’t necessarily have a presence in a city,” she said. “My model was a listening tour in getting to know everyone from universities to city officials to people at block parties and just listening.”
Guzik said that in her work at CIC, the coworking space that offers services to entrepreneurs, she constantly searches for ways to build relationships with the community and considers feedback to be a vital asset in the growth of her organization and others like it.
Brala, whose programming-centered Venture Cafe is “powered by” the Science Center and also operates out of 3675 Market, said innovation districts like University City need to reflect the communities in which they exist. Nearby, West Philadelphia has a 40% poverty rate, she said, which has made the Science Center focus on intersectionality and develop Launch Lane, an accelerator with 50% women and minorities across its seven companies.
For Brala, one particular memory of community engagement in the neighborhood drove home the importance of inclusion: After a design thinking session led her and colleagues to create programming that appealed to all of its residents, a man at a block party they organized out of the Science Center pulled her aside.
“A gentleman came up to me and said, ‘No one ever asked me to come in [here],” she said. “Because this DJ [for the event] who was his friend and said [he] should come into this space, he felt welcomed in the space. It’s really about making sure that you’re partnering with people. Make sure you’re challenging people to be inclusive.”
Working in Miami where a majority of its population is minorities, Buchanan said that her innovation district is at a particularly unique intersection of communities.
“We see opportunity for ecosystem drivers like a drop-in cafe and we are able to bridge silo parts of community,” she said. “We’re at the corner of the Health District, a historically Black neighborhood in Overtown and Wynwood [Art District]. Looking at how innovation can play a role at the intersection of disciplines is important.”
Buchanan believes supporting entrepreneurs of diverse backgrounds as whole individuals is another component of the work that innovation districts do. That work includes reallocating social capital and relationships in order to ensure that entrepreneurs that lack them have better opportunities to succeed. And finding ways to support entrepreneurs’ creative capital is equally important.
“Scale in terms of community doesn’t mean numbers,” she said. “For us, scale means asking, ‘Is innovation for everyone?’ We began to map the customer journey and user experience ecosystem, and understand that everybody won’t fit in a box.”
Watch this recording of this panel below, starting at the 2:46:35 mark:
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.