A design pattern for digital urbanism: City-Centre Enterprise Incubation

Written by Rick Robinson on 16 April 2013

In “Do we need a Pattern Language for Smarter Cities” Executive Architect at IBM, Rick Robinson, suggested that “design patterns“, a tool for capturing re-usable experience invented by the town-planner Christopher Alexander, might offer a useful way to organise our knowledge of successful approaches to “Smarter Cities”. He now writing a set of design patterns to describe ideas that he has seen work more than once. (The collection is described and indexed in “A Pattern Language for Digital Urbanism”)

The Custard Factory in Birmingham, at the heart of the city’s creative media sector in the central district of Digbeth.

Summary of the pattern:

This pattern describes the provision of mixed facilities to incubate technology, creative and social enterprises in an urban environment.

The intention is to foster growth across the high-value sectors of a city economy in a way that maximises the potential for cross-sectoral interaction and innovation. Locating incubation facilities in a city centre rather than on an out-of-town campus encourages such cross-fertilisation between existing and new businesses. The city environment – its transport systems, retailers, businesses, residents and visitors – can also serve as a “living lab” in which to test new products and services.

Such incubation facilities are often operated through hybrid public/private models so that they are financially sustainable, but act so as to promote the success of enterprises which contribute to the host city’s strategic objectives – for example, promoting growth in key sectors of the economy or creating jobs or skills in specific areas or communities.

City systems, communities and infrastructures affected:

(This description is based on the elements of Smarter City ecosystems presented in ”The new Architecture of Smart Cities“).

  • Goals: Any.
  • People: Primarily innovators. Citizens, employees and visitors play a secondary role as the potential consumers of new services created through innovation.
  • Ecosystem: All.
  • Soft infrastructures: Innovation forums; networks and community organisations.
  • City systems: Any.
  • Hard infrastructures: Information and communications technology, spaces and buildings.

Commercial operating model:

City-centre incubation facilities are often operated by “Special Purpose Vehicles” (SPVs) jointly owned by city institutions such as local authorities; universities; and organisations providing incubation services to businesses and social enterprises. Alternatively, some are established through collaborative business models such as Co-Operatives, Social Enterprises or Community Interest Companies. This enables them to offer the revenue-generating services that enable financial self-sufficiency; but also to focus on incubating those enterprises that contribute most significantly to the city’s overall strategic objectives, rather than simply generated the highest revenue income.

Some investment is often made in shared technology or services for use by tenant enterprises: for example, access to Cloud computing resources; collaboration tools; video conferencing services; 3D-printing or 3D-cutting facilities. Such services may be procured through the creation of partnerships with technology vendors or service providers who are seeking to build their own ecosystem of entrepreneurial business partners.

Long-term financial sustainability is dependent on the generation of commercial revenues from services offered to successfully operating businesses and social enterprises.

Soft infrastructures, hard infrastructures and assets required:

The collaborative working space of Hub Westminster which is constantly refactored to support new uses, exploiting furniture and spatial technology laser-cut from digital designs

An active incubation programme depends on a complex ecosystem of relationships and capabilities, including: the generation of new entrepreneurial talent through the education system; the attraction of external entrepreneurs and businesses to re-locate; access to market insight and development capability, mentoring and finance; the provision of business support and growth services such as office space, computing capability, legal and financial advice; and access to business partners and market opportunities.

Unless they are of significant size and diversity, cities and regions will be most successful if they focus their business development capacity on the stimulation of growth in specific sectors that maximise the value of their existing regional economic, social, geographic and infrastructural capability.

Such focus may lead to some supporting capabilities, including technology, being common to many businesses in a locality. For example, 3D printing is an increasingly useful tool for prototyping manufactured objects; but the cost of highly capable 3D printers may be beyond the capability of individual small businesses to afford. Similarly a Cloud Computing platform dedicated to supporting small, entrepreneurial businesses may enable the cost of some technology capabilities to be shared by a regional cluster.

Driving forces:

An economy of sustainable, profitable businesses is at the heart of the long term vitality of cities and the regions surrounding them. As economic growth in emerging markets combines with increasingly rapid advances in science and technology, maintaining such an economy requires constant innovation by businesses; and it is in the interests of cities to stimulate and support such innovation.

Michael Porter’s analysis of economic clusters shows that this innovation is created when businesses adopt new technology; or when they adopt existing technologies from outside their current market sector. Whereas many science parks have been based on or near to University campuses to enable access to new technology, an increasing number of more broadly focussed incubation facilities are based in city centres in order to facilitate cross-sectorial interaction and innovation. Some of these can additionally exploit their proximity to city-centre Universities.

City centre locations also provide the opportunity to create businesses with unique capabilities or value. New technologies that emerge from University-based science are often the result of a global research agenda; but innovations that are created through cross-sectorial interaction in a city economy are shaped by the specific characteristics of that economy, and of the city’s geography and demographics. They may thereby create unique products and services that it is harder to replicate elsewhere, providing a competitive advantage in the global economy.

Benefits:

  • Enable local organic economic growth and job creation through small and entrepreneurial businesses.
  • Enable local businesses to exchange ideas across sectors to maintain the value of existing products and services; and to create new ones.
  • Provide access to leading edge technology and market insight to local economic clusters through the attraction of technology and service providers seeking partnerships with clusters of entrepreneurial businesses.
  • Coordinate regional investment and incubation capacity in support of business growth in areas of strategic local importance.
  • Create an offer that is attractive to talented people and businesses to locate in a place.
Technology entrepreneurs in Birmingham Science Park Aston exploring how their skills can contribute to innovative services in the city, photographed by Sebastian Lenton

Implications and risks:

  • There are very many factors that affect the success of initiatives intended to provide business incubation and stimulate economic growth, including the availability of affordable housing, the attractiveness of the urban environment and the availability of skills. Some of those factors are difficult to influence, and some take considerable time and investment to affect.
  • It is difficult to “pre-let” incubation capacity, so initial investments are usually speculative.
  • Rental revenues for incubation space provide relatively short term financial returns, but job creation, economic growth and other intended outcomes are long-term.
  • Genuinely constructive partnerships rely on effective engagement between city institutions, businesses and communities that can take time to achieve.

Alternatives and variations:

Collaborative working spaces exist in many cities to offer small businesses, entrepreneurs and mobile workers convenient, attractive, flexible and vibrant places to work. Whilst they are not always explicitly intended to incubate new businesses, or businesses in specific sectors, they clearly represent an incubation capacity; and most also invest in shared resources such as office space and digital connectivity.

Cutting edge examples also use technologies such as 3D-cutting to constantly re-fashion furniture and interior structures to adapt the shared space to changing requirements to support presentations, workshops, prototyping, conferences and events. Many collaborative working spaces attractive creative and media rather than technology businesses; but these sectors now overlap to such a significant extent that the distinction between them is increasingly slight.

Examples and stories:

Examples of collaborative working spaces include:

Sources of information:

Some of the articles on this blog refer to this topic and provide further links to information sources:

To read more by Rick Robinson, take a look at his website http://theurbantechnologist.com or follow him on twitter 

Categories: Technology, Environment