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Why Boston?

Boston was recently voted the world’s most innovative city. Some leading-edge innovators explain why they are here, prompting a few questions for the A+D community from our guest editor.

See how Boston ranks.

Introduction by David Hacin FAIA

If you are a young, motivated professional with the world at your doorstep, why would you choose to make a career here? For years, this has been a constant conversation topic in the Boston architectural community, usually bracketed by excuses about the cost of living or the weather — as if our local design culture had little or no bearing on why talented people choose to stay here or, more important, come in the first place. Around the city, other world-class industries are flourishing. It’s clear that neither cost nor weather has impeded their success in attracting and inspiring many to do their best work — right here.

How do leaders in these other industries “see” Boston? As the following articles describe with enthusiasm, Boston is a “hub,” a “network,” an “incubator” of ideas, a “proving ground” for transformational discoveries in the worlds of technology, education, entrepreneurship, and even theater. Most of these change-makers have relocated from elsewhere. For them, Boston is not simply a pleasant quality of life or attractive historic neighborhoods. Other cities fit that bill. It is a cauldron of talent and skills set in a political environment open to new ideas (think healthcare and same-sex marriage) that is special in the world and unique in the United States.

These writers are not architects, and their connection to the built environment is indirect. So why are their stories featured in ArchitectureBoston? Because, with the largest chapter of the AIA, top design schools, and dozens of admired firms with projects all over the world, Boston is still viewed as a restrained and conservative city, architecturally speaking. Although many of our firms build spectacular work outside town, there appears to be little appetite at home for engaging with a skeptical public to implement risk-taking design or even for encouraging the collaborative, interdisciplinary culture that our peers in other industries experience every day. Are we a global leader in biotech? In education? Absolutely. Are we leaders in design, urban planning, architecture, and landscape architecture? Maybe. BusinessWeek ranks our design community an impressive third behind New York City and Chicago. However, the following essays raise the question of whether our industry is fully taking advantage of that leading role. Are we reluctant to embrace and promote a civic identity of design, innovation, and collaboration? If so, are we falling out of step with the dynamic of a new generation raised with far fewer boundaries?

As the BSA builds a broader design community through its new facility on the harbor — Boston’s historic connection to the world—let’s ask ourselves what we can learn from our peers in other fields. In the years ahead, how can we firmly establish Boston’s place in the vanguard of the global design conversation? How are we incubating and supporting, even cheerleading, the kind of change that will capture the imagination of the world, and the young architects and designers who look to us for leadership? Boston is a thriving city, and we are a strong group of professionals with access to unparalleled resources. All we’ve got to do is recognize and act on this enormous potential. Now.


Boston is a research center.

by Jennifer Tour Chayes

When I lobbied for Microsoft to create a research facility in the Boston area, my pitch was based on two things: first, the thriving academic community, both in the areas that conventionally impact technology and in the social sciences; and second, the city’s innovative spirit.

Boston has technological innovation. Period. Some of the key figures who created Silicon Valley and the hightech industry were students here; our region has always been a source of talent for the tech industry. Now, we’re seeing a robust research and start-up community, operating at that crucial intersection of the social sciences and the disciplines of computer science, math, and physics. I don’t know of another city in the world that has these dual strengths to the same degree as this area does. Boston/Cambridge is on track to become one of the dominant players in this field.

We also have a wealth of young, dynamic individuals. I’ve read that Boston may be the “youngest” of all the large cities in the United States, no doubt because of its large university population. This strengthens Boston’s place as a mecca for researchers from all over the world.

Microsoft Research New England, based in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, is a multidisciplinary lab. We examine social media, algorithmic game theory, and many other areas at the boundaries of technology and social science. We want to help define the fundamental research that will be the basis of these new fields. Such work can have a huge impact on how we build and understand technology: how people use it and how it can change people’s lives.

Multidisciplinary research leads us down unexpected paths. In our work at the interface of the technological and social sciences, much of our research was focused on networks. We were building models of and deriving algorithms from technological networks such as the Internet and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. It turned out that variants of these algorithms were incredibly fast at determining network structures from indirect data — just the kind of problem that arises in studies of genomics. Thus, through our work at the intersection of technology and social science, we are now working at the intersection of technology and biology, using these algorithms to determine drug targets for cancer.

I first chose Boston when I was a postdoc at Harvard. Back then, I was charmed by the area’s contributions to our national history. I choose it now because of its potential to help shape technology’s future. We must draw upon that potential to create new, exciting fields that will set the stage for astonishing things to come.


Boston is a humanistic incubator.

by Roy Rodenstein

For many entrepreneurs, Boston lives in the shadow of Silicon Valley, and, increasingly, of New York City. The density of start-ups; successful founders; huge hits such as Apple, eBay, and Google; and fast adoption of new technologies are some of the advantages the Valley has for its cult(ure) of innovation. So why am I working on my third start-up here in Boston?

Boston has stronger loyalty. In California, the LinkedIns and Yahoos of the world battle each other for talent with exorbitant salaries for developers, who start to live more as hired guns than true team members — much like what happens in professional sports. In Boston, if you “draft” a star employee, you have a better shot of holding on to him or her.

Boston is very open and supportive. The high stakes in Silicon Valley mean that people are hyperbusy and often skeptical of others. Here, people recognize that we’re all learning and sweating for a vision. The spirit of camaraderie is second to none. Great community events such as Dart Family Dinner, which pairs budding entrepreneurs with experienced mentors, are open to all comers. I’ve even heard San Francisco natives say that our friendly atmosphere has no comparison.

Boston schools and neighboring communities are invaluable. The innovations and talent coming from MIT, Harvard, Babson, Boston University, and other local schools are more concentrated than anywhere else on earth. Steps from Kendall Square’s new Entrepreneur Walk of Fame is the Cambridge Innovation Center, perhaps the most advanced office and co-working space in the country. Almost overnight, all the big venturecapital firms have moved from Waltham’s frosty Winter Street to Cambridge, and great programs such as Mass- Challenge are distributing $1 million in prize money with 700-plus start-ups competing.

Some may say our city lacks sizzle, but we have impressive success stories of our own. Kayak, the easyas- pie travel search engine; Zipcar, the car-sharing phenomenon; Skyhook, the original GPS provider for the iPhone; and HubSpot, the epicenter of the inboundmarketing movement, are all world-class companies that began here.

If you’re looking to lead change and to share your innovative ideas and vision with others, Boston is a great place to be.


Boston is a hub of interconnected networks.

by Harry West

Why Boston? Because Boston really is a hub: a place of connection between design and technology, between academic research and new start-ups, between talented graduates and experienced professionals, between business and innovation. Innovation happens when new connections are made.

Boston is a place of connections, and each node in the network is world class. Boston is a global center for design excellence. More than 60 colleges are in Greater Boston, with Harvard and MIT defining a global standard of excellence, and Massachusetts is one of the top regions for venture-capital funding in the world. This is part of the reason the Innovation Cities Index 2011 ranked Boston as the most innovative city in the world.

Our company works at the intersection of design and innovation. We help our clients uncover new ideas and then develop new products, services, and brand experiences. Our mission is to make everyday life better, and we do this by harnessing human-centered innovation to growing businesses. We have our headquarters in Boston, but we work all over the world: medical devices in Massachusetts, cameras in China, beverages in Brazil, appliances in Italy, AIDS testing in Africa, banking globally — wherever the need for design and innovation is.

If you were to visit our headquarters in an old shoe factory in West Newton, you would see an extraordinarily diverse group of people with backgrounds in design, engineering, science, psychology, anthropology, business, you name it. Everyone brings to the team his or her own area of expertise, experience, and personal network outside the company. This results in an exponential increase in connections. We designed our space — actually Sasaki Associates designed our space — to foster connections among our staff, with our clients, and with the community. It is a hub within The Hub.

We are just a small part of an ecosystem in Boston and Massachusetts of more than 40,000 architects, landscape designers, digital designers, art directors, advertising professionals, fashion designers, graphic designers, interior designers, and other professionals. And the design ecosystem connects to other clusters of excellence in healthcare, technology, and education that push the boundaries of what we do and give all of us a particular innovative edge. We all work with one another, learn from one another, and steal people from one another.

Continuum continues to grow in Boston because the talent is here, and talent is here because the design and innovation organizations are here. It’s a virtuous cycle: talent attracts talent. This kind of virtuous cycle is difficult to start and imperative to maintain — and we have lots of competition. We must recognize how precious it is and ensure that it continues to intensify.


Boston is a proving ground.

by Diane Paulus

In almost every age before ours, going to the theater was a social experience. The Greeks, the Romans, the guildsmen of the Middle Ages, and the Elizabethans all staged their performances in open-air theaters during the day. People didn’t just go to see the performance; they went to see other people and to be seen, to watch how other people watched, to flirt, to interact, and to judge. Theater was a busy, loud, energetic gathering place.

The architecture of these theaters reflects this engagement. The Greek and Roman amphitheaters, the circular Elizabethan theaters of Shakespeare’s time, the semicircular Venetian opera houses — all were constructed so that the audience members could look at and interact with one another and with the actors. Only in the last century have theaters been built where audiences face the stage. It has become our habit to watch a play while sitting quietly in the dark.

As artistic director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) — where our mission is to expand the boundaries of theater — I am seeking ways to bring back this theater of engagement. Once again, the theater should be a place where we interact with one another and engage in society. Boston, a major cultural destination and a crossroads for innovators in so many fields, is uniquely positioned to support and encourage this kind of experimentation. In theater, Boston also has a history as a proving ground for new productions: Many shows traveled to New York City and the rest of the world only after first opening in Boston. In 2009, we introduced our club theater, OBERON, on the fringe of Harvard Square. With flexible seats, a full bar, and a performance space that wraps around the room, the environment both engages and frees the audience to participate in the theatrical experience. Audiences continue to line up every week for The Donkey Show and other experiential performances. Similarly popular was Sleep No More, a theatrical installation staged in 44 rooms of an abandoned elementary school in Brookline. People came out in droves for this immersive piece, proving that Boston has an appetite for groundbreaking artistic experiences that defy expectations and break all the rules.

On our main stage, we create events before and after the performance that empower and involve the audience. For example, around this year’s production of Wild Swans, Jung Chang’s famous memoir about her family’s struggles in China during the Cultural Revolution, we’ve collaborated with the Fairbank Center at Harvard on an extensive discussion series featuring historians, writers, sociologists, artists, and actors. Audiences do more than merely watch the performance; they participate in the conversation.

For almost three seasons now, I have been thrilled with the opportunities here to develop and revitalize the theater and the role it can play in our daily lives. Boston is world-famous for being a leader in innovation in the fields of medicine, technology, and higher education. This spirit of innovation also extends to the arts, and Boston should be known as a national leader in cultural innovation. Harvard University president Drew Faust has been an invaluable inspiration on this front, citing creativity as a form of knowledge and endorsing the arts as leading the way in how to think in new directions. I cannot imagine a better city to be the home and backdrop for the A.R.T.’s principal goal: to engage our audiences with theatrical experiences that are vibrant and vital to the contemporary culture, that inspire our audience and its participants to ask the central questions of what it means to be alive today.


Boston is partnership potential.

by Dawn Barrett

In 1870, Massachusetts passed the “Drawing Act,” a mandate that provided arts education to its citizens to promote “manual and intellectual skills” and “spiritual growth.” The formation of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) in 1873 and its evolution as the country’s only state-supported art and design school continues to demonstrate the Commonwealth’s leading role in design education. Today, as a newcomer to Boston, I recognize the great potential to build on this vision. But I have also observed the disciplinary segmentation of professional fields in the visual arts along with the relative distance drawn between design and art; education and art education; architecture and design — not to mention the further splintering of industrial, product, communication, and media design. This segmentation is exacerbated by the ever-widening gap between public and private domains. The resulting organizational entropy can be reversed only through greater collaboration between these inherently related fields.

Generally, isolation between disciplines hampers the potential for the economic leverage and research innovation that would result from productive alliances. The Massachusetts biotech sector has disciplinary synergies unknown to the design community, where equally distinct fields find common ground for advancing mutually supportive concentrations of expertise and enterprise.

MassArt — which believes steadfastly that publicly supported, accessible education in visual art and design is vital to the innovation economy and culture of the Commonwealth — challenges this phenomenon. We do so by crafting partnerships in the academic, corporate, cultural, and civic realms to build coalitions across silos. Although these partnerships require work, they also substantively contribute to the vitality, growth, and well-being of the city and the region. Some examples include:

  • The Design Industry Group of Massachusetts (DIGMA). DIGMA is a statewide initiative to organize and promote the Massachusetts design cluster. Founded and sponsored by MassArt, DIGMA serves as a collective voice and advocate.
  • The Colleges of the Fenway and the ProArts consortia. These, along with many other academic and institutional partnerships, provide shared learning opportunities, co-curricular and academic resources, and facilities.
  • The Fenway Alliance. As a member of the Fenway Alliance, MassArt and 20 other cultural institutions of the Fenway work together to showcase the cultural and artistic resources found in this neighborhood.
  • The Center for Design and Media. In a new partnership with government and industry, MassArt breaks ground this spring on a new Center for Design and Media. This will be a hub — a literal center to facilitate interaction within the campus community and with external thought leaders in the public, corporate, and private sectors.

John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” As we aim for that future, I will continue to support the smartest partnerships possible, partnerships that enhance education and cultural arts productivity for the sake of our social, economic, and civic health. Academic and professional collaborations of this nature provide laboratories for innovation and will allow art and design advancements to drive economic development


  • Massachusetts has the most R&D-intensive economy in the world, with 7 percent of the GDP accounted for by R&D in 2007.
    [2010 Index of the Massachusetts Innovation Economy]
  • Boston has the second hottest singles scene in the country.
    [Forbes magazine]
  • We come in right after Denver—not such a surprise, since we’ve also got the best job market.
    [Boston Business Journal]
  • However, Forbes also reports that the cost of doing business in Boston is higher than any other city in the country except New York City.
  • Boston was named the top US destination for international meetings and conferences.
    [The International Convention & Congress Association]
  • We're also one of the top 10 most socially networked cities in the US—ahead of both New York City and Los Angeles.
    [Men's Health magazine]
  • Boston may be ranked as the second most sports-crazed city,
  • but it's also considered the third most intelligent city
  • ... and the fourth best city in the country for culture, based on classical music, museums, historical monuments, and theater.
    [Travel+Leisure]
  • Boston ranked third for best recent-grad city.
    [apartments.com]
  • However, we also ranked in the top 10 most expensive housing markets for family homes.
    [Coldwell Banker]