On October 30 and 31, I had the opportunity to participate in the 2012 Montreal Summit on Innovation, a workshop featuring leading thinkers from around the world brought together to exchange ideas and learnings on the core ingredients required to create, define and sustain innovative districts.

While insights were shared from delegations representing France, Japan, Finland and the United States, among others, it was inevitable that I found myself comparing and subsequently sharing the history, vision and evolution of MaRS Discovery District. Here is what I learned from our discussions.

When it comes to innovation, place matters

First, in creating a sustainable and effective innovation district, it is imperative to understand the importance of place and history. In the case of MaRS, the storied history of the Toronto General Hospital—home of the discovery of insulin—resonates and undoubtedly inspires both would-be and existing entrepreneurs who walk through the doors of the fabled building. Other jurisdictions around the world have embraced similar heritage buildings, where possible, to serve as a “creative place” or innovation centre where people are encouraged to gather and interact in an environment that resonates with the community’s history.

Innovation needs space—and time—to grow

Second, a truly flourishing innovative and creative district needs time and patience to grow. The old cliché, “it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” accurately represents the stories from all of the participating jurisdictions. Enabling the natural momentum of the grassroots entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem to “do its thing” is absolutely critical. While government has an important role to play, it is also important to realize that purely top-down, driven, innovative and creative districts often do not achieve the desired results.

Everybody in the innovation community must actively participate

Finally, it’s not about being fashionable, it’s about getting business done. For those who adopt the hypothesis that creative and innovative districts drive innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, it is important to ensure that the actors in the community truly and actively participate.

Case in point: There is a well-known co-location incubator in Russia situated in a beautiful downtown heritage building where the target audience of entrepreneurs was surrounded with retailers, restaurants and services they could not afford. Shortly after launching the “creative space,” the centre and environs were indeed filled with people, but these people were affluent bankers, lawyers and consultants who wanted to simply observe the “beatnik” entrepreneurial community rather than actually contribute and participate.

As you can imagine, having players in the ecosystem who do not want to participate, but only want to observe, quickly becomes counter-productive.

Don Duval

Don Duval is the CEO of the Northern Centre of Advanced Technology, a regional innovation centre focused on working with community partners to help start and accelerate the growth of innovative companies. He is a founding MaRS Ambassador – speaking around the world on topics related to innovation, commercialization and entrepreneurship. See more…