Future Boston Alliance and the Business of Hipness

Boston Globe | May 14, 2012

By Michael Lake and Daniel Spiess, World Class Cities Partnership

Boston’s high ranking as a global innovation city and, according to one recent report, reputation as the 10th most competitive city in the world would be the pride of mayors everywhere, but Boston continues to experience its “brain drain.” Northeastern University’s World Class Cities Partnership, whose global research has focused on talent attraction and retention issues, recently hosted the pre-launch of Boston’s foremost advocate for hipness – the Future Boston Alliance (FBA). Founded by Greg Selkoe, a locally-based streetwear retailer, Selkoe and FBA director Malia Lazu described the Alliance as an opportunity for Boston and Massachusetts to seek input and guidance from an untapped core of new leaders and entrepreneurs in order for our region to compete in the 21st century. Selkoe and Lazu noted that not only does Boston need to compete in education and technology, in which it already performs quite well, but it also needs to compete in the ‘hip’ factor as featured by Michael Farrell in his recent Boston Globe article “E-retailer Hopes to Boost Hub’s Hip Factor.”

Though this hip factor may seem irrelevant to the focus of modern city policy, research shows that a city’s success rate for talent attraction and retention, the bedrock of a stable economy and the lifeblood of an entrepreneurship ecosystem, can be greatly influenced by the population’s desire to want to live and work in a creative, welcoming and fun urban environment.

Selkoe draws his knowledge from personal entrepreneurial experiences, but is also a Harvard-trained city planner and knows of what he speaks. His tenure at the Boston Redevelopment Authority shows in his awareness of the power and potential of zoning, tax incentives, citizen participation, and regulation to truly influence how the city literally shapes itself and its image, both to residents and those who are considering a move to the so-called Hub of the Universe. As a business owner who chose to start and keep his business here within the city limits, Selkoe knows that keeping and attracting workers to grow his company is not based on salary alone.

Talent attraction and retention has been a hot topic lately. The prominent Boston Globe-sponsored “Building a Better Commonwealth” series spent the second half of last year looking exclusively at talent from a variety of angles, including management challenges, the importance of life-outside-the-job attractions, and building a talent pipeline through investment in science, technology, engineering, and math education. The series recently kicked off anew with the timely titled “Loosen Up, Boston” looking at enhancing urban vitality while balancing local character and neighborhood skepticism.

Studies and reports show that while jobs tend to be the leading factor in determining whether talent (particularly recent college-educated graduates) stay or leave the area, housing affordability, weather, nightlife, and transit influence their decision as well. While we can’t change the weather, we can work toward building a 21st century city to match our #1 ranking as a young and knowledge-based center. Mayor Menino’s administration is admirably tackling this task with the Innovation District and the ONEin3 Boston program, for example, but more needs to be done. This means allowing Boston to become a 24-hour city, granting easier and cheaper access to build cultural and nightlife options, supporting the creative class through innovative zoning and business licenses, and backing up the “car is no longer king” declaration by investing in a flexible and adaptable public transit system. Boston natives, like Selkoe, along with newcomers and business owners want nothing less than this city to become even better than the sum of its parts. By allowing Boston to loosen up a bit, there is no reason why it can’t.

Michael Lake is Executive Director and Daniel Spiess is Research Director for World Class Cities Partnership, a network of global cities exchanging solutions to urban challenges.

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