Finding a new name for innovation in Oklahoma City
By i2E Vice Chair Stephen Prescott
Copyright © 2015 The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
What’s in a name?
That’s what I thought as I sat with more than 200 others at the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce retreat earlier this month. We had gathered for a daylong conference to discuss and strategize about the emerging innovation district in Oklahoma City.
Specifically, we were focused on the unnamed area roughly encompassing the Oklahoma Health Center and Automobile Alley. The idea was to take this zone, which is full of creative energy and possibility, and build it into an amenity-rich enclave that facilitates new ideas and businesses.
I stole that last descriptive phrase from a Brookings Institution press release. It was issued on the heels of our retreat, which was led by the 99-year-old, nationally recognized think tank. The release announced that Brookings, in conjunction with the Project for Public Spaces, has chosen the Oklahoma City innovation district as one of its two sites for a watershed “placemaking” study.
Along with Philadelphia, Oklahoma City has been identified by Brookings as an emerging innovation hub. Its 18-month study will look at ways that we can harness the human and creative energy generated by research and development anchor institutions — think the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and my own Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in health, as well as the in-progress GE Global Research Center in energy — to build a more vibrant mixed-use entrepreneurial and cultural district.
We’re talking about a live-work-play community. Not just somewhere that people come to work or to get medical treatment and then head home to parts elsewhere. Which, I’d say, pretty well describes the current state of affairs.
Right now, that 1.3-square-mile area is home to about 18,000 jobs. That’s about five percent of all jobs in the metro area. Meanwhile, that same zone counts only 3,800 residents, which is less than .2 percent of greater Oklahoma City’s population.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Indeed, if we can re-imagine and reshape this area, we have all the assets in place to form a nerve center that can play an even larger role than it currently does in fueling our region’s economy.
With the landscape dominated by super-sized buildings set back from sidewalks, parking lots and wide, automobile-dense roadways, this zone wasn’t laid out to be a 21st-century innovation district. But if redesign around key assets, we can create a space where anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with small firms, start-ups and business accelerators.
The two key pieces will be re-inventing the geography of the area and identifying sources of capital to fund not only this initiative but also the early-stage businesses we hope to incubate.
Fortunately, as Brookings repeatedly emphasized in its presentations and discussions, Oklahoma City has a great track record in this department, one that distinguishes us from our peers. With initiatives like MAPS, we have a long history of successful, acrimony-free partnerships between the private and public sectors. Those efforts have helped create great public resources, like the ones we’ll need in the innovation district. I’m talking about so-called sticky spaces, places that encourage people to stop and mingle: parks with lots of shade and seating areas; coffee shops, restaurants and pubs; open-air markets.
Right now, we have lots of ideas percolating at OMRF and OUHSC, and we’ll soon have plenty at the new GE research center as well the recently built Independent Petroleum Association headquarters. That potential confluence between energy and health represents a unique space that Oklahoma City alone could occupy — if we can figure out a way to get those ideas outside of their silos and into a co-working environment they can collide and grow into something completely new.
For that to happen, we’ll need available venture capital to build new businesses and incubator space to house those start-ups. Ideally, that space will be situated in a physically compact, transit-accessible community that offers mixed-use housing and a vibrant retail community.
All of which brings me to what to call this place.
As we all know, naming has real power. And generically labeling this an innovation district doesn’t do justice to the creative power that we’re trying to tap here.
Geographically, this area is right at the heart of the city, where east meets west and north meets south. It’s a place that’s going to be a powerhouse for generating new ideas, ones whose impact will carry well beyond its physical borders.
So if you think of the city like a giant cell (hey, I’m a biologist, what can I say?), this area would be the nucleus. Which has a nice ring to it. What do you think?