Boston is great at preservation. We have the manicured Public Garden, the shining gold dome of the State House, and the cramped confines of Paul Revere’s old crash pad in the North End.
But the city needs to get better at prototyping and pilot testing. Boston should be Beta City.
Boston is packed with college students. Start-ups have been pouring into Downtown Crossing, thanks to cheap rents. Larger innovation-oriented businesses like Zipcar, Vertex, and LogMeIn are leasing space in the Innovation District. Some of the area’s most active venture capital firms are in the Back Bay.
But when it comes to bringing jobs and energy to the main streets of Roxbury and Mattapan, we can do a lot better. Our best hope for economic development in East Boston was a casino? Sorry, that’s just lame.
Becoming Beta City means Boston needs to get better at five things:
1. City Hall should allow entrepreneurs, artists, and nonprofits to test new ideas, see how they work, and then develop policies and regulations around them. In the past, policy development for things like retail trucks took so long that it drove entrepreneurs out of business or out of town. Mayor Thomas Menino’s Boston obsessed too much on enforcement. Martin Walsh’s Boston needs to focus on enablement.
2. Let’s spread the wealth across Boston’s neighborhoods, when it comes to support, mentorship, and world-class services for entrepreneurs. That means encouraging venture capitalists and successful entrepreneurs to commit to mentoring up-and-comers who may not look like them, and may be starting businesses — gasp — in parts of the city they don’t hang out in.
And I’m not just talking about tech or biotech businesses. People starting gyms, cleaning services, and clothing boutiques need guidance, too. What would happen if everyone with an established business in Boston picked one newbie to help?
3. Let’s borrow a few pages from the Popuphood playbook. That’s an area of Oakland, Calif., where wannabe retailers can apply to get short-term storefront space free. It creates a petri dish for testing out business ideas over the course of several months — entrepreneurs pay for just utilities and insurance — and it brings shoppers to previously desolate urban stretches. Some businesses inevitably grow into paying tenants by the end of their “scholarship” period. Why not try it in Boston neighborhoods that could use more commerce?
4. Our new mayor needs to drop his “I’m not a big techie” pose and spend a few hours getting tutored on social media and mobile apps. He will need to be the ambassador for Boston Beta City when he travels, and when he is in town, be able to grok what’s going on in the start-up world. Walsh should also name a point person at City Hall to help fledgling companies find willing beta testers for products and services at city schools and agencies.
5. The city should serve as the ringmaster for a major public-private event that welcomes college students to Boston each fall and lets them sample goods and services from local businesses; explore opportunities for volunteerism and internships; snap pictures with some of our sports stars; hear some great local bands; and learn about resources that would support them in starting their own companies. Students are the ultimate beta crowd: They are eager to try (and start) new things, and they are good at spreading the word. Beta City needs to keep more of them after graduation day.
Boston is so full of ideas, young people, unique neighborhoods, money, and possibility. We need our new mayor to promote and provoke the blending of those elements in constructive new ways. I’m not proposing “Boston is Beta City” as a tourist slogan. But it does work as a rallying cry to get all of us — especially Mayor-elect Walsh — thinking about making Boston more open to experimentation and entrepreneurship.
Scott Kirsner’s Innovation Economy column appears Sundays in Money & Careers. He can be reached at email@example.com.