Trust and shared values are fundamental for a thriving community

The statement “Think globally act locally” has never been more relevant. The restrictions on travel, meetings, and many other areas have not stopped our daily work. Innovation cannot sleep – we need it to survive the aftereffect of the pandemic.
On December 1–3, the International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation (IASP) held their first-ever virtual conference on the subject of "The Human Factor: people, communities and their innovation ecosystems". One of our founders and co-organizers, Tartu Science Park, has been supporting and leading the innovation ecosystem in South-Estonia already for 28 years and was asked to share Tartu's experience with global experts as a good example.

This article was written by Kadri Arrak, the Marketing and Communications Manager of Tartu Science Park.

What is the essence of science parks, and what role do they play as community builders?

Science parks are the ancestors of incubators, accelerators, hubs and co-working spaces. Without these elements, we couldn’t even imagine the thriving innovation ecosystem today. To understand the essence behind science and technology parks (STP) as an innovation ecosystem a brief history lesson is necessary.

The first science and technology park was founded on the campus of Stanford University 70 years ago. It has transformed the Silicon Valley area from one of the USA's most impoverished regions into a global center of technology, finance, education, and research. A science park includes a set of spatially related (high) technology companies located on or near the university campus.

Version 1.0 was all about real estate and location. Spin-off companies of universities needed better infrastructure and bigger laboratories to grow. Over time the importance of giving good business advice and building a well-connected community became evident. Hence, the managers created more public areas like cafeterias, lounges, kitchens and sports rooms. Community events encourage networking and opportunities for innovative minds to meet. The knowledge shared inside the community fuels growth and generates added value.

In the 2000s, the parks saw the need to add incubators and accelerators to the list of services offered. To help even more scientific discoveries become services and products, scientists needed business mentoring and advice. Thus, we entered era 2.0 of the innovation age with new business development means and assets – Incubators, Accelerators and Mentors.

Today, we are living in the 3.0 world. World of networks, where the innovation community acts as a living platform of constantly changing and evolving connections between various actors. Private and public, from business to academia. One could say that innovation communities, science parks, and accelerators among them, are on the verge of entering version 4.0.

What makes a community?

Vaido Mikheim, Project Manager at Tartu Science Park and the man behind sTARTUp Pitching for the past four years, together with Lena Miranda (Linköping Science Park, Sweden) and Dr. Jernej Pintar (Ljubljana Technology Park, Slovenia) and Mieke de Bruin (Utrecht Science Park, The Netherlands) talked about the importance and future of communities during the IASP conference. They are all from very different size STPs ranging from communities of a few hundred (case of Tartu) to 70,000 (case of Utrecht). They are nevertheless dealing with the same challenges in community building.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines community as the people living in one particular area or people who are considered as a unit because of their common interests, social group, or nationality. Jernej summed it up for STPs, saying that the companies are the essence. "Our job is to bring them together to inspire growth, courage, ambition, and cooperation." Jernej underlined a major roadblock any community builder can face: "Building a community, especially in the beginning, gives tiny revenue numbers and demands substantially higher costs."
Why endeavor in something which only takes resources away and doesn't bring anything back?
In Tartu's case, the community overall is small, so it makes more sense that we put our backs together as organizations to stand out. That’s why we created the sTARTUp Tartu community who also organizes the business festival sTARTUp Day. But ecosystem building is not only about creating extraordinary events but facilitating connections.

What is essential for the community to flourish?

Mieke, who is leading a community of 70,000 people in Utrecht, said that we all know how vital physical presence and the feeling of belonging are. "So, events and meetups are essential, but places to meet by chance, like communal kitchens and lounges, are equally important," explained Mieke. "Having moved all meetings online, facilitating meetings both among community members and your vast international network is one of the key components."

Vaido emphasized that the trick is to have more than one community builder, a builder group, who have the same goals and ideals. "Tartu has created a strong community by having events like a monthly entrepreneurship sauna where the support organization players meet and share their stories." And great ideas come from the sauna. For example, the concept of sTARTUp Day was also born in the sauna. This gathered Tartu Science Park, Tartu Business Advisory Board, Tartu University, Creative Industry Centre, Contriber Ventures OÜ, Tartu Biotechnology Park, and the City of Tartu under one umbrella to pursue a common goal.
Everyone agreed without any doubt that trust and shared values are fundamental basics for any thriving community.

What have we done differently in Tartu?

The life or death of every platform, community, and almost every business depends on the behavior and support of users and customers. The involvement of your "tribe" is a critically essential element. In the sTARTUp Tartu community, we have done different activities ranging from weekly meetups to annual business festival and yearly community learning trips to bring the community builders closer. The meetings are for sharing insights about reasons behind the projects and activities, impact on increased or decreased involvement, and for all that lies between them.

The tricky part has been to stay true to itself from the perspective of all the organizations mentioned above. Meaning, each organization has its own interests and goals that need to be respected and taken into consideration.

Year by year, the startups and technology companies see the significance and value of giving back to the community. Supporting events, sharing experiences, and spreading community news among their network helps the community to grow.

What are the future trends of community building?

To make the most out of science parks, business development organizations, public administrations, and enterprises, you have to keep in mind the members of your community because:
  1. they make sales on your behalf
  2. their lifetime value is higher
  3. the cost of additional services is lower.
Having one umbrella-like sTARTUp Day to gather the players under has been a tremendous advantage for Tartu. Mieke from Utrecht said that their campus is almost as big as the City of Tartu. Inside it is divided into many smaller interest groups, and you start by bringing them together regularly. When planning a new building, they decided to go one step further and make the elevator stop every three floors, making people walk to their floor, forcing more casual meetings.

Community building is essential because enthusiastic members will bring along new members. Already convinced members rarely leave the community, and best of all, members support each other. Making community building part of your strategy is the best long-term investment you can make in 2021.
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