Boston should go all in on innovation

A casino is not a growth sector

Sixteenth in a series

Writing history is hard work, but it’s easier than predicting the future. Boston’s future is a story not yet written, but the pen (or keyboard) is on our hands. As we elect a new mayor and city council, we are taking one step in sketching the outline of that future. There’s more we can do – a new era of civic engagement and community activism might spring up from the energy that will inevitably come with the arrival of the first new mayor in 20 years.

As this series has shown, Boston in the 20th century evolved from the genteel 19th century city of Anglophiles and Irish immigrants, grew to become a muscular urban metropolis teeming with the sons and daughters of many lands, and gradually entered a period of decline that threatened to snuff out the vitality and viability of the city. A principal reason for Boston’s decline was that it could not transition easily from the days when its port was vibrant and provided plenty of jobs centered on robust global trading and ancillary manufacturing. Boston had no plan to replace these jobs once the port slowed down and the trading and manufacturing moved elsewhere. Our utter lack of preparedness left Boston bleeding jobs and stagnating for the better part of the mid-20th century. It took two decades and the efforts of several determined public and private sector leaders to stop the decline and send Boston on a more positive trajectory. The city that we enjoy today – a city that is growing, viable, younger, open to change – this city came about because in the 1950s and 1960s a core of businessmen and city leaders refused to see the city fail.

Boston survived the decline of the mid-20th century, but there is no guarantee that it is all uphill from here. Another era of decline might await us if we are caught coasting on a tide of complacency. In this century, the very idea of what it means to live and work in a vibrant urban center will change. Cities in the 21st century will succeed if they respect their history while embracing modernity, introducing technology in ways that re-define both how the city delivers services and what citizens expect from their urban experience. We live in a time when the pace of change is rapid, and the new mayor will need to make innovation a top priority – understanding where things are headed, being open to experimentation and change, introducing new approaches to asset management and service delivery.

In Austin, Texas, municipal officials, the University of Texas, and utility companies have collaborated with other private sector actors to undertake innovative approaches through the so-called Pecan Street Project. Their efforts are focused on reducing carbon impacts and creating a more sustainable approach to energy delivery, storage and use. Boston can position itself as the East Coast leader in efforts like this – no other city on the East Coast, including New York, is as well positioned as we are to become the premier center for research, development, and implementation of new technologies. Boston is fortunate to have the intellectual fire power and energy that comes with hosting (or being proximate to) many of the nation’s leading colleges and universities. Indeed, the two most important jobs creators for Boston are sectors that embody the drive toward innovation – academia and medical services. We need to exploit this fortuitous circumstance, in the best sense of the word, by creating even stronger links between city government and these institutions. They help make Boston a destination city, a significant advantage for a city that must constantly redefine itself as unique and worthy of investment, whether that investment be the large scale capital infusion of a developer or the personal investment of a family deciding to make Boston their home.

Introducing technology on a larger scale doesn’t always have to be esoteric – it can and should be practical in its implementation. For example, the next mayor might introduce an initiative to make every street corner in Boston “smart.” What does this mean in practical terms? It starts by having smart traffic signalization and smart street lighting, and adding variable message signs alerting motorists and pedestrian of important traffic, transit scheduling, and weather information. It means that every MBTA bus and every emergency vehicle (ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks) will be instrumented to communicate with traffic signals to change red lights to green based upon a priority hierarchy letting emergency vehicles through before any other vehicle. This simple strategy would improve bus rides and scheduling and enhance public safety. Every smart street corner could have lighting that can be remotely illumined in either direction to reduce costs, and that can digitally display information alerting public safety officials to recent events or incidents.

Boston can also develop mobility hubs that are well lit and strategically located, offering multi-modal choices at the same location: bicycle rentals, bus stops, Pedi cabs, and pedestrian amenities such as variable message signs with real time transit schedules, Charlie Card dispensers, weather reports, and information on nearby civic events – all within proximity to transit nodes. Boston has begun making strides toward progress in these areas, with the city’s incubation of an Innovation District and its support for initiatives like Hubway bicycle sharing and Citizens Connect, a smartphone app that enables citizens to report issues (potholes, broken streetlights) in real time to the city department charged with responding to those issues.

Is Boston ready to take on the challenge of meeting the paradigms of a new century, and offering its benefits to all citizens?

An important test for Boston, as indeed it is for most cities, will be to find ways to accommodate this drive toward innovation, and the creative class of people it attracts, without leaving many of its poorer or less well-educated citizens behind. This is the great challenge of our time: finding ways to radically and rapidly improve people’s lives, giving them a fighting chance to join the innovation era by offering them training, education, and access.

Boston is at its vibrant best when it is multicultural and integrated. We are already a city where the wealthy can afford high-end homes and condominiums in the newly fashionable Waterfront District, the Back Bay, the South End, and pockets of Charlestown and South Boston, and those less well-off struggle to find affordable housing in parts of Dorchester, Mattapan, and East Boston. Perhaps the greatest threat to the city is that it will be content with an increasing stratification between a wealthy business and creative class and the poor. With a vanishing middle class, Boston’s viability rests in part on its ability to find effective ways to improve access to quality education and meaningful job opportunities for those who traditionally have not had that access. Investments in training, adult education, and improved and affordable mobility are necessary on a massive and focused scale. Small efforts will not make a dent in a problem that is pervasive and structural. Nor will continuation of policies and programs that, however well intentioned, have not made a dent in the problem. An important question for our new mayor will be what strategies and policies to put in place in order to establish a more level playing field in the city, ensure social justice, and enable the kind of upward mobility that defines a successful, growing metropolis.

Meet the Author

It may seem obvious that Boston needs a training, education, and jobs program that responds to the technology-oriented imperatives of the new century, but our recent focus has unfortunately been elsewhere. Placing bets on a casino in East Boston as a revenue generator for Boston is an example of leadership stuck in old-think: casinos are not a growth sector, and all the recent metrics demonstrate that they draw an older, less affluent cohort that cannot sustain the gold mine that some would have us believe is there for the asking. Some may argue that casinos offer the low wage entry level jobs that are much in need in this technology-driven era, and there may be some truth to that, but former mayoral candidate Bill Walczak had it right when he challenged Bostonians to “think big” and not settle for 20th century “solutions” to 21st century problems. Every ounce of energy that goes into making a casino take root in East Boston – a casino that will sap the city of significant dollars for transportation infrastructure and public safety resources that will now be diverted to a gaming site – will be time and energy not spent on making Boston more prepared to meet the employment demands of this techno-centric time. Detroit has casinos, and a lot of good they have done that city – casino revenue is now pledged to creditors as that city struggles to recover a sense of place and purpose. Boston is not in jeopardy of becoming Detroit any time soon, but if a casino is the most important economic development idea of our time, then we are living in time past, and that’s not a prescription for success.

We are at the dawn of a new political era in Boston, but more important, we are at the beginning of a new iteration of the New Boston – call it Boston 3.0. This New Boston is not the New Boston of the Hynes/Collins/White eras, but rather a Boston that is loosened from the chains of its past, not constrained by predisposition or preconception, open to change and to new ways of thinking, not just about how the city functions but about how we collaborate as a community. How do we build upon Boston’s newest iteration of diversity, forming a new “rainbow coalition” committed to ensuring that Boston does not become a city separated by a gulf of wealth, with amenities only available to or achievable by a select class? How do we move away from the dangerous complacency of old-think that promotes a casino as a substitute for fair taxation and a proxy for a real jobs program? Those are important questions, and they cannot all be answered or solved by a new mayor, no matter how talented or well intentioned he may be. It will take both the new mayor’s commitment to introducing change on a level playing field, and a new form of citizen activism, based on potent and effective coalitions that will not accept 20th century solutions, and that will insist in their right to participate as full and engaged citizens in the techno-centric 21st century.

Jim Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation. His most recent book is The Vidal Lecture.