The rise and fall of the business park

Where old style business parks were all about easy parking, wide walkways and function; a new wave of vibrant innovation ecosystems are emerging as places where people and ideas collide to solve some of our most complex challenges.

As the internet, analytics, and even social media evolve they have taken an unshakeable grip on our society, altering the way that we interact forever.

Along with this technology explosion, where and the way we work has also transformed.

The rise of the business park

Since the 1950s large multi office business parks, have become a common sight in the suburbs of our largest cities and regional areas.

The original office park, built in the affluent Birmingham, Alabama suburb of Mountain Brook, opened in 1955 and for the first time workers were able to drive, park and walk straight into their offices.

The concept flourished during the 1970s and 80s as it provided something of a utopian oasis in a time beset by a rapidly changing landscape.

Today’s modern parks often contain call centres, pharmaceutical HQ’s and insurers, and are characterised by low-rise structures spread over hectares of land.  They are generally places you drive and park, do your work and pick up some groceries and fuel on the way home – definitely not a place to stay once your working day is done.

One of Australia’s best known examples of the concept is the Norwest Business Park, built in 1983 and located in Sydney’s suburban Hills District.  Norwest sits on 172 hectares and houses over 400 companies employing more than 25,000 people.

When it was built, Norwest took business parks to the next level by incorporating open spaces, lakes, tree-lined streets, and a regional shopping centre.

With direct access to Sydney’s orbital motorway system, it’s home to Australia’s largest ice skating rink, Hillsong Church and two shopping centres. Despite this, a train station and medium density apartments are only now being built to complement its low density single lot housing.

Changing tastes

This desire for more public transport, a need to reduce commute time and increase collaboration has seen the functional, but unconnected, business park fall out of favour.

In the space of only 20 years, established business parks will have to reinvent themselves to compete with newer style place-based sites coming to White Bay and Australian Technology Park in Sydney.

A recent article in the Washington Post describes the rise of the business park ghost town as companies and workers turn away from the concept.

“There are 71.5 million square feet of vacant office space in the Washington region, much of it piled in office parks. That’s enough emptiness to fill the Mall four times over, with just enough left to fill most of the Pentagon,” the article reads.

In an era where connection is paramount, the siloed office park seems unworkable and old fashioned.

The need for the ‘squishy stuff’

The ‘squishy stuff’ that aids collaboration is also a key part of the innovation ecosystems.

Open spaces that allow for the sharing of ideas, and streets are generally well landscaped and walkable, with parks and open spaces. There are high quality eateries and bars and interaction with the arts is a critical element.  An emphasis on a diversity of housing options, ranging from small well priced apartments to four bedroom options creates a mix of ecosystem residents.

While people still drive private vehicles, vibrant innovation ecosystems have enviable public transit and often people live close to their workplace.

This new style of working and living space allows for the collision of ideas and people, a collision which is needed to help us solve some of our most complex problems.

For this reason new developments known as innovation ecosystems have risen up to take into account more complex factors like local strengths, tenant mix, transport and data infrastructure, collaborative networks, housing and culture.
These innovation ecosystems, such as Kendall Square in Cambridge Massachusetts or South Lake Union in Seattle, differ from business parks in a number of important ways.

There is often an anchor tenant (like Amazon in South Lake Union) around which the centre is built and sets the scene. Revolving around this company’s orbit is a diversity of building options that allows smaller companies entry into the ecosystem, but at a lower price point and with greater flexibility.
Ancillary services like patent attorneys and others involved in the commercialisation of ideas are gathered around incubators and accelerators. After all, commercialisation is the crux of an innovation economy – without the support to take an idea to market, innovation is purely academic and doesn’t reach its economic potential to create value.

Education as a centrepiece

Another element that sets innovation ecosystems apart from the business parks of old is the centrality of academia and schools– places that give birth to creativity and whose ideas ultimately filter through the ecosystem.

For example, the innovation ecosystem created in Emeryville, San Francisco sits right next to the University of California Berkeley, making it not only the creator of ideas, but means the city can retain the best talent  by offering jobs and research opportunities to graduates.

I believe that the future of innovations ecosystems will be their ability to blend the academic and commercial worlds.

Our rate of change is accelerating evermore rapidly, with the unknown ever present. To cope with this we will need more and more ways to engage with insightful information and research, and ensure that it crashes up against us in our daily life.

Whilst the likes of Norwest Business Park in Sydney is still performing well, these suburban employment areas will need to rapidly evolve to attract and retain the best talent and corporations.  Creating shared spaces, partnering with leading education institutions will allow the very best businesses to stay competitive in a furiously run global race.