Research Parks for the Knowledge Economy

Since it opened 50 years ago, North Carolina's Research Triangle Park has been the epitome of science parks: a neatly landscaped campus of low-rise building buildings in exurbia, where scientists at aspiring technology spin-offs from nearby universities toil all day in cramped, low-rent "incubators" and then disperse each evening to fight the Interstate traffic on their way home.

The rest of the world is moving far beyond that model. As more nations try to gain an edge in the next generation of knowledge industries, stunning new high-tech meccas are going up from Asia to Europe to Latin America, a building spree that hardly has been slowed by the recession. They are nothing like the far-flung developments of old like Research Triangle Park, which was carved out of 11 square miles of pine forest near Raleigh-Durham. Many, in fact, are being constructed deep inside old cities and include nearby housing and city amenities with the intention of creating new communities.

"New Century Cities"

Spain's 22@Barcelona project, for example, involves transforming 115 blocks of industrial land in Barcelona's historic cotton district into an international hub for more than 1,000 media, information technology, and medical technology companies; research institutes; and university labs that could employ 150,000 in 15 years. Seoul's new 135-acre Digital Media City aspires to be a global ecosystem for developing and deploying cutting-edge technologies for entertainment, games, and interactive workplaces. And Singapore is pouring some $10 billion into futuristic architecture for a megadevelopment called One North, which integrates new research complexes and "living laboratories" for biotechnology, advanced materials, and medical services.

Many of these "new century cities," as urban planning guru Michael Joroff of Massachusetts Institute of Technology dubs them, will be showcased at the annual International Association of Science Parks conference on June 1-4 in Raleigh, N.C.

"The vision is to kick-start high-priority industries with new spaces where companies and universities can work together and develop the next generation of workers," says Joroff, an adviser to the media city in Seoul and similar projects in Britain, Sweden, and Abu Dhabi. "They are about inventing the future, so they want to be of the future."

New science parks can be tightly focused. Snowpolis, in Vuokatti, Finland, is a collaboration between Finnish companies, universities, and education institutes that specializes in wellness, sports, and cold-weather technologies. And Winston-Salem, N.C., which is reeling from the collapse of the textile, furniture, and tobacco industries, is refurbishing much of its urban core into a biotech hub called the Piedmont Triad Research Park. Its prize tenant: one of the nation's leading centers for regenerative medicine, led by Dr. Anthony Atala, a pioneer in growing organs from patients' own tissue.

Building Communities

Whatever the focus, the trend is to nurture living, breathing communities rather than sterile, remote compounds of research silos. Planners don't want to mimic Triangle Research Park's original design or Tsukuba Science City, where 13,000 researchers toil in 300 R&D facilities in an isolated site an hour away by train from Tokyo. Instead, they are drawing inspiration from the kind of vibrant ecosytem that evolved organically near the MIT campus in Cambridge, Mass. They hope to design their parks based on visions of what 21st century innovation environments will need.

Most new research parks incorporate the trappings of "new urbanism," the planning principles at work at the preferred destinations for young creative types. That means relatively inexpensive housing within minutes of labs by foot or bike. It also means cafes, parks, entertainment spots, and social centers where entrepreneurs, engineers, and designers from many disciplines can mingle and network. And it means state-of-the-art telecommunication and IT infrastructure to enable innovators to link effortlessly to counterparts around the planet.

"We want a location for people to live, work, and play," says Yeoh Keat Chuan, biomedical sciences executive director of the Economic Development Board of Singapore, which is incorporating all of these elements into One North. "We want to provide a window of what an Asian city of the future will look like."

Some older, established high-tech estates in the U.S. feel the need to adapt. Industrial parks set up in the 1960s outside San Jose, Calif., to cater to America's then-nascent electronics industry are getting updated to make them more like real communities. Research Triangle Park itself is getting revamped. It has been adding thousands of housing units, a retail center, and 14 miles of bike and jogging trails. "This is about making this place consistently more attractive to the brightest minds in the world," says Rick L. Weddle, Research Triangle Park chief executive.

New science parks, meantime, have been sprouting across the U.S. "Every city and state with a university wants to jump on this bandwagon," says Peter Calkins, who heads the science and technology business of developer Forest City Enterprises, which created and manages Cambridge's Millennium Park complex next to MIT and is building another park near the Johns Hopkins University campus in Baltimore. But he adds: "Not all are well-conceived."

Many of the megaparks being built in developing nations such as China, India, and some Persian Gulf states seem to be based on old models. "Many are just big real estate deals, like the approach that worked for Research Triangle for 20 or 30 years, rather than investments in people and innovation," says Anthony Townsend, who tracks science park trends for the Institute for the Future. "Developing nations may need such facilities, but their use may be limited."

The Role of Government Funding

The giant "new century cities" are another story. Few U.S. communities can compete with that kind of investment and scale. In America, notes Eileen Walker, chief executive of the 350-member Association of University Research Parks, planners must cobble together public-private partnerships by tapping the budgets of states, universities, and private companies. With all of these parties hurt by the recession, that is especially difficult now. "In other nations, governments recruit scientists and fund a park's infrastructure and operations," Walker says. "So they are able to get from Point A to Point B much faster."

Singapore's One North offers a glimpse of what U.S. parks are up against when it comes to mobilizing resources. In 2001, construction began at Biopolis, One North's showpiece district for the bioscience industry. The first two phases already are completed and booked solid with the labs of public institutions and companies like Novartis (NVS) and Eli Lilly (LLY). By the time Phase III is finished in 2010, Biopolis will cover 4.5 million square feet of space and employ up to 5,000 researchers.

A few minutes away, Fusionopolis, a glistening 24-story tower designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, is filling up with collaborations in media, communications, and IT. Fusionopolis also has restaurants, a gym, a swimming pool, and apartments where families can experiment with newfangled networked appliances. Clusters for health and wellness services, data storage, and high-performance computing also are going up. In all, One North is expected to cost around $7 billion over 15 to 20 years.

Seoul's Digital Media City also illustrates what a central government can achieve. Developed on the old site of a railroad depot and waste dump near the Han River, the district now has seven buildings and another 20 under construction. Seven newspapers, four broadcast companies, and LG Electronics have moved operations or headquarters there. Digital Media City also is becoming the base for Korea's thriving electronic game and film industry. Creators of experimental video can project them onto a 40-ft.-by-20-ft. digital display on a building, one of many outdoor digital gadgets that will add vitality to the district.

Other nations are entering the game. The first $160 million phase of Research & Innovation Technology Park near the international airport in Monterrey, Mexico, is nearly complete and booked with tenants. The goal is to reposition the nation's premier heavy-industrial capital as "an international city of knowledge," explains Director Reynaldo Gonzalez. The campus includes R&D and incubator buildings for several national laboratories and Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico's top engineering school. It has R&D space for multinationals such as Motorola (MOT) and PepsiCo (PEP), and labs for research on nano materials, megatronics, computer modeling, and microelectronics.

Retrofitting Reseach Triangle

With international competition intensifying, it's little wonder that established science parks are undergoing makeovers. Besides making itself more livable, Research Triangle Park is trying to broaden its tenant base beyond Glaxo Smithkline (GSK) and IBM (IBM). It wants to be a training base for white-collar professionals by adding an MBA program and a humanities center for public law and social science.

Increasingly, Research Triangle Park's managers see their role as developing the entire North Carolina economy. The nonprofit operation is part of a new, statewide consortium that links seven research parks and 17 university campuses. The aim is to collaborate on new R&D projects and on incubating new companies across the state. "Rather than competing with other parks, we are now about leveraging and networking," says CEO Weddle. "Our goal is to reset the economic development industry."

As the world emerges from recession, making sure that local economies remain globally competitive will be a priority of planners everywhere. And science parks are likely to play an ever bigger role in that process.

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