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BSA News

Jun 14, 2023

Why Boston Needs Innovation

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Image by Jeff Chabot from Pixabay

Boston is an old American city with incredible resources and challenges—like all American cities. It has world-class universities and hospitals, and companies, large and small, and a rich, vibrant social sector. However, at the same time, Boston has persistent social and civic challenges, and struggles to ensure that all residents can access resources in an equitable way.

Boston has often been called resource rich and coordination poor. So many resources and yet no strategic orientation. The resources are here; they just need to be directed toward the challenges we face in our city, including deep, social inequity; climate change; struggling infrastructure; and homelessness.

In order to take on these challenges, the traditional ways of getting things done, where everyone stays in their lane and tackles their piece of the pie, seems to have stalled. We need a more innovative way of making progress and the opportunity in front of us is to leverage the city’s resources for the betterment of all. We can use this as a working definition for innovation: catalyzing creative collaborations across institutional boundaries for the betterment of all.

Cross-Sector Collaboration Drives Innovation

Cross-sector collaboration is often a driver of innovation in various fields, both private and public, where perspectives drawn from other fields can give us a new way of seeing an old problem in another field. Given the rich set of institutions and organizations in the Boston region, this would seem to be a key strength of the region. We could imagine universities collaborating with local government to take on long-term issues like struggling public schools or finding ways for the private sector to work with community groups to understand how new technologies will affect their quality of life, or maybe finding ways for cities to work together to take on issues like climate change and homelessness.

These sorts of collaborative partnerships further enable us to deal with structural limitations that prevent more innovation at the intersection of these various sectors. For example, a particular community might have trust issues with what a particular development team does, preventing a project from moving forward. By bringing a trusted third party into the mix and creating space for a more playful collaboration, challenges of these sorts can be surmounted.

Creating the Conditions for Innovation

Getting beyond bureaucracy. All institutions generate and depend on bureaucracy; it is the infrastructure for delivering services of value at scale. However, more often than not, bureaucracy also gets in the way of new and/or creative ideas that could conceivably make the delivery of service more effective. As such, getting beyond bureaucracy is key to encouraging innovation across Boston; by leveraging partners in different sectors, we can find new ways to transcend the shortcomings of bureaucratic structures. For example, over the last several years, local government has extensively been using design thinking as a way of moving beyond bureaucracy. The idea has been to see government in terms of the design of its services. This could mean, for example, that government focuses on how residents experience services like paying for taxes, or registering their kids for school, and then working with designers to rethink those moments in terms of how they can be leveraged as trust-building moments by, perhaps, making those moments more transparent (where do my tax dollars go?).

Thinking in terms of community-centric design. The problems that we are facing in the world are increasingly place-based. For example, why is a particular school in a particular neighborhood chronically underperforming? Research suggests that the solution to questions such as these have more to do with what is happening at the community level. Is a local economic downturn affecting the employment status of parents, which then affects how they can support their students?

As such, as we address the ongoing challenges that we face in our cities, we need to move beyond approaches that focus on addressing individual challenges (e.g., the performance of a particular school), and instead adopt approaches that consider the community as a whole. We need to be designing and thinking in terms of the broader contexts in which cities communities exist.

Making space for risk-taking. Innovation isn’t free and needs investment. Similarly, cultures of innovation need to be actively supported. Innovation also brings with it the potential for failure. As such, the risk of failure is always real in any innovation practice and needs to be planned for and learned from (well-documented failures are an important asset to enabling innovation!). Finding ways to “make space” for risk-taking is key to providing the flexibility needed for innovations to occur and be tested.

What this means for architecture and the built environment

Architecture is an inherently cross-sectoral approach where local government and architects and developers in the building trades work together as a matter of course. What has often been more difficult to support is the direct collaboration between community groups and architecture. Architects struggle to find the right way to meaningfully engage community, and, in turn, the community often has no idea how to engage with architects. By bringing other partners into these collaborations, such as academia and civil society, one could imagine the development of experimental collaborations where the partners can work together to figure out the right way to work with one another and how to leverage their various resources for the betterment of the community and the practice of architecture as a whole. This is precisely what we are planning at the BSA. To create a space, where architects and builders and communities can come together to learn how to collaborate, and to take on tough social challenges as partners. This new innovation practice at the BSA, called the architectural futures group, will be a space where these partners can work together and take risks and try out new ideas.

If the institutions of Boston can figure out how to work with one another to address structural impairments and innovate, Boston will be an even more vibrant community—where all residents will be able to benefit from the city’s riches.