Opinion

DANTE RAMOS

An ‘innovation district’ by any other name

Employees at CloudLock, a cloud security company based in the Watch Factory building in Waltham, enjoy dedicated deck space on the river. Suburban towns are branding the area “Charles River Mill District.”
CloudLock
Employees at CloudLock, a cloud security company based in the Watch Factory building in Waltham, enjoy dedicated deck space on the river. Suburban towns are branding the area “Charles River Mill District.”

There’s a natural process by which some old factories within blocks of the Charles River in Newton, Watertown, and Waltham could have emerged as a hip new innovation hotbed.

The brick buildings, which already boast some tech-forward tenants, look like the kind of spaces where 3-D-printing artisans might set up shop or new hemp-based B2B e-commerce synergies might reveal themselves. Newton, Watertown, and Waltham, though suburban by the standards of Kendall Square, are denser than Austin or much of Silicon Valley. And there are at least a few watering holes nearby where local entrepreneurs could develop a shared identity — as denizens of, say, a “Charles River Mill District” — after sharing their aspirations over craft ales over the course of years.

But hanging back to see what happens spontaneously isn’t our MO in Massachusetts, where the powers that be put less stock in capitalism’s animal spirits than in diligent planning by responsible adults. As the Globe’s BetaBoston reported last week, the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, local governments, and other business leaders with a stake in the riverside industrial corridor hope to jump-start tech growth there by imposing the “Charles River Mill District” moniker from above.

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In doing so, they’re running an intriguing experiment: How much new-economy bang can you get simply through better branding?

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In the residential market, real estate agents’ renaming of neighborhoods yields both soul-searching and eye-rolling. Depending on your point of view, the creation of “SoWa” in the South End exemplified either the rapid resurgence of the area south of Washington Street or the New York-style pretensions of, as a local blog once put it, “severely overprivileged white [antagonizers].”

On the commercial side, aspirational rebranding incurs less moral judgment; in a way, Tom Menino’s rebranding of Boston’s Seaport as the Innovation District five years ago was one more form of city planning. Just as zoning codes steer industrial uses to some areas and away from others, the Innovation District marketing push signaled that startups that move to the waterfront wouldn’t find themselves all alone.

Still, there’s surprisingly little hard research on whether renaming neighborhoods actually works. The remarkable growth of Boston’s Innovation District is hard to extricate from other factors: open land near downtown, great views, a citywide construction boom as the recession faded. The pricey waterfront has proved at least as popular with established law and financial firms as with actual tech companies.

Yet as an anecdote, Menino’s move proved successful enough to inspire imitators. Two years ago, the local chamber of commerce designated the “N2 Innovation Corridor” on the Newton-Needham border. (Chamber president Greg Reibman says he knew the effort had borne fruit when the term, pronounced “N squared,” turned up unprompted in a news story.) Boston is trying to spread the innovation magic to Dudley Square. If every unused commercial and industrial space is remarketed as “innovation space,” it could prove harder for entrepreneurs seeking a community of like-minded companies to figure out where the action really is.

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Then again, when urban neighborhoods and suburban towns alike are repositioning themselves as fertile ground for small, inventive businesses, it marks a subtle cultural shift for Massachusetts, whose tech economy once hinged on big-name megacompanies out along the interstates. Where promising startups land is a matter of luck and alchemy, and local marketers can’t just make it happen. But for a riverside industrial corridor — er, the Charles River Mill District — laying out a welcome mat can’t hurt.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.

Related:

Bina Venkataraman: Regulations can help innovation

John Harthorne: Stoking a vital startup scene

Editorial: MassChallenge delivers results — and jobs

Mike Ross: Harvard’s startup lab targets millennials

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2013 | L. Rafael Reif: The innovation deficit