Friday, November 1, 2013

unCon 2013 Session: Build a Better Boston

Moderator: Michael Morisy, Editor, The Boston Globe

The question of how to build a better Boston, posed at the “Build a Better Boston” session, is one that has gotten asked a lot in recent years, both locally and from national media outlets ( ).

In tech circles, it almost always feeds back to the companies who have started in Boston (or Greater Boston, so including the cities of Cambridge, Somerville, and of course the 128 corridor that semi-circles around Boston and its bedroom communities) and then departed. The most famous: Facebook. We all know the story about how Mark Zuckerberg started The Facebook in his dorm in 2004, but reached a point at which he felt he had to head to Silicon Valley to find the investors, cash, and engineers he needed to grow faster.

The irony of this worry is that Boston’s tech community is actually booming, but the city suffers a bit of an inferiority complex about how it can retain the stature it held from the 1950s through the 1980s ( ).

Greater Boston has its fair share of inspired entrepreneurs, talented engineers, venture capitalists, angel investors, and a never-ending stream of university graduates with the next big idea, but the general consensus in the room was that we’re not the most business or lifestyle-friendly city and so companies (and their founders) often look to other cities or regions (all of which have their own pros and cons, too) to call home.

Much of the comments and constructive ideas in this session went back to infrastructure—better mass transit, more bike-friendly, faster Internet, more collaborative work spaces—and some of the pains that many big cities face, such as expensive housing, high cost of living, terrible traffic, out-of-date gyms, etc.
There was also a fair amount of hand wringing about the visibility of the tech scene in Boston, asking questions about why some national tech publications like TechCrunch ( ) don’t have a Boston/Cambridge bureau. I don’t know personally how many tech writers in Boston pitch TechCrunch with articles, but that’s a good starting point.

As one participant stated, “Boston is a mix of Catholic guilt and ADD,” and he may be right. As a New Yorker, I’ve also had a sense in Boston that New England modesty can sometimes prevent the city from letting itself shine. New York City never lets modesty get in the way of anything.

The energy in the room quickly rose to the challenge, of course, coming up with a myriad of ways to celebrate our tech companies, such as the City of Boston buying a high-visibility billboard that local start-ups could rent to help get the word out to locals, encouraging more companies to run shuttle services for commuters (as has become common in Silicon Valley) to help improve travel and traffic, how to encourage Boston-based start-ups to aim for more national press coverage, how to replicate the Innovation District model to other parts of the city, and maybe even better connecting Boston’s residents. I liked the idea of younger people teaching older people about technology and older people teaching younger people about how to write letters and some personal skills that may be getting lost in our hurry-hurry-hurry era.

With a new mayor about to be voted into office on Tuesday, November 5th, the group had some suggestions for him, too. Several felt the next Mayor of Boston has to be a promoter of the tech community and to forget that “we always do it this way,” so that the next era of tech isn’t constrained by the past. Simple things like letting businesses brand the buildings they are in on the outside, so that everyone knows what businesses are in their midst to regional options like branding the Red Line as “The Red Line Tech Corridor,” given the many companies clustered along its stops in Cambridge and Boston, to more global opportunities like a Made in Boston or Made in Massachusetts web site a la Made in NYC ( ).

A common refrain at events such as this is how to get people in different technology verticals to know and work with each other. Boston does have a myriad of ways for those working in tech and innovation to connect, including Mass Innovation Nights ( ), BostInno Fest ( ), Boston Techjam ( ), Xconomy ( ), Greenhorn Connect ( ), Venture Fizz ( ), etc. Ideas like Boston Founded ( ) which lets all of us know exactly who is working in our midst, would also help foster a stronger tech scene.

I was left with the larger need for how to foster a better technology mentorship community, for both individuals who can offer help to those who need it to companies who want to help the next generation of companies, too.  The best way to do that is likely to centralize these needs and resources, so perhaps using existing platform like Cofounderslab ( ) would cause entrepreneurs to stop and think about how the people of the city around them are here to support them before considering a move.

Perhaps it is as simple as Boston needing to rebrand itself and learn to celebrate its technology past and future a little more. It needs to come out as proud to be a leader in technology of all sorts, a leader in education, healthcare, the arts, etc. These things take time to take hold, but with a new Mayor entering City Hall, the time to undertake a rebranding is certainly now.

By Charles McEnerney

Charles McEnerney is a Principal at Layers Marketing ( ), a full-service agency handling traditional, web, and mobile marketing based in Boston, Massachusetts. Charlie has worked in marketing roles at media and entertainment companies for more than 25 years, including at ArtsBoston, Fast Company magazine, HBO, MovieMaker magazine, the Seattle International Film Festival, WGBH Boston, and in film, audio, and music production. Current and recent Layers Marketing clients include Appsembler, The Arts Fuse, Boston University's College of Fine Arts, The Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts, Future of Music Coalition, Jamaica Plain Music Festival, and the Over My Shoulder Foundation. Charlie teaches the four marketing courses at Emerson College as well as workshops and seminars about marketing and social media.

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