Sustaining Boulder’s 140-Year-Old “Innovation District”

August 7th, 2014

Image credit: mapichai,

Image credit: mapichai,

Building on the Boulder Model for Economic Vitality

Boulder’s model of economic development has become a de facto prototype for communities nationwide. “Innovation Districts” and “WalkUPs” (Walkable Urban Places) are becoming the entrepreneurial spaces of tomorrow: livable, walkable, collaborative hubs of innovation. Now we face a new challenge: how to sustain our own success model.

Boulder’s 21st-Century Model of Economic Growth

As a recent article from Inc. Magazine pointed out, a secret to Boulder’s success as a center for entrepreneurs has been its long-term, balanced approach to sustainable development.[i]  Boulder strove to keep itself a livable, walkable, sociable place, while fostering a climate of creativity with the founding of the University of Colorado in the late 1800s. With its many educational, business, creative, and research organizations, this balance helped foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. New studies not only verify the Boulder approach, they also chronicle the transformation of American urban areas toward similar models.

The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy program has defined a new “Metropolitan Revolution”: a virtual remaking of urban spaces and how people in them live, work, learn, and prosper. Brookings describes “Innovation Districts” as livable, walkable geographic areas in which leading businesses, research institutions, startups, and incubators are located in close proximity. Such places, says Brookings, “…facilitate new connections and ideas, accelerate the commercialization of those ideas, and support metropolitan economies by growing jobs in ways that leverage their distinct economic position.”[ii] A study by Brookings, The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America, cites a number of economic and social benefits from such areas.[iii] They echo thoughts by author Richard Florida and Boulder’s Brad Feld on the importance of a community’s makeup and character in fostering innovation.

Another study by the George Washington University reinforces these findings. The study report noted that more walkable urban and suburban spaces, even among large metropolitan areas, correlate with higher per capita GDP and greater educational achievement. The report stated that new walkable urban development will spur even more economic development in the 21st century. However, the report cautioned that the achievement of such development would depend on a host of issues, including “…appropriate infrastructure, zoning, and financing mechanisms at the federal, state, and local levels.[iv]

In fact, more and more locales are declaring themselves to be hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship. Early this year, the State Science and Technology Institute (SSTI) reported that “the number of new accelerators in the U.S. has grown significantly over the past five years. Worldwide, there were [wrote SSTI] approximately 359 accelerators from 46 different countries—more than 250 of which are based in the U.S. States. That number has undoubtedly grown, with regions investing in tech hubs through entrepreneurship programs, high-tech R&D centers, and sector-specific facilities to attract investment and spur startup activity.[v] And our Front Range neighbors and the State of Colorado in general are promulgating innovation-based initiatives.

Building on Boulder’s Economic Success

So we’ve established the model, and we are enjoying continued success. The June 2014 “Economic Indicators Report” published by the Boulder Economic Council shows that the unemployment rate is down to 4.2 percent, the business confidence index is up, and the amount of venture capital invested in Boulder has increased year-on-year.  Boulder has been named the number one community for high-tech startup density by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.[vi] However, even Boulder needs to up its game, especially in light of other communities’ progress in creating similar spaces.

What does Boulder need to do to keep its standing as an innovation leader and sustain its economic vitality? Brookings observed that “…the potential of these [economic development] trends is most apparent in innovation districts that are supported by a network of public, private and civic stakeholders that unite behind a clear growth strategy.” (emphasis added)

We need to move to the next stage of “Sustained Economic Vitality” by continuing to be the Boulder we know, and by providing the tools for sustainability and innovation encompassed by community initiatives now underway. By supporting those such as the City’s Civic Area, Energy, Parks & Recreation, and Transportation projects. By engaging in critical policy issues such as community resilience and affordable housing. And by getting involved in initiatives such as Better Boulder and the Chamber’s Innovation Blueprint 3.0.

Boulder has created the future of innovation. Now we have to make sure we don’t fall behind.


[i] Burt Helm, “How Boulder Became America’s Startup Capital”, Inc. online, from December2013/January 2014 issue of Inc. Magazine,

[ii] Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, Innovation Districts Series,

[iii] Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner, The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America, The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, May 2014.

[iv] Christopher B. Leinberger & Patrick Lynch, “Food Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros”, the George Washington University School of Business, Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis, 2014, p. 6.

[v] “Trends in Tech-Based Economic Development: Local, State and Federal Action in 2013”, SSTI, January 26, 2014.

[vi] Dane Stangler, Path-Dependent Startup Hubs: Comparing Metropolitan Performance: High-Tech and ICT Startup Density, (Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation; September, 2013).

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