Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Evolution of a Building

I am a broken record (does that phrase have any meaning anymore?) when it comes to the things I focus on in this blog, and one of those things is the rapid pace of change in eastern Cambridge, particularly in Kendall Square, where new construction is occurring at a clip that is surprising, and its outcomes will be even more surprising when they are fully realized.

To make this point, I have followed the ongoing construction of a residential tower underway behind the Watermark building on 3rd Street.

Here are a series of photographs that record 34 days of construction of this building (April 26 to May 30) -  most recent first:

May 30, 2012

May 20, 2012

May 7, 2012

April 26, 2012

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Trip to Salem, MA

Last Wednesday, I traveled to Salem, MA.  The Metropolitan Area Planning Council was having its annual meeting there in a fine hotel, the Hawthorne. 

Salem is where the witches were and where the House of Seven Gables is.  It is birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Salem is also the ancestral seat to a time forgotten in American history, the time when sailing ships carried American goods across the seas in trade to China, India and the West Indies, and brought back riches heretofore unknown in their holds.  Around 1800, Salem was sixth largest city in the United States. Its port was world famous.

The era of the great ships and the mad captains was also a time of great innovation and risk-taking in American commercial life. Huge profits could be realized through crazy schemes, and many an innovator set his hand at trying.

It was not modern America by any means.  Long before the Civil War and the railroads united this country, regional strengths were the all.

Salem sat as the head of Essex County, a place in Massachusetts that got rich on all of this barter.  The houses along the main streets of the old town show it. 

This gem of a building preserved for us a time when the ship was the internet of its day, connecting places far and wide through trade, communication and commerce.  All eras of commerce leave their mark in stone somehow, some way.  This era was no different.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Grab Bag: Bike to Work Day; etc.

It's Friday again, and that means it's Grab Bag Day.  Now it seems that Friday is the only day that I can sit down and write something.  So be it.

1.  Today is National Bike to Work Day.  If you didn't bike to work today, well then, shame on you!  Bikes are a big deal, and they are becoming an even bigger deal. In Cambridge, MA this day has already arrived. Bike riding has increased over 150 percent since 2002.  That means that for every 10 cyclists on the road back then, there are now 25.  These numbers are impressive, but they probably undercount, and they don't give any sense of how many more bikers may join.  According to the American Community Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau's analysis of trends in America which the Republican House of Representatives recently voted to defund, Cambridge tops the list of cities where people either walk or ride their bike to work.

And the ironic part: Parking becomes the main issue with bikes, just like it is with cars

2.  More construction in Cambridge.  The construction boom continues in Cambridge, MA.  This building sits on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Trowbridge Street, above what used to be the Bowl and Board store.

Cambridge, singlehandedly keeping the construction industry afloat

3.  In Memoriam.  Stephen Aaron (1936 - 2012) died on Sunday, May 6.
An old family friend and one of those important people in my life, I remember him more than fondly, and miss him.  While he would probably want Bach, today I listen to Simon and Garfunkel for whatever reason. 

I'll remember Steve with a photo of a dappled Deux Chevaux parked near Memorial Drive last Sunday

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday Grab Bag: Motorized Wheelchairs, etc.

It's Friday, which means it's time for the Grab Bag.  These random thoughts descend like parachutists during a practice jump, lazily drifting around-ward while drifting downward in the fresh springtime air.

1.  A stunt woman in Sydney broke a Guinness World Record last week by riding a motorized toilet at a speed of 46 mph.  When you gotta go, you gotta go, I guess.  (from Sports Illustrated, under the title "Sign of the Apocalypse", May 14, 2012)

2.  As I thought about the Innovation Economy and reflected on my own youthful (should I say "immature"?) perceptions of young people's aspirations, I asked myself this question: when did business go from being "establishment" to being "revolutionary"?

3.  This morning, for the first time in a while, I saw the sun, and it was good.

4.  An MIT person recently made the following observation to me.  We are in a global game of very high stakes.  China effectively has driven down the cost of labor to zero, thereby undermining America's need or ability to compete on creating widgets. The added value of the American portion comes from our idea factory, minting new geniuses in our universities and our research institutes and then allowing them to combine with other geniuses and resources to create the future.  These explosions of creativity, where randomly-occurring interactions lead to new breakthroughs and insights, need to happen on American soil.  This is the Innovation Economy.

In his view, the U.S. typically gets the 50-year sine wave right. He means that the big picture strategic choices in the U.S. are correct, benefited by the many voices and inputs that go into making them. But they take a very long time to realize.  We are being completely out-competed on the immediate tactical battling where large investments and national commitments can have huge short-term impacts and tilt the playing field significantly in one's favor, a place where China has an intense advantage.  America after all is a democracy, and democracies require a lot of process in any public decision-making.  China is an autocracy, run since the 1980s by increasingly skilled technocrats (see Fareed Zakaria on this topic in Time Magazine, May 14 issue), and there decisions are not debated, they are put into action. 

5.  Finally, this quote from today's Boston Globe obituary of Elliott Wilbur, former member of Concord's Board of Selectmen.  In 1994, he wrote a letter to the Globe in which he rebutted the idea that low- and moderate-income families might pose a danger in a proposed housing project in his town: "Where is it written that anti-social behavior is related to income?  I have been an elected town official for 16 years; some of the most unpleasant behavior problems I've seen, or been made aware of, were among the families of the wealthy and the privileged!"  Rest In Peace, Elliot Wilbur.  (Thanks to Ann Smith for the quote.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Film Review. Boston Under: After Dark

"Something is wrong here" says Patrick Kineavy, director of Physical Infrastructure Maintenance for the MBTA, the transit agency known as the T in Boston, as he descends deeper into the thick black of the tunnel.  He's looking for the cause of the blaring sound, the alarm that signals something is not right in the area known as "Boylston Under", the abandoned section of tube under the Boston Common once retrofitted to serve as a bomb shelter during the height of the Cold War.  Kineavy isn't sure what's going on, but his anxiety is growing.  He was just supposed to be giving a tour of this part of the concrete circuitry that zig-zags under the streets of the city.  But the unexpected warning requires him to shift modes.  Safety of the T system is his job after all.

This scene is part of Boston Under: After Dark, a film made by Edward Peters and Peter Olejnik, two guys who spend their days behind desks at the state's Department of Revenue.  Last March, they decided that the T's workers' tale needed to be told after reading about a writer who spent a whole night underground. "The story really intrigued us as filmmakers because of the potential for an interesting visual look at these tunnels -- and people who work at night in them. The MBTA tunnels were a completely foreign world  to us and we figured there were many other residents who were unaware as well" said Edward via email. They both decided to look into it further.  

As they dug deeper into this infrastructure maze, they found that you can't talk about the T without talking about the people who make the T run.  "As filming progressed, we began meeting and interviewing workers and documenting the oftentimes dangerous work and quickly realized there were some very interesting characters and compelling stories at the MBTA --in particular, the chasm between public perception about the MBTA and the reality of having to maintain a very old system" Edward continued. 

The impersonal and sometimes jostling experience of riding public transit dissolves in the interviews of the people that operate and repair all of the massive machines that move us around each morning.  There is the female welder talking about the burns she gets from her equipment.  There is the woman who drove the Green Line for years describing cars that cut her off regularly, endangering the lives of her passengers as well as them. In an opening scene, a supervisor responds to an emergency on Commonwealth Avenue at 2 a.m. A piece of track has a dangerous crack in it and needs fixing by the time the T resumes service in three hours.  Without repair, a train might derail.  

These are the stories of the people not seen, the "third shift" of night workers who fan out every evening to keep this oldest subway system in North American running.  "These folks that work on Boston's heavy rail after hours really do rely on each other ...and we had the opportunity to see this dynamic" said Peter in an email. 

The other story here is of the two behind the camera, Edward Peters and Peter Olejnik.  Government workers by day, they transform into filmmakers by night. In Edward's accounting, "the project was largely done on our own time - starting work at 11 pm and wrapping up with the crews at 5 am. After that, a quick breakfast -- and lots of coffee!! -- and back to the studio to upload the footage, take a quick nap and back to our day jobs." 

Their dedication expresses another aspect of public service.  What it means, what it really means, to be responsible for moving almost half a billion people every year in one of America's oldest and most important cities is often forgotten, because no one has bothered to tell that story. To express clearly what people often dismiss as background noise is a gift. It also reminds just how much we receive in excellence and professionalism from all our public sector. 

Patrick Kineavy is ok.  He has located the cause of the alarm.  It's a broken pump that's not draining the floor of the tunnel.  He calls in the repair crews and they begin work right away.

Monday, May 7, 2012

11 Days Later ...

How quickly they do grow!  (Behind the Watermark Building, 3rd Street, Cambridge.)

May 7, 2012

April 26, 2012

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Friday Grab Bag: Everything has its bandwagon; Reading is Fun

Ok, it's a Friday Grab Bag on a Saturday, but there should be nothing surprising about that.

Item 1.  A brief email exchange.  I had just come for a public urban planning effort looking at Kendall Square.  It was sponsored by the Venture Cafe at the Cambridge Innovation Center, a place for which I have a lot of respect.  A friend then sent me a Harvard Business Review blog post entitled If You're Not Pissing Someone Off, You're Probably Not Innovating.

At the afternoon of breakout sessions I had just attended, I observed this famed eco-system of innovators in action.  Now, to come clean, I have trumpeted the notion that there exists a special combination of "place + people" that is the catalytic yeast of this innovation world.  I do this from my vantage point of some distance. Cambridge has its special "magic", or so I claim in my blog posts.  I also report others who make the same assertions.  But trumpets should be paired with pins, pins to prick the pretensions and any blind credulity that we are capable of adopting at any given moment. Of course, eco-systems, if they exist, are just that -- eco-systems. They have pecking orders.  They are places where whole forests of life can exist, with all the differentiation and variation contained therein. What followed was this brief email exchange with my friend:

And, this whole "innovation" world is very weird.  There are some truly creative people in the bunch, including a very cool woman CEO (yay women CEOs) who started a Cambridge company called pixability.  But I tell you, for some of these folks, it's just group think.  35 years ago, these same people all would have been lying on couches smoking dope with hair down to their waistbands.  The true innovators are very few, I hate to say.  But that is true in everything, n'est pas?

My Friend:
Yes- I think you are right about the ‘innovators’ – everything ‘cool’ has its bandwagon.
*    *    *

Item 2. A brief observation on the world.  A recent radio program was addressing the question of online  learning.  The guest was noting that web-based learning works better in some situations than others.  Math exercises can be graded by computers since typically there is an answer to a math problem.  But, the commentator continued, computers are not yet as capable as humans in grading essays on topics in the humanities. 

Something about this statement struck me as completely backwards. 

It is as if we are now trying to adjust ourselves and our behaviors to make the lives of computers easier.  It seemed Orwellian, man becoming the servant of machine.  Wrong end forward. The point of writing an essay is not to determine if the algorithm for grading is sophisticated enough to come up with an accurate grade for it.  The point of writing an essay is to explore ideas and develop understandings of things. This is not about keeping the computers happy. This is about developing human capacities.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Interview. Pascal Marmier, Swiss consul, swissnex Boston

Pascal Marmier
Later this summer, Pascal Marmier, Switzerland's consul in the Boston area, will depart Cambridge for his next post, Shanghai, China.  As one of the founding staff of swissnex Boston, the hybrid consulate/cultural center/innovation hub that he helped build over the last decade, Pascal leaves behind a dynamic part of the innovation scene that has burgeoned in Cambridge since the late 1990s.  Both as a representative of Switzerland, and an active participant in the ongoing discussion about the economic future in this country and his, Pascal sat down with me last week for an interview to reflect on his time here, the phenomenon we call the innovation economy, and what's next. He also previewed his May 14th event at swissnex Boston where he will join his departing colleagues, the consuls general of Great Britain, France and Germany, in a discussion of what they've seen during their time here and what they hope for the future. 

Pascal, tell us about your background?
I was a narrowly focused young lawyer after graduating from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and I thought my professional career would be along the border of the Swiss French side of Switzerland, but then my wife and I met, she decided we should broaden a little bit our horizon and decided on a one year trip to Boston. 
After at year a Boston University in 1999 studying business law, Pascal met Xavier Comtesse, the head of what was then called Swiss House, and as he says, "the rest is history.  This was the height of the internet bubble when it was still growing fast and here was the chance to start a new organization that was catering to this community of knowledge workers as we used to refer to them at the time – the entrepreneurs, the scientists – and really creating a place that would be a home to all kinds of ideas and also kinds of relationship building activities for the creative class or the innovative class.”  During the next decade, he was never far from this work, with a brief pause to get an MBA from MIT.  We then talked more about the organization, the work they do, and innovation more generally.

What is swissnex?
We’ve been inspired and to a certain extent we’ve mirrored what we’ve seen in the innovation economy of the Boston area.  
Externally a lot of what happens here happens because of collaboration.  People meet each other.  The collective intelligence and knowledge builds up and the relationships of the people influence the way the companies work or their research is done.  So swissnex is a connecting place and a place where people can build on their knowledge and their relationships.

It has the form of a consulate and it has government backing, but we’re really trying to push very hard in the sense of innovation and being ourselves innovative and that brings me to the internal part where we try to operate as a startup, a young team and very creative and a different management style than what you would see in a similar organization.  We have to be creative and innovative ourselves in the activities we do.  This is exemplified by the fact that we have some of our funding coming from third parties – universities and others working directly with the stakeholders have been a really innovative part of the model.