Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Hard and the Soft of Planning for Innovation

The interest is global, and the question not a difficult one to ask: what makes Kendall Square tick?   Answering it is nowhere near as easy. 

The underlying question is what are the component parts of a successful innovation cluster.

I spent this past week recording my observations as I toured the place with visitors who are eager to see an innovation cluster spring up in their part of the globe. Witnessing this peculiar Cambridge phenomenon through the viewpoint of others impelled me to organize my thoughts into categories. 

The most basic formulation was a split between what I call “hard” and “soft” planning. 

“Hard” planning refers to physical planning – tangible things – roads, transit, buildings, open space, heights, proportions, widths, etc.

“Soft” planning has more to do with the culture of innovation and the less tangible components of creating an eco-system that can flourish organically.

Indeed, what struck me most was not the physical planning challenges as they exist in Kendall Square, but the cultural planning challenges associated with the innovation economy. 

Here are some of my observations:


I put the soft planning issues first because I feel those are the more important ones, and the more difficult ones to instigate, cultivate, nurture, and make real.

The least experienced are the most important.  This one might be called Support the Students – the young talent. In the end, they drive much of the model.

Turn hierarchies on their head.  In some ways, the innovation economy turns typical hierarchies on their head.  The most important input into the system is the young, energetic, inventive, creative, risk-loving entrepreneur.  They are the most important piece in part because life hasn't taught them to be cautious, to be wary, to be prudent.

Design for randomness. In this model, chance and randomness play an important, indeed critical role. It may sound funny, but for cultures where the word “serendipity” doesn’t exist, it needs to be invented.  It is actually a big issue. Cambridge Innovation Center is a place where the mantra of serendipity is repeated everyday.  The amount of financial resources dedicated to encouraging these random interactions is truly staggering. The theory is that the placing of skills and talents in one dense location and encouraging their mixing will produce the random encounter that will prove to be the most valuable meeting of the day.

Do not fear failure.  It was striking how often we heard on this tour that failure is an important part of the system of the innovation economy.  It is the willingness of the whole system to accept failure and not judge it that is important to the success of the system as a whole. 

Don't punish failure.  The most illustrative example of this phenomenon can be found at the Cambridge Innovation Center, where they operate everything on a 30 day lease.  Your busy grows, you rent another 30 days.  Your business fails, you're out of your lease in 30 days.  You don't have to worry that even if your business fails, you're stuck with 6 or 12 months on a lease for space you don't need.

Encourage risk taking.  Reducing the downside to failure promotes this upside, the slightly reckless abandon of belief in oneself and one's ideas and their ultimate worth and their capacity to be implementable.

Banish the bureaucrats.  There is a strong need to break the traditional hierarchies of bureaucracy and bureaucratic power.  Running into a cultural barrier of power and privilege can and will prevent creating a truly innovative environment and workspace.  We were told repeatedly that the role of government at any level -- local, state, federal -- in Kendall Square is almost nil. 

Add other amenities. I believe there are correlated aspects to this innovation world.  In other words, where you find one, you find the other.  Here are a few:
  • Bike culture – as noted elsewhere on this blog, biking has increased 150 percent in ten years. 
  • Local food (locavore) and community gardens is another. 
  • Industrial arts should be nurtured.  There are very similar ideas and common themes found in places like the Artist Asylum in Somerville and in the Cambridge Innovation Center. The point is -- where you have true innovation clusters, you find these other things in conjunction.

Let demand drive the model. 

There is wisdom in crowds.

And finally …

Know thyself.  Just as Plato urged almost 2,500 years ago, it is very important to know who you are in this world of innovation.  These spaces and places have/get an identity over time. It is important to realize your niche, both within your regional context, and in the global context. 


Of course, there are many hard planning components to this.  Indeed, most of the attention seems to focus on the tangible items.  These are a few that readily come to mind.

Put it on/near public transit.  As part of the anti-car culture, the need for easy, quick ways to move lots of people in an environmentally-friendly way.

Build it dense. If you need to go to a meeting, you hop into the elevator and go to the 11th floor, you don't hop in your car and drive 30 minutes to San Jose (as in, the Silicon Valley).

Slow down the cars.  Our sense of urban streetscape has become increasingly focused on getting people out of their cars, and putting them on the streets, either on foot or on a bike.  One way to do this is to slow the cars. 

Enhance retail.  Streetscape and street life have become increasingly important and one mechanism to do that is to promote the strength of ground floor retail.  More than anything else, an effective retail plan needs intensive management and persistence in doing it. 

Let the street layout work FOR you, not against you.  In the same way that interior spaces are designed to support mixing and mingling that is so important to this world, the exterior (street) layout should create those places to meet and mingle too.  This calls for non-regularity of the overall street pattern to increase the interest and the vibrancy of the outdoor space, and allow for natural pause points where people might gather organically.

Don't forget the housing.  Housing without question is a major issue.  In Kendall Square, the place was originally developed in any way it could be.  One need only look at the aerial photo of the Square in 1970 to realize the depth of desperation landowners must have felt at the moment.  But over time, and over many cycles of economic activity the housing has begun to arrive. Tastes have changed over time. A renaissance of urban living leads to the Live + Work + Play equation whose importance grows. 

Give it time.  Any urban plan takes years to realize.  Very little happens in short time frames, and iterations and modifications are very important to getting it right. Fads come and go, as do economies.  The willingness to roll with the punches of the ups and downs of the market, along with the births, lives and deaths of technologies and their related industries is an important component to the long-term viability of the concept.

And perhaps the most important "hard" planning truth --

Have an anchor tenant.  You cannot do any of this without an "idea generator" somewhere nearby. Boston is trying to get in on this game that Cambridge is doing so well at.  The big question in Boston is: without MIT right there, can Boston replicate the Cambridge model? To be seen, with a lot riding on the outcome.