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Building a Place for Innovation PUBLIC ACCESS

The Worlds Most Successful Research Park is Celebrating Its 50th Anniversary. In Today's Virtual World, Its Still a Model for Projects Around the Globe.

Mechanical Engineering 131(11), 39-43 (Nov 01, 2009) (6 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2001-Nov-3

Abstract

This article elaborates benefits of building technology or research parks for innovations. Governments and universities around the world are turning to research parks due to their ability to revitalize local economies. They are betting that shared parking lots, open offices, restaurants, bars, parties, and activities will make it easier for people to mix, mingle, and strike creative sparks. Research parks resist recessions longer and recover faster. As governments and corporations hope to use science park development to spur economic growth, it is important to understand factors that make these research parks successful. Governments see science parks to move up the economic food chain. Most experts, who have studied science parks, agree on the need for business leadership, civic support, and strong university links. Singapore is using education and science parks to shift its economy to software, advanced materials, and biomedical products. It recruited top scholars for its schools and offers 1000 free Ph.D. scholarships to students who promise to work in Singapore for 10 years.

Article

It’s the Age of the Virtual Worker. Wireless Internet is everywhere. Cell phones look and act like small computers. Software makes it easy to collaborate across town or around the world. For some, Twitter and Facebook have replaced the meeting room and water cooler as conduits of information and gossip.

In a world where many employees rarely visit an office, what can a relic from the buttoned-down, Eisenhow-er-era corporate establishment teach us about how to work? Plenty, it seems.

Across the globe, nations, states, cities, universities, and businesses are investing billions in new science parks—also called research or technology parks— that gather thousands of researchers in one place. In fact, they’re packing people closer together than ever, hoping to recreate the “interconnectedness” of Silicon Valley and other top technology hotspots. They are betting that shared parking lots, open offices, restaurants, bars, parties, and activities will make it easier for people to mix, mingle, and strike creative sparks.

Ultimately, they hope their planned developments turn into “self-sustaining knowledge ecosystems” that draw smart, ambitious innovators to a place where they can exchange ideas, services, and money to create wealth.

Most of these efforts are consciously imitating Research Triangle Park, the granddaddy of science parks, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Situated just outside Raleigh, N.C., Research Triangle Park is an 11-mile-long strip that is the world’s most successful science development. The park is home to more than 170 companies and 42,000 technology workers with an average salary of $56,000 (45 percent higher than the national average), said Rick Weddle, Research Triangle Park’s president.

The wealth is not confined to the park alone. It has spurred growth in the entire Research Triangle region, which is anchored by Raleigh, the state capital and home to North Carolina State University; Durham, which has Duke University; and Chapel Hill, which houses a campus of the University of North Carolina.

Between 2000 and 2008, the Triangle’s population rose nearly 25 percent as 373,000 people moved to the region.

“We’re the richest region in the Southeastern United States,” Weddle said. “We have the highest concentration of Ph.D.’s of any of the top 100 metropolitan areas. We have 23 million square feet of built space, representing 18 or 19 60-story office buildings.”

In bringing corporate operations to North Carolina and fostering the development of technology-based start-up companies, the Triangle has transformed the state. When Ross DeVol, director of regional economics at Milken Institute, an independent economic think tank, ranked the technology strength of each U.S. state, he found that tech-savvy states were also wealthier. “We can explain three-quarters of the variation in state-by-state income with our technology ranking,” he said.

Research parks also resist recessions longer and recover faster. As governments and corporations hope to use science park development to spur economic growth, it’s important to understand the factors that made the Research Triangle Park so successful. The key, say researchers who study these developments, is close integration. Science parks aren’t just a place where creative people work together. Governments, universities, and industries also have to collaborate closely.

TO HONOR THE FOUNDING OF THE TRIANGLE, THE INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF SCIENCE PARKS HELD ITS ANNUAL MEETING IN RALEIGH THIS PAST JUNE. And as developers from around the world came together to share ideas, it was readily apparent that science parks were more popular than ever, even in the age of the untethered workforce.

Governments see science parks as a way to move up the economic food chain. In the 1990s, for example, Singapore saw the threat China posed to its manufacturing economy. So it is pumping $7 billion over 20 years into One North, a science park devoted to biotechnology, medical services, and advanced materials. Begun in 2001, it has already attracted top corporate tenants.

Barcelona plans to retrofit 115 blocks of the city’s old Cotton District into a science park for media, information technology, and biomedical companies. Seoul is planning Digital Media City, a 135-acre park to focus on entertainment, game, and interactive technologies. Two new technology parks in Chihuahua, Mexico, hope to lure R&D work that might otherwise gravitate to Mexico City or Baja California. And in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh Techno Valley hopes to capitalize on King Saud University’s reputation as the Middle East’s top technology school.

Despite such enthusiasm, most research parks fail. Half never make it off the drawing board, and half the rest turn into business parks. Many fail because they are glorified real estate deals that offer little beyond space. Some swerve off course when impatient leaders demand results now. Others are not well thought out.

An IBM conference room. IBM was Research Triangle Park’s first major corporate tenant and remains its largest employer.

Grahic Jump LocationAn IBM conference room. IBM was Research Triangle Park’s first major corporate tenant and remains its largest employer.

“The world is full of Tier 1 research universities that have little commercial impact on areas around them,” Weddle said. “Sometimes it’s not so much about what you need to learn, but what you need to unlearn.”

He recalled visiting a group while the auto industry was coming unglued this past year. “I asked them how far they were from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor,” Weddle said. “They were 40 minutes away, closer than Raleigh and Chapel Hill are to Research Triangle Park. Michigan has a research budget bigger than any school in the Triangle. Yet we see the Triangle as a single connected region and they see Ann Arbor as separate.”

Research Triangle Park has spawned jobs both inside and outside the park, turning what was once an economic backwater into the Southeast's most wealthy and most educated region.

Grahic Jump LocationResearch Triangle Park has spawned jobs both inside and outside the park, turning what was once an economic backwater into the Southeast's most wealthy and most educated region.

That way of thinking has made the Triangle something of a template for creating a science park, an example of the best practices at work.

“The success of Research Triangle Park is unparalleled in my experience,” said Nate Bowditch, a senior economic growth specialist at RTI International. “I’ve been all over the world, from Maine and Ghana to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. When it comes to creating a knowledge ecosystem, there is nothing like it.”

It didn’t happen overnight. Research Triangle began in 1959, after local business leaders saw how universities such as Harvard and MIT spurred Boston’s economic development. They thought they could offer similar benefits by teaming with three local universities, Duke, University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State.

At the time, none was in the same class as Harvard or MIT. Yet all were solid research institutions. And thanks to its history as a low-wage manufacturing center, the Raleigh-Durham region also promised lower costs for businesses and their employees. Backed by the state and local governments as well as by the three universities, local business leaders raised money, bought land, and began recruiting corporate research facilities.

Success came grudgingly until 1965, when the park scored two major coups. The National Environmental Health Sciences Center announced it would build its $70 million headquarters there. Three months later, IBM committed to a 600,000-square-foot research facility to work on its breakthrough Model 360 computer.

IBM, still the park’s largest employer with more than 10,000 workers, gave the Triangle corporate America’s seal of approval. Other firms followed. Today, the park’s top tenants include pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline, tech firms Cisco and Nortel, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The original plan sited Research Triangle Park on 4,400 acres of pine land. One year after it opened in 1959, it had 200,000 square feet of space. Today, the park has grown to 7,000 acres and more than 100 times the floor space in modern buildings like the SAS offices shown above.

Grahic Jump LocationThe original plan sited Research Triangle Park on 4,400 acres of pine land. One year after it opened in 1959, it had 200,000 square feet of space. Today, the park has grown to 7,000 acres and more than 100 times the floor space in modern buildings like the SAS offices shown above.

Just as important as the influx of large corporations and agencies were the creative workers they brought in. Many IBM staffers went on to found other businesses, according to studies by the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, a local nonprofit organization that supports emerging companies. IBM alumni became the next wave of entrepreneurs.

Other firms emerged from the park’s association with the local universities. For instance SAS, a software company that integrates and analyzes large amounts of corporate and government data, was founded at North Carolina State in 1976 and moved to the park in 1980. Today, 4,200 of its 11,000 employees work at its Research Triangle Park campus.

The company, which claims 45,000 clients worldwide, recruits science and engineering graduates from the three nearby universities, said senior vice president Jim Davis. SAS’s top executives serve as advisors to all three schools and to local think tanks, where they also fund research projects. Many SAS professionals teach or pursue degrees.

Despite its giant tenants, the park still offers low-cost space for startups that might one day grow into the next SAS. Nearly 75 percent of its tenants have fewer than 50 employees, and 56 percent have nine or fewer. “If you don’t have these entrepreneurs in your research park, you’re too dependent on large firms that don’t invest that much in research,” DeVol said.

Many cities, such as Iilarcelona, Spain, and Sheffield, U.K, see research parks as a way to reinvigorate the lOGal economy. Pictured is a building in Berlin's Adlershof science park.

Grahic Jump LocationMany cities, such as Iilarcelona, Spain, and Sheffield, U.K, see research parks as a way to reinvigorate the lOGal economy. Pictured is a building in Berlin's Adlershof science park.

Although the Triangle Park started life as a hothouse flower, it has evolved into a self-sustaining knowledge ecosystem. It is a world leader in generating new technologies and turning them into products and businesses.

But how easily can other regions copy its success?

MOST EXPERTS WHO HAVE STUDIED SCIENCE PARKS AGREE ON THE NEED FOR BUSINESS LEADERSHIP, CIVIC SUPPORT, AND STRONG UNIVERSITY LINKS. That was certainly part of the formula for the Triangle. In addition to the Raleigh-area business community, which helped establish a non-profit foundation to run the park, the popular governor of the state, Luther Hodges, personally wooed corporations to relocate to the Research Triangle.

“These two kinds of players did their jobs,” said Kevin Johnson, vice president for business development for Research Triangle Foundation, which owns the park. “From the start, we had a private sector focus in the public interest. The third piece of our three-legged stool is the academic and scientific leadership that still exists to this day.” Johnson said.

The state invested in education—often specialized— both at the college level and in local school systems. When IBM moved in, the schools asked it to help shape their curriculum. They did the same when other large companies located to region. “It helped build our reputation,” Johnson said.

In addition, Bowditch points to specialized supporting institutions as an important factor in the Triangle’s success. They range from specialized research institutions and one of the first entrepreneurial development organization to groups that build regional partnerships within the state. These supporting players create overlapping networks that churn and spread new ideas throughout the Triangle.

Similar groups exist in the parks around Cambridge, U.K., one of Europe’s most productive research communities. “It’s constructive chaos,” explainedjohn Granger, managing director of Granta Park. “No one group organizes Cambridge. New initiatives spring up all the time. Some succeed. Others fail.” The winners become part of the park’s culture.

DeVol, who studies regional economies, noted that top-performing technology clusters capture the value of their innovations within their own regions. Silicon Valley illustrates this better than any technological region in the world. When a valuable idea emerges, local entrepreneurs line up the capital, talent, and workforce to commercialize the technology locally.

This is what development experts mean when they talk about knowledge ecosystems. They are communities that thrive by using their own resources to turn homegrown ideas into wealth. Throughout most of history, the stimulation, population, and possibilities in cities have drawn creative, entrepreneurial people, according to Richard Florida, author of the 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class. This is what Barcelona hopes to do by revitalizing its gritty bohemian Cotton District. Berlin, Germany, and Sheffield, U.K., are also looking to create the same magic.

Many Asian nations have force-fed their science parks to make up for lost time. China, for example, combines manufacturing and research to bring its parks to critical mass. “Their size is overwhelming,” said Luis Sanz, director general of the International Association of Science Parks. “One large park is composed of individual science parks, and each of them has its own science parks, though there are also doubts about the technology nature of the park.” Often, they focus more on manufacturing than research.

Shenzhen High-Tech Industrial Park is one of many enormous parks in China that combine research with manufacturing.

Grahic Jump LocationShenzhen High-Tech Industrial Park is one of many enormous parks in China that combine research with manufacturing.

Singapore is using education and science parks to shift its economy to software, advanced materials, and biomedical products. It recruited top scholars for its schools and offers 1,000 free Ph.D. scholarships to students who promise to work in Singapore for 10 years.

A facility in one of several research parks that leverage the education resources around Cambridge University in England, one of Europe’s most productive research communities.

Grahic Jump LocationA facility in one of several research parks that leverage the education resources around Cambridge University in England, one of Europe’s most productive research communities.

In 2001, it began building the Biopolis component of its $7 billion One North science park. When finished in 2010, Biopolis will house up to 5,000 researchers from top pharmaceutical firms and government laboratories. In the United States, only the San Diego biomedical cluster will be larger.

The phases of construction that are already complete house more than 2,000 workers. Tenants include several research institutes of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology, and Research; the pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis; and biotechnology firms.

Biopolis brings together many next-generation research tools, from electron microscopes and animal testing labs to advanced spectroscopy and imaging equipment. That might . grab the attention of CEOs like GlaxoSmithKline’s Andrew Witty. He likens pharmaceutical research to mining gold, which runs in thin seams. After exhausting one seam, it might take ten years to tunnel through to the next.

“We’re still reaping the benefits of the last seam,” he said. “But our industry is starting to assemble new tools, such as proteomics and advanced modeling, for the next round of discovery. The question is, how do you combine them. The big winners will bring these tools together in one place. They will become the integrators of next-generation technology. Focused research parks will help us locate the next seam.”

OTHERS, BELIEVE THAT RESEARCH PARKS WILL WIN IF THEY LEARN TO HARNESS THE VIRTUAL WORLD. Virtualization could change how parks operate, said Anthony Townsend, research director at the Institute of the Future. He projects several possible futures, including clouds of small, independent research spaces tied together with social software, and “dematerialized” innovation that has gone entirely virtual.

Developers are already launching centers that make this possible. In Hungary, Kitchen Budapest leases open space to media and design people, hoping for random interactions that set off sparks. A Finnish company, Karostech, is looking for partners to build “Global Oasis” centers in science parks where peripatetic virtual workers can rent open workspace by the hour while collaborating or working on projects. Think of it as innovation by flying around.

The founders of Research Triangle Park had more modest ideas in mind when it opened for business in 1959. They originally envisioned a park comprising smaller firms that created and manufactured new products. Their vision changed when IBM and other global leaders began moving to the area.

It has been evolving ever since. The region invested in schools and research centers to attract companies in emerging industries. It has formed closer ties with other research parks in the state. Its new buildings feature denser populations with more shared spaces to foster collaboration. Yet even the walls that bound those spaces are crumbling to let in more and more of the virtual world.

But in an era in which virtual collaborators and video conferencing are a normal part of the creative process, science parks still persist. Why? Because bright, innovative people like to be around other bright, innovative people. They have a very human need to sit down and bounce around an idea or sketch out a design. Working from one’s own basement—-or from a neighborhood Starbucks'—just isn’t the same.

Copyright © 2009 by ASME
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