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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Boston is not being all that it actually is

Excerpts from the Innovation Economy blog.

If you are an ambitious young person and you want to make it in the movies, country music, or advertising, you know where to go: Hollywood, Nashville, or New York.

If you want to be the next Zuckerberg or Jobs, you head for Silicon Valley.

Continue reading below

Why do people come to Boston?

The most common answer, I think, is to get an education.

And that’s wonderful if you are employed by one of our region’s great universities. But not so great if you work outside of higher education or care about Massachusetts’ economic health over the long haul.

Right now, Massachusetts has an Avis strategy without the Avis motivation: “We’re number two, but our sense of entitlement keeps us from trying harder.’’

We’re a second-tier financial services town. Second-tier technology town. Second-tier retail town. Second-tier defense contracting town.

That does not attract the best talent in the world, and it does not give you a strong position in the global economy. It leaves you to play a retention game — let’s try our best to hold on to the people who grew up here, or who got a degree here — rather than an attraction game.

It also leaves you exposed to sniping from boosters of the top-tier locales, seeking to attract even more talent to their companies.

For example, Marc Andreessen, cofounder of Netscape, told The Economist that “a massive brain drain from Boston to the Valley . . . has all but gutted Boston as a place for high-tech entrepreneurship.’’

Rather than letting others define us as past our prime in industries like high technology, we need to do a better job of explaining where we are leading the world.

I think Boston can make a compelling argument that we are the nucleus of the 21st century life-sciences business. All the key players are here, from big pharmaceutical companies to small biotechs to teaching hospitals to e-health care pioneers to makers of medical devices.

And the companies and research institutions based here can lure the best scientists from around the world.

In digital marketing, the trade group MITX has done well in the past two years with its FutureM Week to position Boston as the epicenter of people and companies thinking about the future of marketing. The message that FutureM sends: “Madison Avenue and ‘Mad Men’ knew how to move product in the 20th century. We’re thinking about how things get sold in the 21st.’’

There’s obviously potential for so much more: Boston can make a good case to be the nexus of thinking about how technology can improve the classroom experience; how we can produce energy and consume it in a cleaner, more efficient way; and in developing next-generation robots for defense, manufacturing, logistics, and scrubbing floors.

I’m not suggesting that we neglect our Internet start-ups, defense contractors, or hometown financial services biggies. Those companies will continue to create jobs, and some of them are quite high-profile. (And it never hurts to explore how we can improve the environment for these types of companies.) I just don’t think you get much attention - or become a global talent magnet - by boasting that your state is home to the number two or number three agglomeration of anything.

“Psychology makes such a huge difference,’’ said Saul Kaplan, founder of the Business Innovation Factory in Rhode Island and a former economic development chief for the state.

“Growing economies have positive psychology. They feel good about themselves. In Austin, for instance, there’s a general positive attitude about what they’re capable of doing collectively. But in New England, we have this innate cynicism. I don’t think we’re losing the war on talent, but we’re losing the psychology game.’’

I don’t think positive psychology is about being delusional or being able to sell people on steering their careers to Boston when that may not be in their best interests.

It’s about being able to say Boston is the absolute best place in the world for people who want to make their careers in a given field, and having that be irrefutably true.

For the full Innovation Economy blog, updated daily, visit www.boston.com/innovation.
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