by J. Peder Zane
photographs by Jill Knight
When you reach The Frontier, the first thing you see is the people.
They’re forming long lines, chatting and palm-reading their phones, waiting to purchase Korean barbecue, Italian pizzas, gourmet wraps, and snow cones from food truck windows.
They’re gathering to hear entrepreneurs describe the future, to relax and sweat in yoga and fitness classes.
They’re mingling as they sample locally brewed beers.
But most of all, the people at The Frontier are sitting in comfy chairs, cradling laptops, connecting to people across town and around the world. They’re talking on the phone and to each other, testing and trading ideas, cutting deals. And they’re downing vast quantities of free Counter Culture coffee served from a seemingly bottomless brewing station.
At first glance, The Frontier seems like just another hipster outpost in 21st century America. Except it’s not located in Austin, Boston, or Brooklyn. It’s in that buttoned-up symbol of 20th century corporate culture, Research Triangle Park. Its happenings are not haphazard hook-ups. They are the first signs of a visionary plan to redefine life in North Carolina for the next 50 years with the same power, reach, and imagination that RTP has exerted over our region and state during its first 50 years.
Seen through the right lens, the people of The Frontier – a relatively small, unexceptional building that offers free couch space, cheap office space, and an array of activities to one and all – are the pioneers of the new RTP. Instead of settling untamed land, they are creating a new type of community based on ideas and imagination, on human connection, convergence, and collision.
They are the first signs of life in the birth of a city.
A master plan
About 39,000 people now work full-time at the Park’s more than 200 high-tech companies and startup spaces. Almost all arrive by car each morning at the 7,000-acre campus nestled between Raleigh and Durham. They leave by car each night. During the day, many get back in their cars to grab lunch, pick up dry cleaning, or run other errands. Bob Geolas, president and CEO of the nonprofit agency that manages RTP, the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina, notes that the park may be half the size of Manhattan, but it doesn’t have a single Starbucks.
A 50-year master plan adopted in 2012 aims to change all that. By attracting billions of dollars of new investment, Geolas says the park hopes to draws as many as 100,000 new people to RTP. It will do that by transforming 100-plus acres at its heart – Park Center, where the Frontier lies – into a place where people not only work, but also live, eat, and play. Or, as Geolas puts it, “dream, believe, and create.”
Scale models and artist renderings created by the acclaimed Durham firm Duda/Paine Architects can’t do justice to the grand scale of the project, which is less an act of building than of becoming. Envision, instead, a time-lapse movie in your mind in which those food trucks become downtown restaurants and upscale grocery stores; where the kegerators spouting those local beers morph into throbbing cocktail lounges; where The Frontier’s coffee station is replaced by baristas who make swirly hearts in the center of your triple, venti, half-sweet, non-fat, caramel macchiato.
Watch residents of the new apartments entertain guests from the nearby hotel. See them catch a show at the amphitheater, go shopping at one of the new retail shops, take a walk or bike ride along the greenways. Join them – hey, it’s your movie – in marveling at the signature building in the middle of it all, the one that developers hope will be our region’s version of Lincoln Center or Sydney Opera House in Australia.
But even that movie doesn’t fully capture the scope and ambition of the plans for RTP. Beyond the addition of three new R’s to this longtime hub of R&D (Residential, Retail and Restaurants) Geolas says this project will never stop growing and changing. Like a medieval cathedral that is never truly complete, “it’s an artist’s blackboard, always in a state of becoming,” he says, offering one of the many metaphors he employs to describe the plan. “It should look different every time you come back.”
A 50-year-old North Carolina native who led N.C. State’s Centennial Campus and oversaw the construction and operation of the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research, Geolas often invokes two unlikely names in describing the project: Willy Wonka and Walt Disney.
To hear him tell it, RTP is the Tar Heel version of Wonka’s factory – a mysterious, almost forbidding place where magic occurs. Area residents know it’s home to cutting edge companies and think-tanks – including IBM, GlaxoSmithKline, and the National Humanities Center. They may know it’s where the bar code and AstroTurf were developed, and where breakthrough drugs for cancer (Taxol) and AIDS (AZT) were developed. But if they don’t work in RTP, they’ve probably never even seen it.
Disney is the inspiration to turn that on its head. Taking a cue from the entertainment visionary, RTP’s master plan seeks to transform this land of private innovation into a public showcase. As it serves the people who work there, it will invite those who live around it to experience its daring ingenuity: the Triangle’s version of Tomorrowland. Geolas says the reinvented park could include interactive displays, touch-screen shopping, exhibits featuring the Park’s creations, and apps that enable you to organize every aspect of a visit on mobile devices.
Building the future
“We are about building the future, which is exciting, filled with possibilities,” Geolas says. “We want RTP to help people tell a story about that, to be a place that provides inspiring experiences.”
If that sounds grand, talk to Smedes York. The former two-term Raleigh mayor believes the new RTP will transform not just the Park but the region. His vision brings to mind nothing less than a Tar Heel version of New York, where Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and RTP are distinct cities as well as boroughs of a vast, connected city. “We imagine RTP as the downtown for the entire Triangle,” York said. “Think of I-40 as Main Street and Davis Drive in the center of the Park as the intersection of Main and Main.”
In many ways, the new RTP is just another chapter in the Park’s storied history. It began in the early 1950s as the wild – some said crazy – dream of the state’s business, government, and educational leaders who realized that North Carolina could no longer rely on tobacco, textiles, and the furniture industry to drive its economy. As they looked around the poor Southern state with few natural resources, they recognized that its best asset was its people. Especially the researchers and students at the three top-tier institutions along tobacco road: UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, and N.C. State.
When initial plans to start the Park as a for-profit land deal failed, what they did next was just as extraordinary. They went hat-in-hand across the state seeking donors rather than investors. Today, RTP is still run by a nonprofit foundation that receives no tax dollars. If it were dissolved, its assets would be split among the three anchor universities.
The park’s first five years were slow going. A boost came in 1965, when IBM decided to build a 600,000-square-foot research facility at the park, and the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare decided to locate its new $70 million National Environmental Health Science Center there.
Since then, RTP has become “perhaps the 20th century’s most iconic research and development campus,” according to the Brookings Institution. It’s why our region is called the Triangle, and why the Triangle is a global hotspot.
“Everyone knows RTP,” says N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson. “It is a part of the technology brand, the innovation brand that defines us.”
Woodson says his school’s close working relationship with RTP – including internships for students and guest speakers who share their cutting edge research – is invaluable. He proudly notes that RTP companies “hire more N.C. State graduates than from any other school.” If it’s all working so well, then, why change?
Bob Geolas will tell you that the reinvention of RTP may be visionary, but it is also a necessity as powerful – and paradoxical – changes transform business and society.
The changing workplace
In the global economy, bigger is touted as better. The news is filled with stories about mergers and consolidations, of banks “too big to fail,” of states trying to woo big car companies and of behemoths such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google standing astride world markets. And yet, from the standpoint of RTP and its competitors, the days of big game hunting – when bagging large corporate headquarters was the prize – are over. “The number of big companies that are picking up and moving or moving large chunks of their business is relatively small,” said Dick Daugherty, a former IBM executive who serves on the RTP board.
Indeed, about half of the Park’s companies that employ more than 250 people moved in before 1990. Nowadays large corporations value speed, mobility, and agility. Wary of long-term commitments, afraid to set down costly roots, their long-term strategies often rely on short-term solutions. In another intersection of corporate and hipster culture, the pop-up R&D lab has joined the pop-up bar, pop-up restaurant, and pop-up nightclub as a sign of the times. “Large companies are not looking to open large R&D centers like they did in the ’70s,” Geolas says. They are more interested in popping into a location that has the space and talent to complete a specific project – say, 25,0000 square feet of clean space to lease for five years to develop a new drug. Then they can decide whether they want to stay or move on.
Even as it adapts to the needs of larger companies by offering more customizable spaces, RTP has morphed into a hub for smaller, entrepreneurial outfits. More than 70 percent of its companies employ fewer than 50 people, including almost 90 percent of those that have entered the Park since 2000. It is also telling that about 35 percent of the firms located there have moved in since 2010.
The need to reimagine RTP boiled down to a simple question: In a faster, nimbler world, where vast tracts of land and plenty of parking are less and less important, why should companies choose to move here?
It’s a question being asked around the world. RTP’s plans reflect the broad consensus of influential planners. A Brookings Institution report titled “The Rise of Innovation Districts” notes suburban campuses “accessible only by car, with little emphasis on the quality of life” are increasingly outdated. From Barcelona and Berlin to London and Seoul, from Boston and Philadelphia to St. Louis and Silicon Valley, “innovation districts” are being developed in which “leading-edge anchor (i.e. big) institutions and companies cluster with start-ups, incubators, and accelerators.” Innovation districts “constitute the ultimate mash-up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments – all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine.”
This represents a radically new understanding about how to generate ideas. After all, one of RTP’s initial attractions was its ample private space. Companies treasured splendid isolation from those around them as they percolated ideas within their silos.
Innovation districts, by contrast, seek to foster interaction by configuring spaces that encourage people to mingle and collide. The food trucks, happy hours, and lectures arranged at The Frontier are the nascent efforts to bring the Park’s workers together, not just to have fun but to exchange ideas, to motivate, challenge, and inspire one another.
Geolas agrees that it is hard to precisely calculate the number of ideas or the amount of money generated by such highly organized yet random interactions. Instead, RTP will measure success as it always has – by its ability to attract and hold tenants.
But even that is only half the equation – it suggests why this new approach works for companies. Just as important is the fundamental change that has occurred in the relationship between cutting-edge businesses and the highly-skilled, rare, and desirable employees they seek to attract. Without putting too fine a point on it, it has long been enough for companies to offer workers two things: a salary and benefits.
Nowadays, the star graduates of leading universities demand more. They see jobs as a lifestyle, one that should be filled with meaning and fun. A further paradox is that this is happening at the same time that traditional social connections are fraying. As our professional and personal lives merge, people increasingly expect work to satisfy their social needs. In this new environment, it is fitting that RTP – long known as the playground for engineers – is reinventing itself in part with social engineering.
It suggests that the future still belongs to the past. As businesses grow and change and create new frontiers, their their success will depend, as it always has, on this one thing: anticipating and satisfying our needs and desires.