Innovation districts are inspiring a new way for Georgia to live, work, create, and collaborate

Behind the wheel, Bob Hughes descends into the forest along a dirt road in Eastern Gwinnett County. Pine trees give way to hardwoods, ablaze in autumn color. Hughes spots a towering white oak. “That’s probably 75 years old,” he says. Then he points to a stream feeding a grove of bamboo in the distance. “That’s cane bamboo, Georgia’s only native bamboo.” He stops to take it in. “Look how beautiful this is.”

Hughes is just off Highway 316, halfway between Athens and Atlanta, driving through the 2,000-acre tract that recently began its evolution into an innovation district called Rowen. Over the next five decades, a purposeful assembly of offices, laboratories, stores, multifamily homes, walking trails, parks, sidewalks, and streets will take root on most of these three square miles. But with Hughes—founding principal of the landscape design firm HGOR—at the helm, this picturesque stretch will remain as is. Like Rowen, it’s a commitment to the area’s history as well as its future.

A Work-Life Intersection that Sparks Innovation

An innovation district—sometimes used interchangeably with the term knowledge community—is a place where academic researchers, entrepreneurs, and established
companies collaborate, sometimes across industries, resulting in breakthroughs in technology, products, and services. These places don’t just occur, they’re curated. Placemakers like Hughes cite sustainability, walkability, and connectivity as guiding principles, borrowing elements from design styles such as New Urbanism and biophilia. The goal? To shorten the path between research and commercialization by bringing people from different backgrounds together in one inspiring place.

Innovation districts answer a call for connectivity that represents a shift from the siloed corporate campuses of the past. Industry and higher education converge, knowledge and resources are shared, and workplaces and housing are thoughtfully interlaced with easily accessed parks, trails, shops, restaurants, and services. It’s the neighborhood of the future—one with boundless potential for livability and innovation.

The sharing of knowledge, equipment, and technology across industries and stakeholders shrinks the feedback loop, diminishing the distance between concept and commercialization. Innovation districts across the globe sprang into action at the start of the pandemic in 2020, improving protective face masks, converting CPAP machines into emergency ventilators, constructing portable testing units, and accelerating vaccine research.

“A lot of the core elements of what was critical for the Covid vaccine were created or invented in innovation districts, and it’s not in any way by accident,” says Julie Wagner, president of the Global Institute on Innovation Districts (GIID), a network of districts created in 2022. “This is where you can crack the code.”

Atlanta, Athens, Augusta, and Beyond

Sometimes, as with Rowen, communities are built from the ground up, but more often they take advantage of existing structures and infrastructure. AT&T’s former headquarters in Midtown Atlanta, a 40-year-old icon that rises 47 stories, recently began its transformation into the Center for Global Health Innovation (CGHI), which plans to lure corporations, NGOs, universities, mid- and small-sized businesses, venture firms, and foreign investment offices. A public greenspace and two $oors of retail and restaurants create a welcoming connection to the sidewalk and street.

CGHI joins the greater Midtown Innovation District, which includes Tech Square, a fertile mecca of start-ups, corporations, and academic researchers anchored by Georgia Tech. Spurring on its success, the life sciences-focused Science Square is underway alongside Tech’s North Avenue Research Area in the location formerly known as Technology Enterprise Park. At full build-out, it will span 2.2 million square feet, twice the size of Tech Square.

Creating innovation districts within or adjacent to university campuses is a common approach, and for good reason. It capitalizes on research in progress and proximity to a workforce in training. Though Rowen is a blank slate, its board is mostly composed of top brass from Emory University, Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, and Georgia Gwinnett College.

The University of Georgia in Athens has dedicated four buildings to its growing innovation district, located where its historic North Campus meets downtown: 1) the Delta Innovation Hub, which focuses on bringing products to market; 2) Studio 225, home of the UGA Entrepreneurship Program; 3) Terrell Hall, where UGA’s Innovation Gateway program helps faculty navigate intellectual property licensing; and 4) the Small Business Development Center.

In Augusta, the Life Sciences Business Development Center at Augusta University houses a bio-business incubator and officers wet labs, equipment, common areas, and offices shared by private entrepreneurs and student and faculty researchers. The university is also home to the Georgia Cyber Center, where government, education, and the private sector converge.

The percentage of housing versus workspaces can vary greatly in such developments, as can the level of involvement of the many entities that make up the community. The Fayette County New Urbanist community Trilith serves just one business: Trilith Studios (formerly Pinewood Atlanta Studios). With architectural cues from European villages, Trilith puts residents within walking distance of stores, restaurants, offices, and film-centric amenities like an outdoor screen, sound stage, and event space. Its density allows for plenty of shared green space, and streets were designed with pedestrians and cyclists in mind. The latest phase of the 935-acre development is a series of energy- efficient, 478-square-foot tiny homes. In January 2024, a 192-room boutique hotel, with rooms as well as studios and
apartments for longer stays, is scheduled to open.

Glenwood Park, built on a former industrial site two miles east of downtown Atlanta, mixes residential, office, and retail in low-slung, architecturally varied buildings in a walkable area centered around a community park. Its street design, which narrowed space for vehicles and expanded sidewalks, prompted the city of Atlanta to
adjust its design parameters.

Models of Success

“We want Rowen to be a place where people can experiment with new ideas, new technologies, new ways of doing things,” says Rowen Foundation President Mason Ailstock, who came to Rowen from Research Triangle Park in Raleigh. “Part of that is saying, ‘Just because this is the way we’ve done it for 50 years doesn’t mean we keep repeating that.’”

The Rowen Foundation, the nonprofit created to steward the project, purchased the land earmarked for Rowen with a loan from Gwinnett County. As Rowen gains traction, it will repay the loan, including interest, and then create an endowment to fund the foundation’s operations and activities, which range from land preservation to collaborative programming such as thought leadership events.

This kind of public-private partnership is common for innovation districts. According to a conservative estimate from GIID, more than 100 such communities exist or are in development around the world. Most, such as the Innovation Quarter in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Utrecht Science Park in the Netherlands; the Seaport District in Boston and nearby Kendall Square in Cambridge; and the Cortex Innovation Community in St. Louis, are located in urban settings. Rowen is unique in that it’s building a district from the ground up, on an expansive tract of rural land.

While the GIID definition of innovation district specifies physical space, cross-pollination of ideas happens without brick and mortar, with the right kind of facilitation. In 2022, the Savannah Economic Development Authority teamed up with Silicon Valley firm Plug and Play to create the First-Mile Innovation Hub in Savannah, a partnership that coordinates collaboration between corporations, start-ups, and universities working on supply chain and logistics improvements. Higher education institutions like Georgia Southern, Savannah State, and Savannah Tech work with entities such as the Georgia Ports Authority, Georgia Power, and Maersk with one common goal: to develop technology to serve Savannah’s port, the fastest growing in the country.

The state-run Georgia Center of Innovation similarly aids start-ups and small businesses in six verticals prevalent in the state: aerospace, agriculture technology, energy, information technology, logistics, and manufacturing.

Designed for the Future

Curation of an innovation district is crucial, and it takes time. The goal for Rowen is to become a place where research and innovation happen at the hands of people who agree that “stewardship of the land is the cornerstone of an inspired community,” Ailstock says.

“Often people think about infrastructure as nouns,” Hughes says. “We like to think of infrastructure as verbs.” In other words, create a space that informs behavior. Drawing on 30-plus years of creating places, Hughes created three key components to carry out Rowen’s vision: environmental framework, transportation and connectivity, and public, open space.

For a company or institution to move in, it must follow a set of strict building and usage guidelines, including SITES-certified landscapes, the most comprehensive program for creating and preserving ecosystems in landscape design. About 30 percent of the acreage will be open space. “Ten or 15 years from now, it will look like the buildings were just dropped into a natural landscape,” Hughes says.

Rowen’s mixed-use central village will have the feel of a college campus, and for good reason: Pre-automobile universities are one of the best models for innovation districts. To get to the classroom from her lab, a geneticist has to walk across the quad, where she might strike up a conversation with an engineer or statistician or virologist. It’s the exact kind of simple human interaction Rowen wants to encourage.

Rowen’s first structure will be a convergence center situated atop a hill overlooking the hardwood forest. Ailstock sees it as a seedling for larger collaboration spaces elsewhere in Rowen, places where people from different backgrounds and specialties can exchange ideas. “We’re designing spaces where the diverse people who work and live here will feel comfortable,” Hughes says. “We need that cross-communication to occur to create real innovation.”

Rowen’s central village area, which will also include retail, restaurants, and multifamily housing, will serve as a test site for street design, trading traditional roadways for “complete streets” featuring safe pathways for pedestrians, cyclists, public transit, and vehicles, and medians that return runoff to the soil. It’s a model that, if successful, could be replicated elsewhere in Gwinnett County and beyond. Longer term, Ailstock and Hughes are peering into the future of public transportation and considering options that range from an electric bus system to aerial gondolas.

Development will fan out from there in diminishing levels of density, bisected by open space and trails. All sites must be within a five-minute walk of a public space, and building height is capped at five to eight stories, depending on location. Strategic placement of offices and labs will turn seemingly dissonant industries into bedfellows, breeding collaboration.

With phase one—roads, sidewalks, and utilities—underway since December, Ailstock and Hughes will spend 2023 meeting with colleges and universities, state and federal labs, nonprofit research and design institutions, private companies, start-ups, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and investors, spreading the word and sparking interest in Rowen.

Hughes likens their effort to Radio Free Europe during the Cold War. “They broadcast over the Iron Curtain with no certainty that anybody heard the message, just the belief that people were there and wanted to hear that message.”

“The people that hear the message are the ones we want here,” Ailstock says. “And they won’t just be located here, they’ll want to be engaged.”

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