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OPINION | Mitchell Weiss

Startup boom wasn’t just luck: Thank Menino

Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

AP/file 2013

Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

Former chiefs of staff such as myself are self-appointed mayoral-legacy protectors. So forgive me that I wished the recent news that Boston had passed Cambridge to become the state’s “tech startup capital” was met with more fanfare for Tom Menino.

It’s not just this latest bit of analysis that seems to understate the former mayor’s role in Boston’s resurgence as an innovation hotspot. A close cousin is the common shorthand that what he did was simply “re-brand” the old waterfront as the new Innovation District. This misunderstanding of how Boston got its groove back is problematic not because it doesn’t credit Menino enough — that’s hardly a matter of urgent importance — but because it might lead policy makers to miss lessons for shaping the future of the city, the region, and beyond.

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Because, if we conclude that Menino’s role meant little beyond branding the Innovation District, that would shortchange mayors’ roles, and give geographical borders too much credit for what are really policy successes.

If mayors matter little, then they’d have little to say to regulators whose first instinct is to shut down or limit sharing-economy companies (think Airbnb or Lyft) even if that sends a stark message about the city’s openness to innovation. If what mayors do doesn’t amount to much, it means they shouldn’t be part of the conversation about how many luxury condos are too many when diversity drives innovation, and how much affordable workspace there needs to be when small companies drive growth. It suggests that mayors shouldn’t raise the notion that perhaps some of the windfall that accrues to real-estate developers in boomlet areas go back into fostering the very aspects of community and collaboration and buzz that facilitated their returns.

Most importantly, if mayors of Boston are incidental to the growth of the innovation economy, then they would play little role in making sure its opportunity and prosperity are shared widely. Then they need not bother to look at San Francisco and the protests that have accompanied Google and Twitter over buses, neighborhoods, and hard feelings. They need not worry about whether the same tension could happen here or what there is to do about it.

Of course, however, mayors do matter. And public leadership and the business leadership generated alongside it — or not — will be essential to ensuring that, as Boston keeps pace with technological progress in California and New York, the city gets what it’s looking for.

Indeed, mayors play a key role in the rise and fall of innovation ecosystems. Menino did when he insisted Uber be allowed to keep running its car-hailing service in Boston even as Cambridge said stop. Or when he blocked the developers behind the 20-block Seaport Square commercial project until they also committed to building District Hall, the world’s first free-standing public innovation center, as well as other infrastructure on the waterfront. And it mattered when the mayor went on to ask Cambridge Innovation Center — the region’s most famous piece of startup “machinery,” now called CIC — to manage District Hall. The collaboration was so successful that CIC just signed on to lease five floors in the Financial District as well.

It’s hard to forget the day when filmmakers from the city’s biggest tech company, working on a Batman parody, asked Menino to do take after take — “this time more drama,” “this time with your head out of the shadow” — to show employees in order to make them feel welcome in Boston. Wayfair just raised another $157 million. He mattered to them.

If anything, Boston should have started earlier and done more both to foster growth and to smooth its edges. But it would paper over way too much history and shoe rubber (dressed down for the techie set) to hint that Boston is hitting its startup stride as a matter of happenstance.

It also risks putting too much weight on artificial borders to observe the recent progress in Boston’s downtown and see that as separate and apart from efforts on the waterfront. For starters, know what’s identical in distance from the Innovation District to the Leather District? One side of Google’s campus in Mountain View, Calif., to the other. The progress in Boston on both shores of the Fort Point Channel is linked by close proximity and much more. Startup accelerator MassChallenge’s move to the waterfront signaled a change, and change on the waterfront signaled a change for the city. South Station existed long before the startups settled around it in droves. Something sparked their move, and you can see it across the way.

That small geographies matter very little matters very much in one way, though: For those hoping for innovation in Dudley Square or planning for it in the Allston railyards or watching it unfold in the Fenway and along Lovejoy Wharf, more progress in one place will mean more progress in the other. An innovation ecosystem is not a zero-sum game. The Cambridge-Boston competition, talked up so much and then talked down, was a diversion. We’ll need growth in all these places if we are to keep the region and the country at the fore. When the first commentator sees startups move to one of these “not the Innovation District” spots and reports, “Competition is heating up,” remember who the competition is really with and also — when so much job creation is needed everywhere — who it is for.

Public entrepreneurs and private ones made Boston the state’s “tech startup capital” today. But how we got here matters a lot for where we are going.

Mitchell Weiss is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. He was chief of staff to former Mayor Thomas M. Menino during his fifth term.
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