Inside Innovation Districts

In episode ten, we’re talking about innovation districts with the director of the N-Squared Innovation District, Chuck Tanowitz.

N-Squared encompasses an area on the border of Newton and Needham, Massachusetts–a vibrant area of the community with lots of great companies in it already. Chuck is charged with with building community for N-Squared and helping to market the area.

Chuck started his career in journalism, moved into PR and eventually started his own agency. He started at N-Squared last year.

I wanted to get the scoop on innovation districts, and Chuck topped the list. Hope you enjoy the discussion.

Mark: Well, Chuck Tanowitz, welcome to Confessions of a Marketer.

Chuck: Thank you for having me.

Mark: So it’s something we’ve all heard about, but what exactly is an innovation district?

Chuck: As a general idea, an innovation district is a place that a municipality has said, “This is where we really want to encourage companies to come in and to work as a community.” Because that’s really what works in innovation–is these happy accidents, people working together, that sort of thing. There’s innovation districts like the South Boston waterfront, like the N-Squared Innovation District–those sorts of things–that have been kind of declared and we’re working toward a goal. And there are those that sort of develop over time and eventually emerge into that way, like Kendall Square. And then it’s really about this combination of businesses and urban planning and transportation to keep that alive, and all those elements that go into it. It’s one thing to have a bunch of offices near each other–that’s a suburban office park. It’s quite another to encourage people to get out of their offices and interact–creating street life, creating retail, creating coffee shops–those kinds of things that drive this creative force that helps the innovation economy to grow.

Mark: So you’re probably biased, but why is an innovation district important? What’s the significance of declaring an innovation district?

Chuck: A lot of it is really, you know, more than marketing–is kind of what it is. So, let me back up a moment and look at what economic development is on one level. Economic development is marketing, just for municipalities. So, how do you brand a state like Massachusetts against, say for example, New Hampshire or New York or San Francisco? And what makes the state attractive? That’s what economic development is. The other part of that, though, is not just marketing it, but actually driving the change that needs to happen. I just came out of a meeting a few minutes ago about transportation. How do we make sure that people can get in and out of here? Having a bunch of companies here without support from the higher-level business community and the municipalities that say, “We need to fix our transportation problems,” doesn’t actually solve those problems.

Mark: It’s not just putting new off ramps or on ramps on the highway, it’s about public transportation.

Chuck: It’s about public transportation, it’s about looking at the use of transportation management associations, shuttle buses, biking, covered bike parking, bike sharing, looking at how do we manage the zoning so that we encourage more shared use of transportation, for example. Yes, those on ramps are there from 128, but do we encourage other types of uses to get additional shuttle buses to come? Where people coming from? How do we get them there? TripAdvisor has its own shuttle bus program that runs people not just from the T nearby here, but from downtown–because they looked at the demographics and said, “Where do people live and how do they need to get here?” How do we work one-on-one with people so they think about their own transportation in and out of this area so they do it in a way that is efficient?

Mark: For listeners who don’t know, TripAdvisor–you know, this big travel company–has a huge office in this area right on Route 128.

Chuck: Exactly, and that we are building our innovation district kind of around where they put themselves–the idea being that there’s 1,000 people there that we want to work with, the neighbors want to get to know them. There are other big names in the area–Shark Ninja and Big Belly Solar. I was in Big Belly just this week and people were saying, “Oh, we’ve met the guys at Shark Ninja. We have lunch with them, we talk with them.” You know, folks at Kaminario have lunch regularly with people that they know at Big Belly–that kind of interaction needs a place to happen, it needs a way to happen. Somebody said to me that they go for a walk along the river and pet all the dogs. You’re going to meet somebody if your pet a dog, right? But you’ve got to have a place to take them. You need dog-friendly offices. All these pieces come into play. That doesn’t just happen. People think it just happens. But planning departments and municipalities are working. You have some really great dedicated people in planning departments. And then there’s the cities and municipalities. So this planning department then needs to run up against the city or town officials and make sure they’re on board. Somebody needs to help advocate for that. Somebody needs to convene on these things. That’s where that innovation district comes through. In Boston, one of the best things that they did–Mayor Menino did this as they were building the innovation district in the South Boston waterfront–was to build District Hall. That didn’t just happen, right? The builders just didn’t say, “Hey, let’s create this building here.” It took an advocate to say to the to the developers, “We want this kind of structure. Oh, and by the way, we’re going to bring in a group that is going to manage it–and they’re going to make sure that we have food and make sure that there’s catering and make sure that the program continues.” That didn’t just happen, right?

Mark: It’s the same with open space or bike paths or walking paths, which are often neglected in the business area of a city. But it’s really important.

Chuck: Business is not done on its own. Businesses in an ecosystem and that ecosystem needs to be developed in a certain way. Not everybody is going to do it perfectly. We all stumble, but it does need the advocacy and the direction of somebody looking at that ecosystem saying, “How do we do this?” Bringing people around the table to say, “How do we do this together?” Not everybody’s going to agree. Believe me–plenty of disagreements. But, hopefully, together we can create something better.

Mark: You spent a career in marketing. You ran your own agency and you came out of journalism. How has your new role surprised you? What parallels do you see to the previous part of your career?

Chuck: Let me start with the parts that are easier and those are the parts that are parallels. Economic development is marketing for cities. That’s ultimately what it is. All that background in understanding storytelling and how to craft a message and how to get that out–that’s key to this job. You need to give the brokers air cover for promoting this area. So I need to create the marketing materials, I need to create the articles and that sort of thing. The thing that surprised me most when I started this is the extent to which real estate drives the innovation economy, that nobody really thinks about. If you think about the see the CIC–the Cambridge Innovation Center and why it exists and why it is where it is–yes, MIT is there but MIT had been there for years. How did that come about? It really has to do with a drop in the market and as somebody who had a lot of space, saying, “You know, let’s throw a couple of companies in here.” And then over time it becomes something. Co-working is remarkably changing the market. And these are things that technology folks don’t think about. For example, years ago you used to say, if you’re building an office you need to put in offices–you need to put 120 or 150 square feet per person.

Some of the coworking spaces are building themselves to 60 square feet per person and then treating themselves a little bit more like a gym, where your rental capacity is greater than your physical capacity. So, you know, at each desk you have to figure how what does the utilization rate and how many people can I rent this too? So, suddenly, there’s a lot of people in a very small space. That changes the dynamic. And what that does to the traditional office buildout. And then there’s questions of, “All right, how do you encourage people–from a marketing perspective–how do you encourage people to leave that environment and move into another environment?” And, one of the things we’re finding is that companies, at a certain point, need to develop their own culture. They need to kind of change and being in being in a coworking space you’re kind of picking up their culture and that’s great. At a certain point, maybe you want your own. How do you do that? What do you take with you? But, then at the same time making that affordable.

Mark: Well, Chuck, best of luck with the N-Squared Innovation District. And than you for being on Confessions of a Marketer.

Chuck: Thank you.

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