As I entered the United States, the border officer looked at me with a hint of suspicion when I explained to him that I was visiting to study urban planning and future visions in Albuquerque and Denver. “What urban planning in Albuquerque?” was his next question. “There is no urban planning in Albuquerque,” he murmured while stamping my passport at JFK Airport. Luckily, his skepticism was not an obstacle to my visit; instead, it made me more curious about this city that I knew so little about – aside from what I learned from watching Breaking Bad.

In 2014, The University of New Mexico and The City of Albuquerque led the effort to lay down a masterplan for a massive redevelopment project to create an innovation district in downtown Albuquerque – a city better known for the International Balloon Fiesta and Saul Goodman’s law office than it is for an innovation district. And while I am aware that “Innovation District” has become a buzzword following the success of Barcelona’s Experience 22@Barcelona, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle RT, unlike the RT, Albuquerque’s innovation district is meant to be more walkable, connected, social, and sustainable. These characteristics are in line with emerging urban and social trends that promote dense urbanization, the knowledge economy and transit-oriented development (TOD). All are attempts to add social spaces for city dwellers.

I was excited to visit Albuquerque to learn more about its innovation district and see it in the making for myself. 10 years from now, I may have to go again to see how far the city has changed, but for now, learning about the process was sufficient.

The Rise of Innovation Districts

In their book The Metropolitan Revolution, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley highlight success stories of city leaders, mayors and universities that are stepping in to solve problems that national governments can’t solve alone. The book reveals how, at a time of huge fiscal pressure, inefficient land use and social inequality, innovation districts can be used as an urban planning tool to foster economic growth and entrepreneurship. Innovation districts are meant to act like acupuncture to the body of a city. Unlike Special Economic Zones (SEZs), which are being developed in emerging cities around the world, innovation districts don’t create special legislative or economic conditions. Instead, they are designed to take the city higher in the value chain and foster the knowledge economy and entrepreneurship.

The authors of The Metropolitan Revolution argue that innovation districts have the unique potential to spur inclusive and sustainable economic development. They provide a strong foundation for bottom-up and multi-stakeholder collaboration across different sectors and disciplines — to co-invent and co-produce new ideas for the market. Cities like Barcelona, Berlin, Medellin, Toronto, and Seoul all have different examples of evolving innovation districts. In the United States, Cambridge, St. Louis, Detroit, and Atlanta each have their own versions of innovation districts, many of which are centered around an anchor institution.

Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner from the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution describe innovation districts as follows: “Innovation districts constitute the ultimate mash-up of entrepreneurs and education institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments — all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine.”

Innovation districts are different from technology parks, which are usually characterized by a number of isolated companies working in silos. Innovation districts are meant to be more dense, walkable, and multi-dimensional in nature. They are intentionally designed to strengthen social proximity and knowledge spillovers.

Albuquerque: The Duke City

While the New York border officer had a point about urban planning in Albuquerque — I guess he meant the lack of a dense and walkable downtown — the city has different types of assets that make it a good spot for a knowledge-based district. First of all, it has a long-standing research industry that has boomed since World War II. Various defense and aerospace contractors are based in the city, in addition to labs like Sandia National Laboratory and the AirForce Research Lab. “This is a place where a nuclear physicist, a rocket scientist and a cyber security expert really do walk into a bar,” Gary Oppedahl, Director of the Economic Development Department at the City of Albuquerque, tells me at his Downtown office.

Second, the city’s density is very low. Large lots of land are still vacant in the downtown area, and extreme urban sprawl means it is very affordable, making it an ideal attraction for millennials and nomad freelancers.

Third, the city has an undeniable cool factor. I have visited more than a hundred up-and-coming cities around the world, and Albuquerque ranks high on my list, with its quirky places and chilled out people. Only Albuquerque has an InterGalactic Cultural Relations Institute, a offbeat tinker town and a cluster of adobe houses right in the middle of its downtown in 2017.

Placemaking, Not Real Estate

While agglomeration economics advocate for clustering between firms, there’s little magic in simply being close together. For places to truly work, walkable streets have to conspire with active ground floors, dynamic public spaces and proximity in order to build homogeneous and connected districts. Vibrant streets and premium coffee and art spaces can make the difference between a concrete built environment that simply puts innovators next to one another, and one where innovators connect regularly in shared spaces, both intentionally and unintentionally.

In order to attract and retain talent, a district must also provide a reasonable amount of convenience, leisure and social opportunities for people. This has long been the case, but quality of life pressures continue to rise as millennials flock to urban places that offer choice and liveliness, and talent from outside the U.S. demands places that embrace diversity and perhaps offer a few familiar footholds.

The masterplan of Innovate ABQ clearly identifies and integrates the existing points of attraction and social spots within the radius of the district. In the end, the district is meant to incubate a lifestyle rather than clusters of modern buildings. “One of the components that the [founding] group looked at was the actual places that make Albuquerque interesting; how to capitalize on the capitals that we have,” says Daniel Dietz, Project Manager of Innovate ABQ. The masterplan of Innovate ABQ goes into the smallest of details, including naming the types of plants that will be used for landscaping around the different sites of the project.

Open Innovation

There is no fixed formula for innovation. It is predicated on human interaction and the creation of an enriching environment that doesn’t just facilitate collaboration, but also inspires it. “The idea is that if you bring together a lot of those assets to the same place, you can create the fundamental collisions that lead into economic mobility and [an] increase in job base here,” notes Daniel Dietz.

Innovation districts provide an opportunity to break through corporate walls and turn a space into a real incubator of flowing creativity and inspiration. It turns innovation into “open innovation” and breaks the walls of exclusivity. “We want people to see Albuquerque as that innovative place where anyone can make it. Drop your mask, no cliques here, join in..we support everyone who has ideas,” says Gary Oppedahl.

In an innovation district, every coffee shop, bar, public space, escalator, and garden is part of an ecosystem, not part of the architecture. Every space is a platform to linger, work and think in public. Experimentation of new technologies or ideas can be found on every corner as the norm rather than the exception. It’s a culture embraced by every resident, employee, vendor — even wanderers — in the ecosystem. It’s a lifestyle, not a 9 to 5 job.

Oppedahl states three key ingredients that define Albuquerque’s culture: Quirky, Linky and Sticky. “We have our own unique quirkiness here, it doesn’t look like mainstream anywhere. And that gives you good ideas in the way of thinking,” he explains. “The linky is, I can introduce you to anyone here within two weeks, and you can go into a bar here and see three-piece-suits, purple hair, and hollow jeans, and everybody gets along,” he adds. “And, finally, sticky, we gotta make this place sticky for people not to leave.”

The Church of Entrepreneurship: The Catalyst inside The Catalyst

Creating an innovation district often requires an anchor and multi-level approach. Sometimes the anchor is a big university like MIT and Mass General Hospital in Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Philips in Eindhoven. Otherwise, massive projects like this can become so overstretched that one can easily get lost in them.

“In order to catalyze our innovation district, given some of the geographic breakdowns of Albuquerque, we needed a very narrow, focused space to get those things up and running,” says Daniel Dietz, Project Manager of Innovate ABQ.

Innovate ABQ is a seven-acre site in the middle of Albuquerque’s Innovation District (or Innovation Central) that is meant to play this role. A key building in the site was originally a Baptist church that has been transformed into a hub with a core research and innovation component, as well as a series of initiatives and programs aimed at being the jewel and the central hub of Albuquerque’s Innovation District. This hub is central not only to people and businesses, but also for resources. A few people called it “The Church of Entrepreneurship” in our meetings.

“It’s the hub of the district where the federal, state and local level funding would go,” says Dietz.Innovation DistrictAround the site of Innovate ABQ is a bigger component of the innovation district: The Innovation Corridor. The corridor aims to convert the area around the old part of the historic Route 66 into a mixed-use development that connects Innovation Central to The University of New Mexico and the neighborhood of East Nob Hill. Surrounded by several residential areas, cool diners, small shops, and lots of empty land, it is ideal for future infilling projects. In the avenue itself, a BRT is being built, in addition to plans for a bicycle network to enhance and diversify modes of transportation in a city that is very much car-dominated.

Finally, The University of New Mexico is one of the key research universities in the state as well as the nation. It is also one of the leading bio science hubs. With a student population of 27,000, it shall provide a steady flow of talent and research to the innovation district. In Antoine van Agtmael and Red Bakker’s book The Smartest Places On Earth: Why Rustbelts Are The Emerging Hotspots Of Global Innovation, the authors stress the importance of having a research university at the center of knowledge-based districts or cities. But, honestly speaking, having a student district surrounding research institutions – rather than just having researchers and scientists – makes for a livelier center.

Create The Magnet And Wait

After creating the overall framework for the ecosystem, the challenge will be how to bring key players to join the game – a task usually easier said than done. “Our goal is to bring…the footprint of a major institution into the site with the intention that it can’t hold all of the operation of big institutions, but we can bring together strategic components, hoping that they will recognize the value of this new place of collision and expand later on,” says Dietz.

However, even with all the details that are going into the design of the place, it’s still hard to picture how it will look or what type of things will come out of it. And this is a key characteristic of platforms: you throw the seed, prepare the ecosystem and wait to see the outcome of collisions and knowledge spillover.

“I think that the one thing that can happen, that can be problematic, is if people get a specific vision of what this project is gonna be, and they hold it to that,” says David Green, Innovate ABQ architect.

“We are trying something and we would love to see where it will lead us. It’s hard to predict every aspect of the economy that this placemaking project might attract,” says Dietz.

Perhaps, in a few years, it won’t seem so odd to JFK immigration officers for an Egyptian to visit Albuquerque’s Innovation District on a business trip. Perhaps people all over the world will know more about startups and innovations coming from Albuquerque than they do about Walter White’s blue meth.

As for me, I certainly plan to visit again to see just what it means to create innovation through collision.

The #CreativeCitiesUSA Albuquerque editorial project was made possible with the support of: Innovation District