LIHE example of an Innovation District designed by HLM Architects
Philip Watson, Head of Design @ HLM Architects

A positive consequence of the global pandemic is that the possibility to create new ways of working and living that would have seemed fanciful a couple of years ago, suddenly seem very plausible. In tandem, the pandemic has pressed ‘reset’ on ideas about how we want to live, what’s important to us, and perhaps therefore, it’s also given us the strength to reject a wholesale return to the way things were.
As we address economic recovery from the pandemic, balancing increased awareness and urgency around the climate emergency, as well as greater focus on social equality e.g. ‘Levelling up” and “Building Back Better”; we need to find new models of urban renewal that are more inclusive, sustainable and creative. Pre-pandemic HLM Architects were already seeking these new models and we visited Pennsylvania and Massachusetts in the United States to learn more about the emergence of what are being called “innovation districts.”
According to the Global Institution of Innovation Districts, these districts are, “areas where innovative institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators.”1

Innovation districts embrace and promote collaboration to drive competitive advantage for that region, strengthening inclusive growth. They are physically compact, accessible, and offer the integration of education, research, housing, leisure and retail. It is easy to see why innovation districts are an increasingly popular economic development strategy. For example, in the UK, Sheffield City Region has ambitions for its own Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District which are well underway. The vision is for lively public places where the economy is made visible, where entrepreneurial and social activity mingle together, and where the barriers to participation are low. HLM’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre (AWRC) for Sheffield Hallam University sits at the heart of this development as a catalyst for regeneration. Its burgeoning success is drawing other developments around it, not least for the National Centre for Child Health Technology building for which we recently created an exciting concept design that’s now got financial backing from central and local government as well as the local NHS Trust.

Looking across our current portfolio it’s clear that our recent work is peppered with buildings for those ‘anchor’ tenants that will enable innovation districts to flourish in their localities. Seeing the connection across these projects we have captured them in our publication, ‘Creating Innovation Districts.’ The purpose of this document is to share our knowledge and encourage other local authorities, regional economic development hubs, Universities, NHS Trusts, and the private sector to consider how these approaches might work in their geographies.

We recognize that while a single building may act as a public-facing community hub on the ground floor, with an incubator and coworking space above and private offices above that, it will not drive wider regeneration alone. However, by strategically mixing workspace and infrastructure, businesses and supporting organizations, and community-building events and amenities, such a building can provide, “a ladder of engagement for innovation district newcomers to become regulars, regulars to become entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs to become mentors in the innovation community.”2

There’s a growing recognition that public space needs to inspire, support, and nurture people – to enable us to become more than just consumers; but to be makers too. It’s clear that the physical and social make-up of a district’s public realm strongly influence how people interact. We need to create places for people to meet, including by chance. Places that support the district’s economic focus and intentionally encourage people to connect across silos of discipline, industry, and sector. We need to make these places walkable and arranged in a way that brings people together. We need to consider what spaces can be shared and ensure that buildings are active and open. We need to blur the boundaries of where we live, work and play. We need to engender a spirit of collaboration everywhere.
Innovation districts are emerging globally as a new way of thinking about urban regeneration. Don’t imagine sterile out-of-town business parks. These hubs of entrepreneurial activity have been created in unconventional settings like repurposed industrial sites, rural communities, and along waterfronts. These too our referenced in, ‘Creating Innovation Districts’.

HLM Architects mantra is, ‘thoughtful design to make better places for people’. The ambition for innovation districts resonates with this philosophy and our portfolio is increasingly reflective of this paradigm shift in approach to urban regeneration. We’re actively seeking opportunities for collaboration with economists, developers, regional policy-makers, HE institutions, NHS Trusts, and other designers to explore ways of expanding this approach both in the UK and globally. Together we can create progressive regeneration.


  1. Welcome – The Global Institute on Innovation Districts (GIID)
  2. Placemaking and the Evolution of Innovation Districts – GIID

Download our Creating Innovation Districts brochure below to find out more about our work


Creating Innovation Districts

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