Where Einstein Meets Edison

The Interplay of Mind, Hand, and City: Investigating Urbanism and Entrepreneurship

The Interplay of Mind, Hand, and City: Investigating Urbanism and Entrepreneurship

May 6, 2010

Entrepreneurship and innovation thrive in intellectual environments where the synergy of great minds, abundant resources and cultural zeal all reinforce the productive faculties of theory and practice, mind and hand.  MIT has an enviable track record of producing world-class research and also contributing to and benefiting from an urban environment amenable to entrepreneurship.  An exploration of the interplay between urbanism and entrepreneurship at MIT and the Greater Boston area can be revealing. It may provide telling insights for planners in academia, government and private industry about the necessity of considering the subtle interplay between research institutions and the surrounding urban environment.

A recent global trend in diverse regions such as Spain, Saudi Arabia and Singapore seeks to replicate the MIT model by creating prolific research institutions as a hub of technological innovation to drive economic growth.  The focus has primarily been to replicate the essential functions of knowledge centers such as competitive grant-issuing bodies, technology licensing offices, support for early-career researchers and incentive reforms to promote high-caliber research.  How do the forces at work in the urban environment catalyze this innovation?

In a previous article, we focused on the daunting challenges faced by one such prominent initiative in the United Arab Emirates, a region historically devoid of scientific scholarship and technological innovation1. The planners at MIT’s Technology & Development Program are no doubt facing a Herculean task in not only bringing about vast changes in educational standards but also reformulating a society’s attitudes towards academic research in general.  MIT’s legendary entrepreneurial proficiency is, as we will argue, greatly enhanced by its location within the Boston metropolis.

We wish to investigate why attempts by other prominent American institutions, such as the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago or the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, have had limited success in fostering an ecosystem for entrepreneurship despite long histories of significant research output.  We are interested in going beyond the manicured landscape and ornate walls of the campus to gain a glimpse into the surrounding urban culture and understand how this might impact the university itself.

Perhaps the defining feature of Greater Boston is the high concentration of academic institutions.  A recent study claims that there are 150 institutions of higher education within a 50-mile radius of Boston2. Such a high density of academically-focused professionals gives the city a youthful brand and intellectual zeal as well as positively reinforcing competition between universities for students, researchers and faculty.  In particular, the proximity of so many academic institutions allows for increased specialization of research and industry.  Specific institutions can focus on their own academic specialties in law, engineering, government, music, business, science and entrepreneurship. The close proximity of Harvard has allowed MIT to strategically focus on engineering and applied sciences. Moreover, collaboration has also naturally arisen in certain areas in which it synergistically leverages core strengths. A notable example is the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, which links Harvard’s vast medical science enterprise with MIT’s engineering expertise.

Dr. Campbell Murray, Managing Director at Novartis Venture Funds in Cambridge, MA, states: “Talented professionals are well supported by a range of institutions from research universities like Harvard, MIT, BU, Tufts, U. Mass and BC to leading not-for-profit hospitals and institutes like Brigham & Women’s, the MGH, Dana Farber, the Broad Institute, the Koch Institute, The Whitehead, the McGovern Institute and so on. Few other places on earth enjoy such concentrated brainpower and so many diverse approaches and perspectives to problem solving as the Boston area.  Finally, the life science knowledge cluster in Boston is well supported by an array of institutions and people with tremendous experience in translating research into clinically relevant products and financiers and legal experts able to help entrepreneurs and management teams build companies around those ideas.”

MIT students have the option to cross-register for classes at Harvard. This enables MIT to invest more of its resources into specialization in a fewer key areas.  As Carl Schramm, President of the Kauffman Foundation states, ”It is not so much that the Ivory Tower has been breached; more that every individual tower is now linked to every other in ways, and to a degree, that are unprecedented.”3  Such a “division of labor” plays to each institution’s core strengths, although there is no shortage of professor-poaching between the neighboring schools, which continually ensures the standards are maintained at a very high level.

Boston is colloquially known as America’s Walking City. Its superb city layout dramatically shortens commute times and benefits those who live and work in the metropolitan area. To anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in Boston commuting by foot, bicycle or public transportation, it is readily apparent how mobile citizens are and what this has meant to the development of the teeming social fabric of the city. Transportation lies at the very heart of a city’s robust economic performance. For example, the Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority handles approximately 1.1 million trips every day4. Unbeknownst to Boston’s early city planners, the narrow walkways and dense living quarters have all played a vital role in limiting the urban sprawl that has become typical of modern cities.

New York, Washington, and London are also known for their large concentration of academic institutions and centers of excellence. The geographic proximity has allowed Boston to maintain deep ties with the important developments and institutions in these key cities while simultaneously preserving its unique identity.  This has also been observed at the University of Chicago’s location in the Hyde Park neighborhood south of the city.  The location has enabled the university to develop a unique ethos rather different from that of its surrounding urban environment.  When one examines the many agencies and organizations that fund MIT research5, there are no dominant industry or government sponsors – further affirming MIT’s autonomy.

Finally, the Boston area has seen a remarkable array of public-private partnerships founded to promote entrepreneurship.  Pascal Marmier, Consul of Swissnex Boston, remarks: “We have benefited greatly from the collective knowledge and collaborative spirit of the area. A Science and Technology consulate such as ours found its natural place in the local ecosystem.“  Other public-private partnerships with truly novel models include the Boston World Partnerships and MassChallenge.  Other environmental factors are harder to quantify, but add significantly to the culture of entrepreneurship at MIT.  The high educational standards of the general community add to the quality of life in the Boston area and can be a deciding factor for professionals to permantently settle in the area6. The cuisine, arts and service industries reflect the high standards set by consumers. We believe that the complex urban environment in the Boston area creates a singular community for the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

John Silva is a serial entrepreneur and writer on culture and innovation.  Previously, he conducted research at iRobot and Harvard Business School.  He can be reached at john.silva@post.harvard.edu. Ardavan Oskooi is an editor for MITER.


  1. MIT Entrepreneurship Review, “An MIT in the Middle East? The Launch of the Masdar Institute of Science & Technology” (by Ardavan Oskooi), http://miter-dev.mit.edu/node/156, (accessed on April 30, 2010)
  2. National Center for Educational Statistics http://nces.ed.gov/
  3. “The Future of the Research University” by Carl Schramm.  Source: Kauffman Foundation   http://www.kauffman.org/Details.aspx?id=5758
  4. “In terms of daily ridership, the MBTA remains the nation’s 5th largest mass transit system. It serves a population of 4,667,555 (2000 census) in 175 cities and towns with an area of 3,244 square miles.” Source: Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority: http://www.mbta.com/about_the_mbta/history/?id=970
  5. Research Expenditures by Primary Sponsor for Fiscal Year 2009: http://web.mit.edu/facts/research.html
  6. Massachusetts has one of the most educated populations in the nation, with about 37% of residents 25 and older holding a Bachelor’s degree or higher.  Source: Bostonindicators.org  http://www.bostonindicators.org/indicators2006/education/Default.aspx