Thursday, March 8, 2012

Kendall Square Meets

The Kendall Square Association had its annual meeting this morning, and the energy was infectious.

Home to the innovation economy in Cambridge and in Massachusetts as a whole, Kendall Square also has the odd distinction of being the location for the collision of two slogans: "The Future Is Happening Here" and "My God, the 1980s were an awful time for office architecture".  The association, known by its acronym KSA, was created in part to encourage the first, and fight against the second.

As to the future happening here, the case is very strong.  The stats that Tim Rowe, the president of the board of the KSA, and Travis McCready, its executive director, trot out are truly impressive, including the one which says that on a per capita basis the venture capital investment is higher here than even California, and much higher than New York.  Of course, that is a convenient rendering of data, and may indeed show that Massachusetts has a higher intensity of VC activity, but California has a 2011 population of 37.6 million people to Massachusetts' 6.6 million people.  California undeniably has the bigger pie from which to slice.

But I am quibbling here, because regardless the overall story in Massachusetts tells something both fascinating and deeply important.  The future really is happening here, and its happening in ways that speak to the dynamism of the people involved, and their gung ho belief in our collective capacity to imagine.   Human imagination is seen as the cornerstone of the work ahead, and given its intangible nature, it's quite startling to realize just how much is being perched upon its shoulders.  How to support and nurture it seems to be one of the core mission statements of the group. 

To do this, I see a certain style has developed in this world.  Much of it contains a very deliberate looseness and informality to the approach that is based on the perception that people are most creative when they are allowed to let their hair down.  The thinking must go: innovation is the heart of what our American economy has to offer the world, and innovation is reliant on people who feel unconstrained to dream, for dreaming is at the heart of many of the most profound innovations.  Given the dollar amounts tossed around, it is an amazing model for economic growth.

Speaking of economic growth, another telling statistic is the role that start-ups, defined as companies under 5 years old, have in job creation.  No surprise, it is the smaller, newer companies that create jobs.  It is the older companies that shed jobs.  Ergo?  Not hard to fill in that blank.

This is very interesting stuff, and in my mind it sits in contrast to efforts I had the chance to see in France.  France is aware of this innovation culture.  Paris, for example, is a university city.  Paris has the density, undeniably, and density is one of the golden children of Kendall Square, something both Tim and Travis and the others point to as part of its "special sauce".  Density allows the odd happenstance, the random meeting, the unexpected encounter that furthers an idea or fleshes out an insight or sparks a wholly new one, but Paris doesn't seem to have a culture of coordination - perhaps that is the word I am seeking.  The lack of coordination means the lack of the random spark that can start off so many new ideas.  These are very interesting questions.

And we haven't even begun to talk about bad architecture.