A New Approach to Economic Development: Portland’s Innovation Quadrant

In a city known for its innovative land use and transportation investments, the city is at it again. The Portland Innovation Quadrant (IQ) is a unique partnership to advance next generation economic and urban development in the central city through the lens of equity, resiliency, and sustainability. In 2014, four of the regions primary anchor institutions, OHSU, PSU, PCC and OMSI initiated conversations in an effort to leverage physical proximity and better align priorities — from joint research and workforce development to new, shared facilities and physical infrastructure in the Central Eastside Industrial District, South Waterfront, and South of Market/University District.  What began as a series of informal meetings ultimately became a major priority of the City’s recently adopted 2035 Comprehensive Plan.

With a formal Board of Directors established in January 2018, the vision of the IQ is to create a dynamic, accessible hub where anyone from Portland or beyond can connect with the entrepreneurs, place-makers, educational institutions, and visionaries at the center of the city’s booming innovation ecosystem.  Its mission is to design and accelerate a thriving, equitable district of economic innovation in the heart of Portland, Oregon.

Photo: Central Eastside Industrial Council

In 2017, the IQ partnered with EcoDistricts to deepen their commitment to equity, resilience and climate action using the EcoDistricts Protocol as a framework for action. With the support  from Meyer Memorial Trust, EcoDistricts provided the IQ with additional technical support and staffing capacity during its start-up phase. The work focused on the IQ’s potential to showcase to the entire country that redevelopment that catalyzes economic development and technology leadership can simultaneously address the City’s equity gap and need to prepare for the impacts of climate change. Over the course of the past two years, EcoDistricts delivered multiple trainings to the IQ’s Board of Directors on diversity equity and inclusion, climate protection and resilience with partners such as Justice and Sustainability Associates and AECOM.  In addition, the EcoDistricts staff has offered technical support by activating the IQ’s four working groups to delve into the priority focus areas of the initiative, including Career Pathways, Real Estate and Business Development, Startup Resources, and Placemaking.  The work included building trust and alignment with community-based organizations as participating decision-makers, a diversity of institutional representatives, and the ongoing use of EcoDistricts Protocol as a framework in both shaping and delivering strategic priorities. 

A Virtual Tour of the IQ

Envision a thriving community of innovation, education, and collaboration that bridges the Willamette River in the heart of the Portland Metro region.  It is a community connected by nearby transit, community spaces, a proliferation of restaurants, coffee shops and brew pubs, and mixed-use venues that create an energized environment where people network and collaborate at work and at play. It is populated with emerging and established companies driven by scientific experimentation, entrepreneurial activity, and technological advancement with shared commitments to equity, climate protection, and resilience.  It is anchored by Portland State University (PSU), Oregon Health & Sciences University (OHSU), Portland Community College (PCC), and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI)—mature, complementary educational institutions that boast a rich history of educating the region’s workforce, supporting established Portland industries, and fueling an emerging culture of innovation.  

This is the Portland IQ, and it is emerging as the hub of human-centered design and equitable development in the Pacific Northwest.  Welcome! We’d like to take you on a tour of the IQ with the help of First Stop Portland, an IQ Partner based out of Portland State University that customizes study tours of the IQ for visiting delegations and regional stakeholders alike. 

The Central Eastside: A Changing Industrial Landscape

Photo: Uncorked Studios

We begin our tour in the Central Eastside Industrial District, which has been an industrial sanctuary since the 1970’s, and is now quickly emerging as a hub for technology and innovation.  We start at the always bustling PIE Shop, a manufacturing and prototyping incubator that seeks to fuel the next generation of product companies inside Autodesk’s Northwest headquarters located in the heart of Portland’s Innovation Quadrant. The collaboration between Autodesk, Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE), and Uncorked Studios supports local startups like Leo Ochoa from Dorsum by not only providing space but also by pairing product experts at Autodesk with entrepreneurs to offer resources.  The refurbished Towne Storage building now occupied by the technology company with nearly 200 Portland employees, highlights the rapid changes occurring

Photo: Autodesk

With founding partners such as EcoDistricts, the Central Eastside Industrial Council, and Autodesk working together, the IQ seeks to address tensions that come with these changes – including threats of gentrification and displacement in a district that has long been a major job center for light industry and distribution companies. For example, the IQ’s Real Estate and Business Development Working Group is focused on tracking existing affordable industrial space in the district to protect legacy businesses while also accommodating the influx of smaller startups seeking to integrate into the innovation ecosystem.  In addition, guided by its commitments to equity developed with the EcoDistricts team, the IQ is employing cross-cutting strategies that generate pathways for local residents into these emerging opportunities. One such strategy is the IQ’s partnership with the Design Museum Foundation as they launch their We Design Exhibit in 2020 – with the goal of exposing local students to the diversity of careers in design and innovation, making places like Autodesk more accessible and the entry points clearer.

Down the street at 808 SE Alder, Summit Development and Oregon Translational Research and Developments Bioscience Incubator are partnering to develop the IQ’s first life science research center.  The Eastside Innovation Hub boasts four levels and 40,000 square feet of wet lab and office space, designed to house early and mid-stage bioscience and technology companies.  One of the main goals of these collaborations is to keep retain Portland startups local, by providing them with the necessary space and resources to grow and scale.  

While the Eastside Innovation Hub project is privately funded, the public infrastructure and services supporting both existing legacy and emerging companies is critical to ensure their long-term viability.  Partners such as Prosper Portland and Greater Portland Inc play a key role in growing, attracting, and retaining both talent and investment.  For example, utilizing economic development tools that are anchored in equity such as Portland Means Progress or the various Enterprise Zones, businesses commit to hiring, training, and investing in historically marginalized communities, in particular people of color.  Physical infrastructure also plays a critical role – aside from the early involvement of other city bureaus including transportation and planning, Portland General Electric joined the Board of Directors in 2018, demonstrating the strategic value of engagement with the IQ for local agencies providing critical services.

In the east end of the Central Eastside sits the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry campus,

a nonprofit museum that serves over 1 million visitors a year, focused on cultivating future innovators.  Slated as a major redevelopment area that will bring almost 2 million square feet of new commercial and institutional uses to the 11 acre site, OMSI is looking to “ignite an education transformation at the intersection of science, technology and design, weave a thriving innovation district into the fabric of Portland, that spreads opportunities across the Northwest.” Their involvement in the IQ signals their commitment to an agenda that goes beyond museum education and real estate development. OMSI is looking to leverage the museum and their programing to connect local residents and students to the innovation economy by providing clear entry points into the STEAM workforce.

Partners recognize the importance of distributing the IQ’s benefits equitably across the

region, not limiting these collaborations to the geography of the central city. At a recent Career Pathways Working Group meeting hosted at the Rosewood Initiative, a nonprofit in East Portland where the largest percentage of people of color and immigrants in the city live. Representatives from Portland Public Schools, Worksystem’s Inc., Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center + Rosemary Anderson Highschool, Portland Youth Builders, Portland Metro STEM partnership, and Portland Community College discussed the importance of having local navigators work directly with communities in connecting them to resources that the IQ generates as well as the barriers to access.  Partners discussed programs like OHSU’s OnTrack program and the ability to coordinate more closely with employers in the IQ. 

South Waterfront: Next Generation Medical Campus

Photo: Portland IQ

Next stop is the 300 acre South Waterfront District which is anchored by a mixed use residential community and Oregon Health Sciences University’s (OHSU) emerging river campus. We jump on the Portland Streetcar and make our way across the Willamette River on the Tillikum Crossing, the only cable-stayed bridge in the United States designed exclusively for pedestrians, light-rail, and cyclists not allowing private vehicles.  We debark at the Robertson Life Sciences Building and Skourtes Tower on the South Waterfront, which is becoming a hotbed for life science, medical device, and digital health startups.  This LEED Platinum research facility is the result of a collaboration between Oregon Health and Sciences University, Oregon State University, and Portland State University, housing programs that include public health, dentistry, and nursing, among others.  The building itself is designed to reflect a new approach to education, students and researchers from different professions and institutions learn and work alongside one another. “Every aspect of the building’s design encourages human interaction and collaboration,” says Sarah Iannarone, Director of First Stop Portland.  With sustainable features such as green roofs, storm water collection for non-potable uses, and climate control, the building is symbolic of the larger framework the IQ is building with EcoDistricts to advance an equitable, resilient innovation district and community at the intersection of health, science, and technology. 

The South Waterfront is one of the country’s most unique mobility centers, knitting together streetcar, light rail, and bus service with world class bike infrastructure and an aerial tram that connects South Waterfront to OHSU’s hillside campus. Part of an international design competition, the Portland Aerial Tram was jointly funded by OHSU, the City of Portland, and by South Waterfront property owners, and is operated as part of Portland’s public transportation network. 

Last Stop – Portland State University

Photo: Oregon Health and Sciences University

We end our tour of the Portland IQ by riding the streetcar through the University Blocks, past Worksystems, Inc., and the SW 4th Ave & Montgomery St. Building, a collaboration between PSU, PCC, OHSU and the City of Portland that will include the PSU’s Graduate School of Education, PSU-OHSU School of Public Health, Portland Community College Dental Programs and the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.  This project, now underway, emphasizes the importance of a connected innovation ecosystem that prioritizes equity, climate resilience and protection – a LEED certified building housing programs that enable pathways for students to reach their full potential, regardless of their race or socioeconomic background.  The IQ framework at work.

What’s Next

The IQ is entering into a new phase of development – moving from a mostly volunteer driven effort to a professionally staffed initiative led by long time economic development leader Erin Flynn and Mayor Ted Wheeler. The IQ-EcoDistricts partnership has helped to codify the IQ’s commitment to embedding the imperatives and priorities of the EcoDistricts Protocol into its strategic plan, demonstrating  that equitable and sustainable development is possible when stakeholders make the hard decision to collaborate in the pursuit of a vision larger than their own.

Contributors:  Adrienne Chaillé, Portland IQ; Erin Flynn, Portland IQ; Sarah Iannarone, First Stop Portland;



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