A conversation with Watson Deacon, Author of Building Trust-Centric Innovation Districts: Lessons from Five Innovation Communities

This spring, US Ignite released several new resources designed to help community leaders seize the moment – meaning take advantage of the day’s opportunities to invigorate their community’s economy and standard of living made possible through emerging technology and historic amounts of funding! One of those resources was the Building Trust-Centric Innovation Districts Playbook. Our communications manager, Lizzette Arias, caught up with the author, former US Ignite Intern, Watson Deacon to uncover the process behind generating case studies on five different innovation districts to help aspiring and up-and-coming innovation communities progress.

Catching up with Watson

Watson, let me start off by saying – we miss you! You were a great part of our team while you were here. We are promoting a playbook that you authored! Before getting into the HOW’s and WHY’s – we want to know more about you. Can you tell me what you are studying, where, and where you hope to be in the future?


Thanks Lizzette! Missing US Ignite too. I’m going into my senior year at Washington and Lee University, where I’m studying English with minors in religion and philosophy. My plans for after graduation are still undecided, but two possibilities I’ve been thinking about are working in consulting or pursuing an MFA in creative writing.


Impressive and ambitious – which is precisely why you were such a great fit at US Ignite! Now let’s get back to the main show. The Building Trust-Centric Innovation Districts Playbook is a compilation of five case studies featuring well-known and successful innovation districts. What process did you follow to research, analyze, and write these case studies?


I’d honestly never heard of innovation districts before starting this project, so the first stage of the research consisted of reading as much as I could about the concept and compiling a long list of current and planned districts in the US. After that, Jigyasa Sharma (my supervisor) and I narrowed that list until we had five unique districts representing a breadth of approaches and learning points.

Next, we interviewed key decision-makers and experts from across the districts to better understand how their successes (and failures) came about. This stage was a practice in attentive listening, and we learned a ton from our interviewees. Once we gathered all the information, we identified the most important trends, patterns, and lessons learned. Incorporating all these insights into one document took a lot of drafting and revising. I was lucky to have such a great team of readers and collaborators throughout the process.


Were there any innovation districts that you wish you could have also included and if yes, why them? If not, why are the current five communities spotlighted the best for communities looking into building an innovation district to know? 


The Research Triangle in North Carolina was one place that looked interesting but didn’t quite fit the scope of this report. The geographic area it occupies is a little too big for our target size, but I think innovation districts could potentially learn a lot from the way they draw on their research universities to stimulate investment. That said, I’m thrilled with the five communities we settled on. Between them, they cover diverse approaches to developing innovation ecosystems in cities of different sizes and equipped with different resources.


During your research and interviews and the whole process that it took to put these case studies together, did any anecdote or fact just stand out among everything else? Why do you think it did? 


The first one that comes to mind is a story from Chattanooga where the police wanted to take a look at some of the camera footage collected by the innovation district’s sensor network to help with an ongoing investigation. The folks in charge of the testbed couldn’t provide any footage because all of it is deleted immediately after processing. This is an impressive testament to their commitment to respecting citizens’ privacy, which I think outweighs the inconvenience to the police in the long run.


It’s certainly true that resident privacy must be a top consideration in all tech-imbued projects. Now my final question is, if you needed to design a second part of this playbook or advance this work somehow, what would you do and why?


 I would like to spend a little more time investigating how innovation districts can benefit the least advantaged in a given community. Just about every district out there has a list of equity and inclusion goals and many promises to deliver benefits to the community at every level, but they’ve varying degrees of success. As innovation districts develop more of a history, studying their economic impacts on surrounding communities will yield interesting results and, hopefully, a useful set of best practices.


Well Watson, it’s been a pleasure conversing with you on the Building Trust-Centric Innovation Playbook! I hope that everyone reading this does go check it out on the US Ignite website and that they send us questions and comments. 

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Dive in

Download the Building Innovation Districts- Lessons from five Communities to dive into the five case studies featuring:

  • Innovation District in Chattanooga, TN
  • University City District in Philadelphia, PA
  • South Lake Union in Seattle, WA
  • Cortex Innovation Community in St. Lois, MO
  • Safety and Innovation Zone in Arlington, VA

“Tip” boxes throughout the playbook help point out actionable recommendations for building an innovation district centered on civic trust.

Dive in