A new 'geography of innovation' brings more universities to city center

Academic institutions can help spur urban development

Smart universities are actively integrating themselves into urban centers to attract top talent and "turbocharge" their research programs—something more schools should consider, argues Bruce Katz, co-director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.

The "geography of innovation" has decisively shifted toward urban centers in recent years, Katz argues. Many young and well-educated people choose cities as their preferred place to live and work. Similarly, colleges and universities have also been establishing a presence in city centers—such as Cornell University's $2 billion-dollar engineering campus in New York City.

Colleges gain new opportunities for collaboration

The benefits of shifting resources to urban centers go both ways. Planting specialized programs and research centers in cities allows colleges to "leverage an existing ecosystem" of innovative organizations, leading to a ripe exchange of ideas, talent, and technology, in addition to igniting research, argues Katz. 

Being near an urban center is critical for certain research programs, says Cornell professor Ronald Ehrenberg, explaining Cornell's expansion of its engineering program into Manhattan from rural Ithaca, New York. "It is very, very difficult for us to do the kind of development [in a rural location] through tech transfer that a place like Stanford or Berkeley can do in San Francisco or Harvard or MIT can do in Boston."

See more EAB resources on capital planning

The benefits of integrating with cities are not confined to elite research universities. Katz points to the Baltimore City Community College Life Sciences Institute, which relocated in 2009 to join a research hub near downtown Baltimore. At its new location, the Institute can offer better job opportunities to students—the employers, after all, are now "just an elevator ride away."

Cities are revitalized and developed

Cities also benefit from encouraging academic development. Partnerships between universities and local industries create an environment that entices highly trained workers to stay in the city after graduation, spurring economic development.

Universities also tend to fund large-scale construction and revitalization efforts. For example, University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University have contributed to municipal services, new commercial and retail centers, and charter schools in the West Philadelphia area.

The demands of the "knowledge economy" are forcing colleges and universities to adapt, argues Katz. "At a time when people and their businesses are revaluing location and proximity, universities cannot remain bound by the location decisions of the 19th and 20th century," he says (Katz, Fortune, 11/3).

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