Nerdistan or Not

The latest wave of research parks have a different connection to the global economy and the small tech companies they serve.
April 2006
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

The latest big news at the University of Arizona Science and Technology Park in Tucson isn't about patents or genetics or nanotechnology. It's about Martinizing.

Yes, you can now get your dry-cleaning done inside the research park. It's just one example of how university research parks are changing as America's economic engines change.

"The first generation of university research parks were real estate propositions--land and buildings," says Bruce Wright, chief operating officer for the University of Arizona park. They were warehouses for R&D, located close to campus.

Some companies still need the secure campus-like setting that traditional business parks offer. But these companies have to be big in order to justify the canteens and the fitness centers the parks offer. And they have to have a good reason for being insular, such as defense contracts or proprietary products.

Today, such companies are stagnant at best. The Communist-era defense programs have shut down, and the high-tech firms have been shifting engineering and R&D operations overseas.

A few years ago, university research parks moved into a second phase, focusing on facilitating technology transfer and commercialization. This caused a change as to what happened inside the buildings--the activities were smaller scale and more closely aligned with the nearby university--but it didn't change the parks themselves or the way they related to the world around them.

Now there's a third wave. It is one where "university research parks must play in the global economy--partner with other research parks around the world--and help small-and mid-sized tech companies," says Wright, who is one of dozens of university research park specialists around the country attempting to capitalize on this wave.

Smaller still than their predecessors and networking on a global scale, the third-wave companies in university research parks are different animals altogether. They have a more open approach to research and a more interconnected view of the world. A conventional business park won't do the trick. Proximity to a big high-tech company--a software developer, for example--isn't so important, because the big companies are sending their operations overseas. Like so many other folks in America today, these smaller high-tech companies are looking for proximity to a research institution that isn't going anywhere--a university, a private research lab, a federal installation such as the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

(Sandia has recently spawned its own science and technology center.)

These companies are not so concerned about security. They can't afford separate canteens and fitness centers--but they need their dry- cleaning done quickly and conveniently.

This sheds new light on the stale debate about whether the 21st- century economy needs urban or suburban spaces. For almost a decade now, we have seen a pitched battle between those who believe that our economic engines lie in the "nerdistans" of suburban office parks and those who believe it lies in the loft-and-latte environment of hip urban neighborhoods.

As the world transitions from Microsoft to Google, the urban approach has been winning. The latest hot campus setting in Silicon Valley is not in Mountain View or Palo Alto--it's downtown San Jose, where small companies can plug into a neighborhood that comes ready-made with lofts, hotels, fitness centers and coffee shops.

Now the university research parks are getting the same idea-- proximity to urban and recreational amenities are more important than ever. The Sandia Science and Technology Park isn't in an urban location, but it is laced with great outdoor recreation trails.

As it turns out, research parks are not necessarily an either-or thing. They don't have to be either nerdistans or urban hip. At the University of Arizona, for example, Martinizing is only the beginning. The tilt-up business park world of the '80s is still there for those who want it--and many do. But the U of A is going to build the urban hip world right next door.

The lessons here are not just for university research parks. They have a bearing on every community and developer trying to catch the next wave. Focus on the research institution that can't move to India. Build all the urban and recreational amenities that you can around it- -or help the institution move to an urban location where that stuff already exists. Give traditional suburban business park buildings to those who want them. And don't forget about Martinizing.