Let’s Restore Hands-on “Making” and Social Justice to Innovation

Reflections on the Future of the Innovation Economy in Boston

November 15, 2016

Partner, NBBJ

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”
—Thomas Edison

I love this quote from Thomas Edison, because it represents the cerebral side and the hands-on, “making” side of innovation. So often we talk about innovation as purely a matter of ideation, not of practical intelligence. Yet there are fantastic intelligences that can be gleaned from making. We invent at our peril without a pile of junk nearby.

Take batteries, for instance. Countries like Korea and China long ago took the lead in battery technology and production. Now the United States is trying to ramp up the development of batteries for sustainable energy, but with the exception of Tesla, the U.S. no longer has the knowledge. So making informs research.

This quote by Edison returned to me at a recent NBBJ salon event, which focused on the future of the innovation economy in Boston. With its world-class universities, technology companies, startups, biotech firms and medical institutions, Boston has long had the research down. But it doesn’t have the making.

Therein might be the solution to inequality. How do we spread the largesse and rewards of an innovation economy to people who don’t have a Ph.D.? By bringing making to innovation. The next Bill Gates will be fine: there are endless opportunities for people who code, but that is a rarified skill. Where are the fifteen-dollar-an-hour jobs? Where is the work for people who don’t have a college education?

By restoring making to innovation — locally, in Boston — we can build an innovation economy based on social justice. After all, Massachusetts was the first to offer public education, thanks to Horace Mann in the 1840s. The first lending library was the Boston Public Library. We have amazing, historic examples in Boston of spreading innovation as a matter of economic justice. What is this generation doing to spread innovation?

Two possibilities came up during the salon. (1) In the same way market-rate housing can be used to subsidize affordable housing, market-rate office space can be used to subsidize affordable incubator space, which could be limited to small firms that aren’t backed by venture capital. (2) Transportation. A proper transportation network, by providing access to more and more housing and workplaces, unlocks affordability.

One final thought… At a recent conference, “Innovation and the City,” hosted by Microsoft here in Cambridge, I heard it said that innovative spaces are places where people let down their guard and recognize each other’s interests and humanity. It’s a powerful sense, that empathy is critical to understanding how to make a group move forward. Are we providing the spaces where people can do that? Is it a town hall? Perhaps it was the space under the Liberty Tree in Boston Common, or the café culture of Berlin in the 1920s or Greenwich Village in the 1960s, or an extraordinary theater experience, or an exhibition of paintings, or a walk or hike in the landscape. Or is it a place to just sit by the fire and break bread? Innovation needs more than an incubator: it needs great public spaces, it needs community-building in its grandest sense.

Image courtesy of Pexels.

 

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