Why Boston Is One Of The World's Smartest Cities

It’s not just smart sensors, quality transit, and renewable energy leadership. The area’s educational opportunities attract smart citizens whose projects foster intense innovation.

Boston was a top-20 city in my first ever global ranking of smart cities last year. After spending last week with a range of stakeholders in the innovation arena and experiencing the city’s infrastructure for the first time in over a decade, I left thinking that I need to fine-tune my ranking system. Boston should have been in the top 10.

Some context: I’m developing an accelerator program for impact ventures in Argentina for the University of San Andres. The purpose of this trip was to discuss potential collaborations and to gain insight into the myriad of programs within and outside of MIT in the Boston area that are focused on supporting, incubating, and accelerating startups.

Outside of Silicon Valley, I am not sure there is a better innovation ecosystem in the world. For starters, some of the most important innovative institutions of higher learning in the world—MIT and Harvard—are only miles apart. There are also a dozen or so other important universities in the region, including Babson College—arguably the best entrepreneurship school in the world.

While in Boston, I had the pleasure of meeting with a number of people, including John Harthorne, the founder of MassChallenge; Tim Rowe, the founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center; and the managers of MIT’s Senseable Cities Lab and MIT Venture Monitoring Service.

What I enjoyed most about these meetings was exploring the range of business models and approaches to supporting innovation within and outside of the university context. MassChallenge, for example, has a unique spin on the accelerator model. Perhaps the largest single accelerator in the world, MassChallenge leverages a nonprofit model and takes no equity stakes in the 100-plus startups it supports each round. They are also unique in that they are not focused on only information and communication technologies (ICTs) but also life sciences, clean tech, and others.

MIT’s Legatum Center is also a fascinating model. Founded in 2007 with the goal of engaging talented MIT students who want to make for-profit startups that have a high impact in developing countries, the Legatum Center has already supported 100 new social ventures across the developing world. It seems to have a much higher success rate than most entrepreneurship support programs, although it has an inherent advantage in that it starts with a pool of applicants that have already been accepted to MIT. A rigorous selection process is added on top of that to choose each year’s crop of fellows.

Since its founding, Legatum has sponsored around 100 MIT fellows that are developing a range of innovative impact ventures, from Javier Lozano’s diabetes clinics in Mexico (these use unique algorithms to more cost-effectively diagnose diabetes) to Connie Lu’s GrubCycle waste management project in Kenya, which aims to support local entrepreneurs by enabling them to convert organic waste into animal feed for sale at 29 cents per kilo in the local market.

I have written numerous times on Co.Exist that, at least in my opinion, smart cities are much more than sensors and real-time data. One of the under-explored components of smart cities is how they enable and attract smart citizens to innovate solutions that improve the quality of life locally and around the globe, all while growing the local and regional economy.

All of the aforementioned startup support programs are indeed succeeding in facilitating the next wave of startups and are attracting entrepreneurs from across the world. While Boston also has many other smart characteristics—including quality transit and renewable energy leadership—it truly stands out as a global leader in fostering innovation within and outside of its worldclass universities.

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  • R&D vs Commercialize

    Great insights. I must say that while I love Boston and feel it has a strong research oriented ecosystem, I am not sure inventions/ideas get commercialized as well or as rapidly as they could.

    Silicon Valley is about taking ideas to market - that to me is innovation. How do we "pivot" the invention/resesearch culture into an ecosystem of commercialization or innovation ?

    Big Data - how do we populate commerce ? While Boston conducts studies and research SV delivers applications to the market.

    Your unbiased thoughts are needed and welcomed !

  • boyd cohen

    Interesting points regarding SV and Boston startup scene.  I think historically this comparison would be more accurate. But my sense is that the current blend of university, non-profit and for-profit initiatives in Boston are now moving beyond promoting R&D to commercialization.  

    In fact after this post was published, Tim Rowe wrote me to suggest that one could argue the Boston ecosystem is as strong as SV's because of the per capita concentration of venture capital as well as R&D spending.

    Globally we have seen a trend away from support for R&D and/or incubation towards more support for accelerators and programs that assist viable ventures in crossing the chasm and scaling.  

    At least in part I believe this has been driven by a maturity in the public sector regarding the best way to support local economic development and job growth.  Boston seems to get this, and in fact, I understand that Boston's Mayor and other government actors were instrumental in supporting the MassChallenge.

  • Ellipse714

    I couldn't agree more! I am currently studying at Harvard for the summer and it's wonderful to meet so many people that are driven, ambitious, and filled with wonderful ideas! Boston really inspired innovation and provides resources to help make your ideas a reality. 

  • dk14

    Harvard and MIT aren't in really in Boston proper - they're in Cambridge (I think only Harvard has land in the city of Boston), and both still have a rather arduous relationship with their local communities.  Great that you're feeling good about the school, but I'd try and get out past all the traditional student and yuppie haunts into the southern neighborhoods of Boston - it's a very different world there.
    Also - the pace of change in Boston is rather glacial, the mayor has done a decent job, but I think it's only been within the past few years that entrenched old-school interests have finally dislodged themselves from local politics (although, they're still hanging on in places like Westie and Hyde Park).  Change is even slower at the state level - for example, it was only within the past couple years that MTA and DCR started thinking about bike facilities for their projects in the city.

    That said - it's a great place, but all this innovation/startup action and the benefit they bring to local neighborhoods only seems to happening in the small pockets where the money is.  We're all waiting to see if any of this starts to move south and east of JP.

  • boyd cohen

    While it didn't make the final post, I also met with the Director of Harvard Innovation Lab which appears to also have tons of potential to support student startups.  Enjoy your time in Harvard.