Digital inclusion in the innovation district model: the case of Chattanooga, Tennessee

Image from Chattanooga Innovation District

According to the Brookings Institution, more and more cities are using the innovation district model, in which anchor institutions, companies, startups, business incubators, and accelerators are clustered together in dense urban areas to spur economic development. Such districts, however, can risk entrenching existing socioeconomic disparities and creating new barriers between high-amenity, technology-rich hubs and under-resourced adjacent neighbourhoods, unless cities integrate digital inclusion strategies into their plans to develop their innovation economy.

The city of Chattanooga, Tennessee (USA), took such a strategy when a group of stakeholders launched a digital-equity initiative, Tech Goes Home (adapted from the successful Boston model), to coincide with the launch of its Innovation District in 2015. The programme is led by The Enterprise Center, a nonprofit economic development partner which works with local partners to provide community members with 15 hours of digital skills training, a new device (e.g., a Chromebook or iPad), and assistance acquiring low-cost home internet. The programme has served 4,500 residents in four years, and is designed to make the Innovation District inclusive of citizens who might otherwise be caught on the wrong side of the digital divide. 

Geoff Millener, Digital Equity Officer at the Enterprise Center, outlines a number of strategies for closing the digital divide in innovation districts, including:

  • Connect digital inclusion efforts: take a community-based approach to digital inclusion and intentionally connect it to the Innovation District to create overlapping access to social networks, physical assets, and internet connectivity. See the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) for a number of best practices.
  • Advance a collaborative model: convene stakeholders – across workforce development, economic development, and community development – around Innovation District development, smart city piloting, and bridging the digital divide to promote inclusion under one unified roof.
  • Offer flexible public space and inclusive programming: ensure multipurpose community spaces are part of place-based innovation strategies and lowered barriers to entry through regular events.
  • Consider equity when building smart city infrastructure: if an investment is made in smart city technologies, look for ways to maximize the impact by investing in digital equity at the same time—for example, by including public Wi-Fi infrastructure when adding environmental sensors or installing fibre.

Source: Brookings Institution