From Pipeline to Platform

Imagining Innovation in the Rust Belt

Alex Yuen (MAUD ’18)
Recipient of Urban Planning and Design Thesis Prize in Urban Design at Harvard GSD 2018

180510 Final Presentation101.jpg

My thesis is the culmination of a year-long investigation into the parallel urban phenomena of Rust Belts and Innovation Hubs. The project proposes a new type of innovation development for a rust belt context by establishing a literal platform developed around the research and development of polymer science and engineering that takes advantage of Akron, Ohio’s geographic centrality as well as a growing desire for innovation industries to settle in non-coastal territories.


Rust belts and innovation centers are in many ways indicative of America’s position within the broader global economy. The development and prosperity brought about by America’s industrial capabilities in the 19th and 20th century have led to a society whose standard of living and pay far exceeds that found in less developed nations. However, as poorer nations began to bridge the gap between themselves and developed nations (most notably by acquiring the manufacturing responsibilities that had given developed nations the opportunity to get ahead in the first place) the most apparent consequences for those developed nations were a decline in manufacturing output and emerging areas of economic balkanization. While regions of developed countries that maintained global relevance as centers of finance, entertainment, energy, or tech continued to benefit from their presence in a global market, traditional manufacturing in the West could not compete with the fractional labor costs of modernizing nations. This has led to the emergence of so-called ‘Rust Belts’ in former manufacturing zones.

Existing on the other side of the economic spectrum from rust belts, ‘innovation centers’ are reaping the benefits of globalization. With high paying jobs, popular urban amenities, and dynamic lifestyle offerings, these regions are both economically successful and socially attractive. Characterized by a clustering of individuals, institutions, and enterprises around a particular focus, they represent the comparative advantage developing nations have over developing ones with regards to engendering and supporting R&D based ventures. Centered on the belief that progress is most effectively made collectively and that an open sharing of ideas, resources, and talent can lead to higher rates of innovation, these hubs are reconstructing how both private and public enterprises choose to operate.

The design project posits that neither the isolated headquarters campus nor acupunctural situated incubator can adequately resolve the spatial or contextual requirements of the modern innovation hub or the cities that are home to them. Sited in the former tire manufacturing hub of Akron, Ohio, the project is positioned as modular, flexible, and adaptable, in direct contrast to the static and iconic high-tech campuses currently in vogue. By puncturing the platform with towers and slabs, a secondary set of more programmatically specific building types establish a balance between working and production with living and leisure as well as establish a dialectical framework between integrated and isolated spaces necessary for an innovation development. The resulting platform then serves as an urban system that would attract both locals and any one of the many individuals or organizations who would seek to establish a presence in the world’s polymer capital.

180510 Final Presentation18.jpg