Boston Mayor Martin Walsh is hunting for ways to accelerate progress in Roxbury’s Dudley Square, a low-income neighborhood that is on the rise. On Monday, he issued a formal “Request for Ideas” on how best to create a 3,350-square-foot “innovation center” as part of the redevelopment of the historic Ferdinand Building, which stood empty in the middle of the square for three decades before the city tapped the site as the future headquarters of the Boston School Department.
Innovation centers can take the form of co-working space for high-tech entrepreneurs, incubators for startup companies, and even areas with shared access to the latest in computer-controlled manufacturing equipment. Sophisticated examples can be found in Kendall Square in Cambridge and along Boston’s waterfront. Entrepreneurs in these areas, however, are not about to dash off to Dudley Square. There is no limit to their imaginations in the quest for breakthrough technologies. But when it comes time to choose an office location, high-tech entrepreneurs adopt a ghetto mentality. They prefer the company of like-minded innovators. And by forming into clusters, startups make it easy for investors to scout for new opportunities.
Dudley Square offers one significant advantage to innovators and investors: its future as a center of educational policy and operations. By the fall of 2015, about 500 Boston School Department employees are scheduled to leave their downtown headquarters and move into the Ferdinand Building. University officials and charter school operators who maintain partnerships with Boston’s school district will come and go on regular business. National and even international experts will visit the Ferdinand Building to see how Boston meets the challenges of urban education. Why not really give them something to see, think about, and even purchase?
Education technology companies that develop hardware and software for the classroom would be a perfect fit for Dudley Square. Several of these so-called ed-tech entrepreneurs are spread around various locations in Boston, where they create software for teacher evaluations, digital alternatives to expensive tutors, lesson plans linked to public radio stories, applications to engage alumni, and dozens of other educational products and services. An ed-tech sector could take root in the Ferdinand Building. And the most promising products and services could be tested in some of Boston’s 128 schools.
MIT graduate and urban planner Gilad Rosenzweig sees great potential in bringing educational technology startup companies to the Ferdinand Building. Meanwhile, he is out to prove that there is plenty of local tech talent in parts of Boston far removed from the downtown Innovation District. On Wednesday, Rosenzweig cut the ribbon on his brainchild — Smarter in the City — in a converted triple decker at nearby 100 Warren Street that will house a high-tech business accelerator. For the next six months, Smarter in the City will provide five groups of local entrepreneurs with free rent, office amenities, and technical guidance.
Paul and Amanda Barros, a local brother-and-sister team, intend to spend evenings and weekends developing TrendOn.tv, a platform that will allow users to take screenshots of fashions worn by their favorite celebrities, upload the images, and search for them as if from a catalogue. Down the hall, three partners with local roots are preparing to spend the next six months expanding their multi-media publishing company — KillerBoomBox. They described the operation as an authentic but “less salacious” doorway into the lifestyles and culture of urban youths.
Other independent ideas rising from the neighborhood include SkyLab, the brainchild of urban planner Bridgette Wallace. She is scouting for space to teach Web development, crowdsourcing, computer-aided design, and other techniques needed to connect residents of the area with the latest technologies.
The Walsh administration may need to cope with old-style politics in its effort to stimulate an innovation economy in Roxbury. The neighborhood’s entrenched network of social service vendors and workers’ alliances might make a noisy bid for space in the Ferdinand Building. But there hasn’t been anything innovative in the approach of Roxbury’s old guard for decades.
If a great proposal does emerge, the innovation center in the Ferdinand Building has the capacity to nearly triple in size, according to Boston’s economic development chief John Barros. He said he’s looking for uses or startup companies with the potential to “spill out of that space and spark new (economic) relationships” in the surrounding neighborhood.
If Barros really wants sparks, he should try rubbing two things together: Boston’s school department and education technology startups.Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.