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Innovation Economy

In the land of improbable places

Putting faith in the power of words, government and business leaders rename neighborhoods to attract new companies. But often serendipity is the key to branding.

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2011

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Speaking to a group of techies at a breakfast in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood, Mayor Thomas M. Menino endorsed their efforts to give the area a new identity. “I want this city to grow and show its technology leadership,’’ he said. Menino officially recognized the area, home to a growing number of Web design firms and digital consultancies, as the “Cyber District.’’

That was 1997. Two years later, then-Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci launched a branding campaign to have the Bay State known as “Dot Commonwealth.’’

In January 2010, Menino was back with another name: the South Boston Waterfront and the same neighborhood he previously labeled Cyber District would heretofore be known as the “Innovation District.’’

Just the other day a group of five northwestern communities unveiled a new brand of their own: Middlesex 3, for the business corridor bisected by the Middlesex Turnpike and Route 3.

There’s always the possibility that the Innovation District and Middlesex 3 labels could take flight, but with so many previous attempts to plaster new names atop business clusters failing (Genetown, anyone?), does it make sense to keep trying?

Back when Silicon Valley was still mostly farmland, Massachusetts had an internationally recognized tech cluster: Route 128, the ring road known as “America’s Technology Highway,’’ and home to companies Polaroid Corp., Raytheon Co., Tracerlab Inc., and Digital Equipment Corp. These days, Kendall Square is arguably emerging as a brand that resonates beyond our borders, especially in the biopharma industry, but also among major corporations looking to establish research-and-development labs. (Walt Disney Co. recently announced plans for an R&D facility in Kendall, joining Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp.)

The Route 128 label “bubbled up of its own accord, starting in the 1950s. There was very little conscious planning around it,’’ says Alan R. Earls, author of “Route 128 and the Birth of the Age of High Tech.’’ The name remained relevant through the late 1990s, with Lycos and Monster.com headquartered in the western suburbs, but then faded fast.

Like Route 128, Kendall Square is an actual geographic place and not a fabricated tag. But it is a brand on the rise. It is home to the Cambridge Innovation Center, which houses numerous start-ups and venture capital firms; Akamai Technologies; and dozens of biotech companies big and small. When local businesses formed the Kendall Square Association in 2009 to market the area and attract new companies, they adopted the slogan “The Future Lives Here.’’

Two years ago, I started using the name Mount Money to refer to the promontory in Waltham overlooking Route 128 on which many venture capital firms are perched. Entrepreneurs, who resent having to ascend the mount to seek funding from the wealthy deities there, started to use it; the venture capitalists there uniformly hate it.

More often new nomenclature flops or becomes obsolete after a few years. Kendall Square was once known as “AI Alley,’’ for MIT spinouts working on artificial intelligence software and powerful new computers. When several pioneers declared bankruptcy, the name fell out of vogue. Genetown, a name applied to Cambridge’s biotech cluster and promoted by the Massachusetts Biotech Council, never caught on.

And while Dot Commonwealth may have been exceptionally clever in 1999 when first announced, by the following year the dot-com label wasn’t one to wear proudly.

Other parts of the country haven’t fared much better. Not many people outside Detroit know about Automation Alley, and even the biotechs of San Diego don’t call their community the Biotech Beach. New York’s Silicon Alley had a moment of fame in the late 1990s, as did San Francisco’s Multimedia Gulch. Now, most of New York’s digital media companies are based near Union Square, so that actual place name is used more often, while in San Francisco the Gulch has given way to SoMa, for South of Market Street.

The most famous locale on the map of global innovation, of course, is Silicon Valley. That name didn’t come from a trade group or economic development agency; it was popularized in the 1970s by a microchip industry newsletter.

It’s too early to tell how the Middlesex 3 designation will fare, though I’m not clear how you would use it in a sentence (“My company is moving to Middlesex 3?’’).

And while the term Innovation District has its adherents such as John Harthorne, who runs an incubation program for start-ups from a mostly empty high rise on Fan Pier, it’s still not widely used, even within the industry. Tom Burgess, who is relocating his digital marketing start-up from downtown Boston next month, said he hadn’t previously heard the name, and thinks of the neighborhood as Fort Point. At Rue La La, an e-commerce company, senior vice president Stacey Santo surveyed 25 employees and found most described the company’s digs as being in South Boston or Fort Point; only one said Innovation District.

The Innovation District name “is kind of buzz wordy, so we have a negative reaction to it,’’ says Boaz Sender, cofounder of a software development firm called Bocoup.

Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Menino, says that the main purpose of the Innovation District initiative is to “create a big tent to encourage more businesses to consider Fort Point Channel, the waterfront, and the Marine Industrial Park.’’

But you could just as credibly call the area the Mutual Fund Mile, for the financial services companies located there, such as Fidelity Investments and John Hancock, which employs 1,300 in the neighborhood. Still the composition will change when Vertex Pharmaceuticals moves its 1,700 employees to two new buildings on Fan Pier in 2013. (Has anyone considered Pharma Piers?)

Mike Baker, chief executive of the Internet advertising company DataXu, acknowledges that the neighborhood is “attracting a good wave of new companies,’’ mainly for the “low rents and high ceilings.’’ But he says the “government can be a lagging indicator when it tries to do stuff like the Dot Commonwealth or the Innovation District,’’ jumping on trends too late. (He prefers the name, the Channel.)

Adds Kel Kelly, who runs a public relations firm in Marine Industrial Park: “I laugh any time someone outside of the sector is trying to name the sector, and this kind of feels like that. It has to be something that bubbles up, and just gets a buzz around it.’’

In a competitive global economy, being known widely for what you do well matters. It turns cities into talent magnets. I’m hoping that buzz builds over time with the name Innovation District, which some abbreviate as IDBoston, and I’m hoping that Kendall Square continues to gain broader recognition. (Northern California, after all, has both Silicon Valley and San Francisco’s SoMa district.) Coining new place names that stick is hard.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.