And yet what is especially compelling about the winning Philly project is the extent to which it places a gritty, physical urban place at the center of its plan. To be sure, the scientific program went through a rigorous review process with experts from the federal government, industry, and academia that vetted the scientific and technical merit of the project and the qualifications of the management team and personnel, which includes scientists from Princeton, Rutgers, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, and other institutions. But while the translational science was clearly impeccable, it is equally clear that the Philly Naval Yard’s extremely real and physical urban presence loomed large in the region’s win.
This is the new geography of innovation, leveraging the redevelopment assets of Rust Belt cities. As a student of all things Pittsburgh, the advantages are obvious to me. Brain power is packed into a small urban core where brownfields are transformed into world class centers of research and development. If the legal geography could catch up, then the environment would be ripe for a creative explosion.
I understand this approach to urban economic development as a shift away from the amenities-driven model that has held sway for many years. In fact, the cultivation of amenities to attract talent is a relic of the industrial era. Ironically, the muse of the creative class is much more Robert Moses than Jane Jacobs. The livable city (rich with entertainment and recreational choices) is not necessarily the innovative city. The geography and density of where brains work is much more important than where they reside. Pittsburgh is the shining example in support of this assertion.
As Brookings suggests, the "winning Philly project" is a win for Rust Belt cities. America's urban frontier will be the locus of the next iteration of the national economy. That is, if we embrace the economic geography of innovation.