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Thinking Boston: Building the open, connected 21st Century city

Posted by Chad O'Connor  December 3, 2012 11:00 AM

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What do leading cities of the 21st Century need to do to accelerate economic development, to attract and to retain the best talent and companies? Almost 5 years ago at the encouragement of Mayor Thomas Menino this question was debated in Boston by a cross-section of leading experts over a series of working sessions. At the time, the open-networks economy of live and social connecting was only emerging, far from the present ubiquity of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and niche meet-ups and tweet-ups. Access was often limited to invited guests or exclusively to professionals in preferred sectors.

The outcome of those working sessions was an agreement to be far more deliberate about fostering economic growth by repositioning aspects of the city’s brand toward innovation. Connection would be the cornerstone principle, with explicit efforts made to better connect the private, public, civic and academic economic quadrants. Born out of that that vision was Boston World Partnerships (BWP), a non-profit organization that modeled a culture of collaboration, inclusiveness, diversity, and entrepreneurialism in proving the value of cross-sector and cross-stage connecting.

To compete globally, a city’s commercial culture and brand have emerged as the difference makers with a direct impact on economic development. Building the culture of a city is very different from 20 years ago. The approach used to be to put a few important people in a room, spend enough money, and highlight some natural geographic advantages to attract top tier companies to a market.

So what changed? It is now about having access to the right knowledge and insight to decide the next right move for your company. It is about cross-sector networks that allow for a different kind of pull and push, networks that produce game-changing innovations that cannot happen on their own.

The fundamental problem is that no one can anticipate every possible commercial touch point across all sectors that could influence economic development. Government’s role in this new paradigm is to enable, not dictate. Moreover, thanks to the Internet, cities are being compelled to become more transparent.

In recent years Greater Boston’s business and civic leaders have attempted to emphasize the Greater Boston business brand to be far more than just about bio-tech, financial services, technology, or even tourism. Instead, Boston is about being the best at connecting. The competitive advantage is not about a single sector but the entire business ecosystem. This is a far more holistic approach that is both laterally and longitudinally inclusive. It is both top-down and crowd-sourced, grassroots, bottom-up innovation. Increase Greater Boston’s connectivity and strengthen its culture, and therefore its brand.

BWP was among the first to recognize that the innovation economy is the connection economy. BWP helped Boston become a more open and connected city. It galvanized passionate professionals and business leaders to open their networks to help businesses better access resources. By doing so, BWP leveled Greater Boston’s social and political hierarchy and over 4 years enabled about 35,000 professionals to connect at live events and via social media.

The aspiration of the Connector powered economy has become reality. BWP Connector-focused live events reached a logical limit as each night in Greater Boston has open, high quality events across all sectors. As a result, BWP has sun-setted its live event efforts and created an enduring virtual platform. BWP’s pioneeringly crowdsourced Global Business Hub blog is now one of the most read blogs on Boston.com, the highest-traffic media property and gateway to New England business and culture.

The best connections are made when the culture of collaboration, creativity, and entrepreneurism trump all other drivers. Boston’s startup renaissance is strong; the amounts of startups founded and capital raised are increasing again. Interestingly, in recent years the leading global tech and consumer companies have been attracted back to Greater Boston given the emergence of a significant new generation of an innovation ecosystem. Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and IBM are notable companies drawn to Greater Boston’s culture and brand.

For Boston to compete on a global basis as a destination city does not require a change in core values; instead, it is about a modernization and unlocking of its historical strengths of intellectual capital and talent development. The brand positioning of Boston as the open, connected city will catalyze economic growth well into the future.

Yoon J. Lee is the former Executive Director of Boston World Partnerships. Frank F. Britt is the former Vice Chairman of the Boston World Partnerships Board of Directors and is CEO of Penn Foster and Advisory Partner at Bain Capital Ventures.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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