INNOVATION PRECINCTS: Four Questions and a Challenge

Innovation Precinct’ is a term that means different things to different people. 

Innovation Precincts typically include co-location of high tech businesses, universities and skilled labour; a hot-bed of entrepreneurs and start-ups; a site for industry clusters with global reach; science and technology parks for industries of the future.

Whatever its form, innovation precincts represent a geographic concentration of knowledge-rich economic activity and collaboration to drive both economic and social dynamism in communities.

This aspiration is often described as creating a local version of Silicon Valley.

Sadly, this is an unambitious goal. It serves only to narrow the options and obscure the opportunities for shaping more innovative local communities.

The challenge is not just to mimic Silicon Valley. But, to delve deeper into what is going to make an Innovation Precinct distinctive and effective for your circumstances, history and peculiarities. 

So, here are four questions to move beyond just imitating Silicon Valley to create an Innovation Precinct customised to local needs and conditions.

Q1. What is the Innovation Precinct’s purpose?

What is the prime reason for the Innovation Precinct to exist? What pain does it aim to fix and/or what opportunities does it seek to gain?

For example, think about the following possible purposes:

  • Replace or transform declining industries and lost jobs.
  • Make the area well-recognised as a great place to live, work and play.
  • Keep jobs close to home and create liveable communities.
  • Build the skills and capabilities of local businesses, their managers and workers, to be more competitive, entrepreneurial and forward-looking.
  • Assist local businesses to access sales opportunities in domestic and international markets.
  • Support less prosperous communities with declining populations to thrive again with new facilities, services and opportunities.

Q2. What type of Innovation Precinct is best fit for purpose?

Different Innovation Precincts can be distinguished by their priority focus. Options might include:

  • Innovation Districts or Hubs, Co-Working Centres, Maker Spaces—the focus is on building innovation capabilities and profile at the level of a locality, region or neighbourhood.
  • Industry Clusters—the focus is on industry sectors, fostering clusters of industries for smart specialisation, that capitalise on the strengths of the area and deepen and diversify its economic base.
  • Incubators, Accelerators, Science or Technology Parks, Entrepreneurial Hubs—the focus is on business enterprises, start-ups and universities, bridging research, frontier technologies, entrepreneurial flair and business acumen in campuses for commercialisation.

Q3. What is the current state of development of the Innovation Precinct and what’s missing?

How is the Innovation Precinct progressing? What are its achievements and effective elements? What obstacles are impeding progress? What priority actions are needed to achieve desired results?

To plot the state of play of the Innovation Precinct, try this matrix of two intersecting dimensions. First, Number of Nodes and Connections in the precinct, from few to many, and second, Sources of Knowledge and Capabilities, from deep to broad.

The Innovation Precinct can be positioned on this matrix in a way that describes its current stage of development and the priority gaps to be filled.

For example, if the precinct has many and diverse participants (on the nodes and connections dimension), then the priority goal may be to facilitate productive working relationships and collaborations between them. If there are few participants, then the task can be about attracting more players and actively creating a shared identity and purpose.

On the second dimension of knowledge and capabilities that characterise the precinct, if it relies on deep specialist knowledge and capabilities in a particular field, then the task is to seek out and engage more world-class research and researchers and experts in translating research to commercial ends. If, however, the precinct’s activities cover broad, cross-disciplinary sources of knowledge and fields of interest, the priority may be to encourage open-source knowledge exchange, shared learning networks, and innovative problem-solving laboratories.

Q4. What are the practical programs most likely to make the Innovation Precinct successful?

For impact and for sustainable operations, it is preferable for the Innovation Precinct to look outward, rather than inward.

That is, focus on programs that identify new opportunities and unmet needs, and that build the skills and capabilities to meet this demand speedily and imaginatively.

Among the practical programs to choose from are:

  • Voucher or grants schemes.
  • Procurement programs.
  • Industry or Technology Roadmap projects.
  • Business leadership and mentoring programs.
  • Innovation or Maker Spaces.

Attention to these four questions structures more in-depth thinking about the character and diversity of Innovation Precincts. 

It challenges a narrow version of innovation places as driven primarily by technology advances, research commercialisation and entrepreneurial start-ups on the model of Silicon Valley.

This framework recognises that Innovation Precincts are designed to bring social benefits, not just economic progress, to communities. Importantly, it acknowledges the significance of local differences –in geographies, aspirations, and challenges. 


See presentation by Narelle Kennedy on The Geography of Innovation – Making Sense of Innovation Places and Spaces, Economic Development Australia webinar, June 2020.

26th July 2021