The BRA’s Nicole Fichera pushes South Boston’s new economy
You’re the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s Innovation District manager. What does that mean? The Innovation District lives in between planning and economic development. It’s really meant to be an urban lab for testing a lot of new ideas about how cities can develop, how people can live, how we can be more sustainable. My job in all of that is to build community, and to be there to support all the businesses moving into the area.
How do you define innovation? I think innovation is the process of bringing new ideas to market in a meaningful way. Those new ideas can’t just stay in the research lab. And you have to do it in a meaningful way—you can’t just sell to your mom. The Innovation District is open. It’s not sector-based, it’s not meant to cluster one kind of company or one scale of company. We recognize the mix is important.
What are some of the ideas you’re testing in this urban lab? When you think about housing or infrastructure that helps people better connect with one other, that’s an entirely new idea. It means housing with less private space and more shared amenities that help you connect with your neighbors. So instead of having a lobby with a desk and a security guard no one talks to, and a couch that nobody sits on, you create a really active public space. We’re exploring relationship infrastructure very deeply. That’s what we’re working on with District Hall [a new restaurant and meeting hall run by the Cambridge Innovation Center]. That building is really a public platform for gathering and networking the innovation economy together. It belongs to the community.
Take me through your path from architecture school, to working for a hot architecture firm like Hacin and Associates, to becoming a bureaucrat. It’s not something I ever expected. I never thought I’d end up in government. Never. I went to architecture school at Northeastern, which has a strong public policy and urbanism focus. David Hacin gave me the opportunity to work on a lot of nontraditional things. I was designing environments for innovation and collaboration and creativity. I was on the design team for District Hall, I did offices for startups, but I was also thinking about environments that aren’t just physical—economic space, social space. I ended up, unwittingly, building this trajectory in making spaces for innovation and entrepreneurship to happen. Then I saw the job at the city, and I had to go for it.