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Kendall Square, MA: How to analyze an innovation ecosystem

The following analysis is presented in depth in the Atlas of Innovation Districts, in which readers can explore and compare data on 50 prominent US Innovation Districts.

Formerly an abandoned industrial area, Kendall Square has become one of the nation’s most successful Innovation Districts. This transformation was fueled by smart investments in urban infrastructure that laid the foundation for a connected, attractive, and productive environment for innovators.

Historical Background

In the 1960s, President Kennedy designated Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts as the future home for the NASA campus. This would have anchored Kendall’s development to the needs of a Strategic Government Agency. Sadly, President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 before construction began in Kendall Square. His successor, President Johnson, decided to locate the NASA campus in Houston, Texas instead. For the next 25 years, Kendall Square remained an undeveloped, desolate lunar landscape with few buildings of any kind in the district. Despite its close proximity to the bustling activity of the MIT and Harvard campuses, Kendall developed a reputation as a dangerous neighborhood with a high incidence of crime.

The Problem: Sparse Network of Urban Infrastructure

Kendall’s discontinued development plans stunted the growth of its nascent innovation ecosystem. The obvious problem was the near nonexistence of urban infrastructure to house and support economic activity. Despite the loss of the NASA campus, Kendall Square was well positioned to develop organically into an Innovation District. With multiple world class universities located nearby, Kendall Square had strong potential for high Innovation Intensity. City planners just needed to figure out how to approach the problem.

Insights from Kendall

Over the last 20 years, Kendall Square has been the site of a major urban development plan. The district’s redesign and subsequent construction projects have made the neighborhood architecturally attractive, well connected to other centers, and a major draw for professional talent. Today, the Kendall Square neighborhood has the lowest real estate vacancy rate of any major downtown market in the United States at just 3.6%.22 It also has the highest Innovation Intensity of any Innovation District in the atlas at 94%.

What decisions allowed Kendall to tap into the wealth of resources in its surroundings? The case of Kendall Square showcases actions a district can take to build a strong network of urban infrastructure and create attractive, functional spaces for innovation.

Investment in Public Infrastructure Systems to Increase Accessibility and Desirability.

Kendall Square enjoyed a central location near downtown Boston, but the local infrastructure was inadequate for the district’s needs. The nearby highway, I-93, was notoriously congested and provided only a slow connected to the rest of the city. This situation improved with the completion of Boston’s Big Dig, which greatly improved the stretch of I-93 between Kendall Square and Boston, providing access to downtown and Logan Airport in less than 15 minutes. City officials also made strategic zoning plans to promote the levels of density optimal for an Innovation space: a neighborhood of 5 to 7 story buildings. This type of neighborhood is dense enough for close concentration of people but with buildings low enough for fruitful interactions at a human scale.

Leveraging Central Location to Stimulate Innovation Intensity. With the advantages of its location, design, and density of talent, Kendall Square became home to many MIT and Harvard innovation initiatives. The neighborhood has subsequently developed into a hub for innovation and startups with global impact.

Distributing Wealth Within Local Communities. Innovation Districts like Kendall Square have a significant impact on the cities in which they are located. Our study of 50 Innovation Districts shows that in comparison to non-innovation neighborhoods, they produce on average a 4x higher intensity of tangible innovations per employee, as well as 9x higher density of job opportunities, a 15x higher concentration of knowledge-intensive jobs, and 20x more wealth or economic activity per resident. Crucially, for every innovation-focused job the district creates, it generates 4 to 5 additional support jobs. This reduces unemployment and leads to more equitably distributed prosperity. Innovation activity in Kendall Square generated diverse kinds of job opportunities for local community members and for graduating students as they entered the workforce. The recent history of Kendall Square clearly shows the nonlinear benefits of strategically aggregating knowledge-intensive activities in a concentrated area.

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