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The Development of Boston’s Innovation District: A Case Study of Cross-Sector Collaboration and Public Entrepreneurship


by The Intersector Project

Emerging in urban centers across the country, city-level innovation districts are geographically distinct areas intended to attract cutting-edge companies, research institutions, startups, accelerators, and other related entities, creating a dense community of innovators and entrepreneurs. Understanding how city-level innovation districts can harness the strengths of each sector is particularly important in an era of urbanization, limited public resources, and increased public expectations of public sector innovation.

At The Intersector Project -- where we seek to empower practitioners in the business, government, and non-profit sectors to collaborate to solve problems that cannot be solved by one sector alone -- we’ve just completed a study of the role of intersector collaboration in the Boston Innovation District, whose development provides an outstanding example of a government-led economic development approach involving collaboration across sectors. It also demonstrates what Mitch Weiss, former Chief of Staff to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and now a lecturer at Harvard Business School, has described as “public entrepreneurship.” Public entrepreneurship is an approach to public sector management that draws upon a set of “lean” startup principles, including hypothesis-based experimentation and testing, iterative learning, and speed, agility, and willingness to pivot.

Following this approach, Boston’s public sector led the development of the District, driving forward an economic development strategy aimed to revitalize an underutilized parcel of land by attracting both established companies and emerging entrepreneurs, and developing infrastructure and amenities to holistically support work-life opportunities – all largely without the use of major tax incentives or costly capital investments.

The development of the District began with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino who, during his fifth inaugural address in January 2010, declared his vision to redevelop the Seaport District into the Innovation District: “Our mandate to all will be to invent a 21st century District that meets the needs of the innovators who live and work in Boston – to create a job magnet, an urban lab on our shore, and to harvest its lessons for the city.”

The Office of the Mayor and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the urban planning and economic development agency for the City of Boston, took the reigns in carrying out the Mayor’s vision. As Weiss recalls, “[The Mayor] expressed a vision, but there was no plan per se.” There was a sense of urgency, however, and a willingness to experiment by seizing opportunities for stakeholder engagement and recruitment that left no time for extensive studies or complex assessment plans. As a BRA staff member remembers, “At that point, we had the bare bones of a strategy and a slight vision for what we wanted to do. Then, we built it along the way.”

The Mayor’s vision for the District had four main features, which set the tone for how development took shape.

Industry-agnostic

One of the main features of the District was to be open to industries of every kind. This allowed for broad inclusivity of established companies and small enterprises and provided a framework for community engagement. As Samantha Hammar, former Communications Strategist for the Boston Innovation District, notes, the message was clear: “If you identify as innovative, you are more than welcome. This is an inclusive community for innovative people.” Additionally, this allowed the District to be less dependent on the growth of a single industry for its sustainability.

Clusters

The second feature in the creation of the District was the desire to cluster innovative entrepreneurs to increase proximity and density. This was highlighted by the District’s motto “Work, Live, Play” and the notion that “people in clusters innovate at a quicker rate, sharing technologies and knowledge easier.” Following this model, the city also hoped to attract amenities that would entice entrepreneurs to spend more time in the district networking and socializing. After speaking with many entrepreneurs through town halls and other events, Mayor Menino presented 10 items he considered key to the District’s development, one of which was “Don’t treat after work needs as an afterthought.” The underlying assumption was that attracting talent to work in the District was not enough for its sustainability as an innovation hub. The city needed to retain talent through a work-life environment favorable to creativity and exchange. Building physical spaces that enabled entrepreneurs to converge during and after work hours became imperative for the public sector, which led to the recruitment of accelerators, such as MassChallenge, and the development of public meet-up spaces, such as District Hall.

Experimental

The third feature was the public sector’s adoption of an experimental framework characterized by expedited decision making and planning flexibility. The mayor’s declaration sparked interest among the business community and created momentum for the public sector’s efforts to engage developers, design and architecture firms, company CEOs, entrepreneurs, and non-profit organizations to begin to construct the fabric of a community. As Weiss notes, “Move small, move fast; be a much more nimble [public] entrepreneur. That’s what we did. We never had any budget. We never had any task force. We just went and grabbed opportunistic things.”

The City as Host

A fourth feature was to position the city as the host institution instead of the host being a university or research firm, as is the case with MIT in Kendall Square, for example. As BRA Director of Planning Kairos Shen explains, “In the end, the city is the host, not the institutions.” The identification of the District with the city meant that the neighborhood would be free to develop organically, create momentum, and allow innovation to disperse across the city.

Our full study of the Boston Innovation District, including commentary on the traditional and nontraditional roles of the public sector in driving the District forward, is available online at intersector.com.

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