San Diego: Innovation Capital of the World?

April 18th, 2012

Written by Roger Showley, San Diego Union-Tribune

Mary Lydon, executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s San Diego-Tijuana district council, has a new title: “Global product manager for innovation economies.”

What the title may mean for San Diego is we might come to be seen as the innovation capital of world.

That’s because Lydon intends to use San Diego as a laboratory for rethinking local land-use arrangements to suit the burgeoning of the much-touted “knowledge-based economy.”

That means upending traditional zoning and building standards and finding ways to make city attractive to high-tech companies, research firms, designers and others thinking great thoughts in the 21st century.

“I think cities are grappling with what’s next, what’s the next economic strategy,” Lydon said.

“The economic development strategies will be different, city to city. What are your city’s attributes? What’s your geography? How do connect to the global marketplace? We’re all going global — every city is. You have to figure out how to connect to it — what’s going to be your calling card to the world?”

The vision is a city where people live, work and play within walking distance of one another so they cross-pollinate ideas and product concepts and make the proverbial whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Lydon got the nod from ULI’s Washington, D.C., headquarters as she was gearing up for an innovation economy conference in San Diego this September, cosponsored by the Aspen Institute. She organized a similar forum last year and is working on ULI’s spring 2013 meeting in San Diego, where city innovation promises to be a major focus.

ULI, a 76-year-old think-tank with nearly 30,000 members in 95 countries, brings together all aspects of real estate planning, design, finance and development. San Diego’s district council is one of 52 — mostly in the U.S. — that tackle land-use issues at the local level.

“We want to identify a number of items district councils can use to bring to their cities,” Lydon said. “It’s something fun for me. I’m very passionate about it.”

Lydon, 51, majored in nutritional sciences at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, moved to San Diego 1988 and got involved in real estate development and downtown planning. She became the ULI local director in 2007 and lives in South Park.

With increasing attention paid to the obesity epidemic, her nutrition background is becoming relevant in development circles: “My overall theme is building communities for well being,” she says.

Normally, major initiatives get announced by mayors, governors and presidents. They appoint commissions and task forces and publish lengthy reports — which often gather dust on shelves for lack of follow through.

No more, says Lydon.

“We informed the electeds what we want and they implement — that’s what I see happening,” she said. “What’s starting to happen is a new vision, new ways of doing things, new ways of living, and that’s coming from the ground up.”

As for “products” that will come out of the innovation initiative, Lydon said examples include conferences, reports, research, visioning exercises. For example, at the September innovation conference, speakers from other California cities, Austin, Texas, and Europe will present case studies that attendees can chew over.

“Having it in San Diego means I’m going to bring those resources here first because I’m here and I will use models emerging here,” Lydon said. “I will be talking to people here doing interesting things in San Diego and all over the world. This will be my laboratory, because I’m here.”

Article Courtesy of Roger Showley: [email protected]; (619) 293-1286; Twitter: rmshowley; Facebook: SDUTshowley

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