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

Looking at Fan Pier in Boston, which is part of the Innovation District.

Looking at Fan Pier in Boston, which is part of the Innovation District. holbox /


Connecting state and local government leaders

What were the critical elements that made this waterfront area flourish?

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 recently 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 M. 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 with minimal use of major tax incentives and costly capital investments.

Boston: Primed for Innovation

Boston’s distinctive concentration of higher education institutions, research and manufacturing capabilities, and venture capital firms makes it uniquely positioned to attract extraordinary talent and innovative ventures. According to Entrepreneur magazine, as of January 2015, Boston was the top destination for venture capital investments in the United States, after the San Francisco Bay Area. These contextual factors contribute to the city’s ability to promote dynamic economic growth.

Boston Redevelopment Authority

The Boston Innovation District spans approximately 1,000 acres and includes five sub-districts: Fort Point, Seaport, Port, Convention Center, and 100-Acres. While the area was once a hub of industry, the development of transportation infrastructure, including elevated highways, isolated the District, making it hardly accessible by foot. But beginning in 1995, the extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike to Logan Airport and the opening of the Ted Williams Tunnel made the area more accessible and created opportunities for development. In 2004, the Seaport District was further integrated into downtown Boston as the result of the project known as the Big Dig that dismantled the elevated Central Artery highway and rerouted Interstate 93 through underground tunnels. Shortly after, the expansion of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s Silver Line brought public transportation to the area for the first time.

2004 also marked the opening of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center east of Fort Point, which transformed the area and drew in thousands of new visitors. In 2005, Joe Fallon, founder of The Fallon Company, purchased 21 acres of waterfront property in the District for a massive multi-building waterfront development project to be known as the Fan Pier Development, expected to create $3 billion worth of mixed-use development. The Institute of Contemporary Art relocated to the Fan Pier Development and became the cultural cornerstone and a centerpiece of Boston’s new waterfront. Given the significant changes in those years, the Seaport District was dubbed a “bustling waterfront” by The New York Times in 2007.

The global economic downturn in 2008 disrupted the area’s renaissance. While affordable rents in the District helped the neighborhood continue to grow, large-scale development slowed during this period. By 2010, the District presented a mixed landscape, with newly built, vacant Class A office buildings next to empty factories, high-end apartments and condominiums next to artist studios, and trendy bars next to vast open parking lots.

The District’s Development: A Mayor’s Vision

The development of the District began with Mayor Menino who, during his fifth inaugural address in January 2010, declared his vision to redevelop the Seaport District into the Innovation District: ““A new approach is called for on the waterfront, one that is both more deliberate and more experimental. Together, we should develop these thousand acres into a hub for knowledge workers and creative jobs.”

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 (the former Chief of Staff) 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. “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,” a BRA staff member remembers.

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. “If you identify as innovative, you are more than welcome,” notes Samantha Hammar, former Communications Strategist for the Boston Innovation District. “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. “Move small, move fast; be a much more nimble [public] entrepreneur. That’s what we did,” describes Weiss. “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. 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

This article was adapted from a newly released report from The Intersector Project, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to advancing collaboration across sectors as a way to address society's complex issues, and is republished here with permission.

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