Guest commentary: Boston’s innovation brand? How about the hub for the next wave of collaborative innovation?

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By Ted Nelson, CEO of Mechanica

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh recently met with a group of local entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, heads of start-up accelerators and co-working spaces at City Hall as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week. The focus was on how Walsh intended to elevate and highlight Boston as an innovation leader.

One of the entrepreneurs at the meeting asked Walsh how he intended to brand Boston as an innovation hub. Still new to the job, Walsh didn’t have a carefully thought-through answer but acknowledged this as a top priority for his soon-to-be hired Boston CMO.

During the conversation, an executive from a startup accelerator program likened New York’s innovation environment to the “Hunger Games,” where “everyone is trying to get a piece,” while adding that Boston’s innovation community is much more collaborative. In the spirit of collaboration, and as a branding expert who launched a firm centered on collaboration, I have to say that he’s onto something. Not just in terms of traditional collaboration between an existing talent pool and the well-trod, thematic ideas required to bring yet another incrementally good idea to market. But rather the kind of curiosity-driven, cross discipline collaboration required to spark the world’s truly game changing ideas.

Now that we have this nugget of “collaboration,” how do we turn it into a powerful Boston innovation brand? Successful brands start with highly relevant and distinctive brand positions. Strong brand positions possess the inherent characteristics of: desirability, supportability, “ownability” and sustainability. What is it that is desired by the world’s consumers of innovation (and by “innovation consumers”,

I’m not just talking about the world’s VCs and co-founders, but also those addressing humanity’s great problems and opportunities)? What can we own, make distinctively ours and do better than anyone else? And finally, what are we confident about that we can sustain over time?

Let’s start by asking ourselves what the world’s consumers of innovation truly desire? Sure, Silicon Valley has the IT industry legacy of an incredible concentration of engineers in one place, coding their way from one vesting period to the next, in pursuit of insanely great products, services and billion dollars business models. And New York has certainly done a terrific catch-up job of leveraging to the hilt its historically advantaged industries of media and fashion into a vibrant start-up ecosystem focused on, no surprise, the media and fashion industries. So when success is defined as quantity of VC investments, then Silicon Valley and NYC certainly lead the pack.

Where Boston’s unique brand of innovation really rises to the fore is when it comes to assembling and harnessing the diverse innovation attributes most desired (and desperately needed) to harness human potential to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges and transformative opportunities. It’s the Boston area that has the diversity, concentration of brilliant young minds and collaborative ethos required to release the power of the next wave of global innovation. And importantly, fostering the kind of innovative thinking that can come from anywhere, rather than being gated through the Sand Hill Road, PayPal and DoubleClick mafias.

Next, what is the claim that the Boston innovation community can best support and own? What is the indisputably supportable advantage that Boston can call its own? I’d put forth that it’s an unrivaled concentration of the truly curious, brilliant and those actually wanting to make a dent in the universe that tend to start their academic lives and make their mark in the Boston area. The kind of collaboration required to jump from incremental to truly transformational thinking and ideas requires an incredibly diverse intersection of powerful thinking — thinking driven more by curiosity and potential for meaningful impact than cap tables and vesting rounds.

This kind of thinking requires careful germination and pollination. It’s as much about unexpected intersections as well worn paths. And it requires a very special center of activity, a hub to call its own, if it’s to be able to reach its full potential. I’d humbly submit that hub is the Boston innovation community. Our community has a remarkable concentration of world-class research universities, first-rate thinkers spanning the worlds of biotech, hardware, software, philanthropy and education and the concentration of students from around the world coursing through its urban veins.

Importantly, our collaborative and curiosity driven advantage is a sustainable one, since it is what we’ve been up to since banding together to drive out the British, found the nation’s earliest universities, start the first regularly published newspaper, invent the telegraph, awarded the first Ph.D. to a woman… well, you get the point. It’s this incredibly diverse convergence of collaborative passion and uncompromising brilliance that enables the critical cross-functional reality of how innovation happens in our town and creates our unique competitive advantage. It’s this competitive advantage that attracts so many of the world’s best and brightest — those aspiring to serve a higher purpose, one that ultimately will create far more than our fair share of true game-changing companies and industries.

Ted Nelson is one of four founding partners who conceived and launched Mechanica, a next-generation marketing and brand development firm. His responsibilities include contributing to the building and management of a next-generation business model and organization, as well as general strategic oversight across Mechanica’s clients and businesses.

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