Boston’s Innovation District
Managing an initiative to transform 1000 acres of waterfront parking lots into a globally recognized urban innovation experiment.
Rewind to 2010.
The economy had been gut-punched by the Great Recession, and was still wheezing, gasping for breath. Big companies were laying people off by the thousands. Real estate development was stalled out completely. Financing had dried up. Everyone was stressed and tired and terrified.
In the midst of all this panic, there was a mayoral election in Boston. Mayor Menino won his fourth term, and with many fresh new faces on his staff, set some major new goals during his State of the City address in January 2010.
One of them was to turn the Seaport into the world’s first official “innovation district”.
That’s how the press referred to it at first--lowercase, and in quotes. A pipe dream, a crazy idea.
But in spite of all the doubts, the initiative started to make some impacts. That’s where my story comes back in.
One day, I got an email from a professor, a lawyer who had taught me advocacy and rhetoric at Northeastern. I was trained as an architect and had been working at a firm for several years, but I was starting to feel the pain of the low pay and long hours. This professor, one of my most important mentors, knew all about how I was feeling.
His email was almost empty: just a link to a job posting for an “Innovation District Manager” for the City of Boston, and single word right after it.
It said: “Apply.”
I took him seriously. I read the job description, and almost fell out of my chair. I had grown to really care about this initiative—I knew all about the theory and approach from my work designing District Hall, the central innovation center for the district. I wanted this job so badly I could cry.
I shoved my self-doubt deep down into a lockbox, took a deep breath, and applied. I knew I would be an odd pick for the job—a junior designer with no direct experience in government or startups—but I knew the initiative inside and out, I knew the players, I knew the core principles, and I knew I would have to work harder than anyone else to prove that I could do this job even though my training and experience was in design.
I bought a proper suit (this was government, after all), and went into my interview with a 12-page document called the “Innovation District Action Map”, a detailed plan for how I would approach the job, every minute and every hour accounted for. I think they thought I was a little crazy, but it must have been crazy in a good way, because I got the job.
That time in public service was the most transformational chapter in my career. I miss it. I miss the energy of City Hall, the sense of everyday purpose that comes with responding fast and keeping constituents informed, the feeling of accomplishment when a job-creating company decided to move here, or when an entrepreneur got the permit they needed to move forward.
In that job, I met entrepreneurs from every background, delegates from five continents, developers looking to create innovation space and grad students writing urban innovation case studies. I planned events to connect across sectors; I fielded press inquiries; I built an exhaustive database to track impact and job numbers (more than 10,000 new jobs added to the district during the course of the initiative); I figured out Twitter and grew our following from 8,000 to 15,000.
I also got my first taste of actual emergency response, working all-nighters at City Hall during snowstorms and during the traumatic days following the Boston Marathon bombings.
Nothing gives you more appreciation for the complexity of running a city than an emergency where basic services are compromised.
One of the things that will stay in my mind forever was the challenge of getting Boylston Street back on its feet after the Marathon bombings. There was all the stuff you hear about on the news: the FBI, the cleanup, the structural damage. But there were also hundreds of businesses on Boylston that were majorly impacted by the bombing and the street closure: restaurants with inventory rotting on the shelves and rodents running wild; businesses that couldn’t pay people because their payroll was on servers they couldn’t access; people with critical heart medication stored at their desk, calling in panicked tones to see if we could help. We stayed on the phones for hours, days, resolving one issue at a time, slowly, methodically, healing all the spiraling damage.
My time working for the City was unbelievably, wildly, deeply valuable. When college students ask me what they should do with their careers, I almost always tell them to spend some time in municipal government. The agency is so real. Your impact is so immediate. The consequences sting; the successes fill your soul up; and you get to do real stuff, stuff that matters, day-by-day.
I wouldn’t have left if it wasn’t for my dream job: launching and running District Hall.