Tech Alliance’s Susannah Malarkey on Four Things Seattle Could Learn from Boston, and One Big Northwest Advantage

6/29/10

Susannah Malarkey, the executive director of the Technology Alliance in Seattle, spent three days earlier this month in Boston with a group of Seattle civic and business leaders as part of the 2010 Intercity Study Mission. These annual trips, organized by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce since 1983, enable Seattle business leaders to pick the brains of civic leaders from around the country and bring the lessons back home to the Northwest on venture capital, urban planning, and education.

In the 27 years the program has been around, this was the third time Seattle representatives have looked to Boston for tips on how to foster community, growth, and local industry. There’s a reason why we keep coming back. Boston has a comparable population to Seattle with just half the landmass and a long history as a standout cluster for academia, innovation, and startup culture. Boston has a lot to offer Seattleites as we are planning for our own city’s future, Malarkey says. I dropped by Susannah’s office last week and spoke with her about the trip. Here are a few of the most important lessons she took away from our sister city to the east:

Reconnecting to the Waterfront

In 2006 Boston completed the most expensive highway tunneling project in the country, the “Big Dig,” which rerouted the city’s Central Artery, Interstate 93, through downtown and away from the waterfront. The project, which went billions of dollars over budget and six years past its initial completion deadline, is often compared to the proposed deep-bored tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct along Seattle’s waterfront. And though the two projects are  different, according to Malarkey, there is much to be learned from both the Big Dig and its aftermath. What were the biggest hiccups in the project? How do we ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes? What can we do once the project is completed to help our city reconnect to its waterfront?

Former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci, often referred to as the “godfather” of the project, told the visitors from Seattle about the major road bumps Boston experienced during the Big Dig. On the top of the list: inconsistent management. He emphasized the need to have a clear vision, measurable objectives, and strong and consistent leadership to successfully complete a project of this size, Malarkey says.

“It was an enormous project, they had switched management, and it was so huge and so complex that not having consistent management was really key to not having it finish on time,” Malarkey says.

In Boston’s case, finishing the project was only the first part of the equation. The second part was reviving the city’s waterfront, even when little resources remained. Instead of using taxpayer dollars, a private nonprofit organization, the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, was set up to revitalize a 1.3-mile stretch of the waterfront through art installations, gardens, music and performances, special events, and festivals. Observing how Boston has gone about recapturing “its connection to its water” in the wake of a major highway, Malarkey says, will help Seattle do the same as we prepare to build an underground tunnel and, eventually, tear down the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

“What are they doing to restore the urban waterfront after the Big Dig? You take down a big central artery, and then what do you do afterwards?” Malarkey said. “Our tunnel project is so much less complicated than this. Everyone wants to compare it to the Big Dig, but that really was like constructing the Panama Canal. The big thing for us when comparing is thinking about how to take down the Viaduct and reconnect to the waterfront from there… I think our potential to have a world class waterfront is so high.”

A Different Approach to Public Education

Most cities experience a large and ongoing debate revolving around how the public schools system should be run, and every state, city, and district has its own set of variables. One primary difference between the public school system in Boston and here in Seattle is that Boston schools can opt to become “pilot schools,” which Malarkey describes as “charter schools lite.” Essentially it means a school will be given more independence from the district, may allocate its public funding however it sees fit, hire and fire staff independent from the district, and develop its own governance, policies, and curriculum, while still being held to certain academic standards.

“It’s much more autonomous,” Malarkey said. “They’ve created ways for people to be much more innovative in their school system. And there’s real commitment on the part of business and governmental leadership to support the schools and to support change in innovation in the schools.”

Malarkey had the opportunity to visit one pilot school, Samuel W. Mason Elementary, in Roxbury, MA, and was very impressed by what she saw. In five years, the school was able to recover from the brink of closure, and is now regarded as a national example of a successful pilot program. The school, which serves primarily minority and low-income students, nearly one-fourth of whom speak no English at home, boasts strong reading and after school programs, as well as full summer school. Mason Elementary enlists parents and community members to take an active role in the school, creating an academic atmosphere that engages students, Malarkey says.  And instead of separating special needs kids into different classrooms, they are integrated with the rest of the students, creating a community-oriented environment that fosters compassion and teamwork at a young age.

“There’s no bullying or teasing—none of that kind of stuff goes on there,” Malarkey said. “It was a very inspiring place to go.”

Though Malarkey noted that not all pilot schools are successful, witnessing the students at Mason proved to her that an experimental program done right could be a powerful force in the community.

“The one we visited had done amazing work,” she said. “They were among the top performing schools in the city with all these high-needs kids. It really showed how having great school leadership and real commitment to excellence, and really believing that kids can achieve, and creating a climate for kids to achieve, that it really pays off. I mean, we really know that the ‘achievement gap’ between kids of color and white kids is really about the quality of the teaching.”

Although 40 states across the country have charter school legislation, Washington is not among them, a fact that Malarkey would like to see change.

Improving and Expediting Regional Decision-Making

A keynote speech by Harvard Law professor Larry Susskind, entitled “Improving and Expediting Regional Decision-Making” was by far “the most impactful for me,” Malarkey says. Susskind, one of the country’s leading figures in dispute resolution, talked about techniques for participatory decision-making and consensus-building among groups who are often on opposing sides of the bargaining table. The most important elements for reaching a consensus on any issue, according to Malarkey, are having an understanding every interested party, having a truly neutral mediator with no stake in the issue, and inviting all parties to the conversation where common ground can be established. The goal is to ensure that everyone concerned is represented and agrees to enter into a respectful dialogue.

“One of the huge challenges of Seattle is that it takes forever to decide anything,” Malarkey said. “Once people agree to ground rules, and if you’ve got a skilled facilitator who is keeping the discussion on track, you just have to begin to find the areas of commonality.”

Investing in Graduates of Higher Education

Boston, a city with over 40 colleges in the metropolitan area, including the likes of Harvard, MIT, and Northeastern, turns out thousands of bright minds a year—an asset that Malarkey says the city is working hard to be “more strategic about taking advantage of.”

“When you’ve got Harvard and MIT and all those incredible students graduating there, and many of them stay and start companies—MIT graduates have started literally thousands of companies in the great Boston area—I mean, they just have an engine,” Malarkey said. “One of the things they talked about was making it easy for the graduates to stay, helping them get connected to internships and first jobs, because they realize having this brain power in their city is really what’s going to help them sustain their economy.”

And though Seattle has nowhere near the number of institutions of higher education, our own University of Washington is nothing to take for granted, she says.

“Boston is unique in the country for the amount of higher education it has…We do envy them that,” she said. But, she added, “We’re very lucky though that we have our flagship university in our flagship city. All you have to do is look at Oregon and see—they’ve got OSU in Corvallis, and U of O in Eugene, and in the city they have Portland State—so now you have three universities competing to be the big school in a state that can’t sustain it.”

And the unique partnership between the University of Washington’s medical school and the five WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho) states ensures that quality public medical education is available across the region, with a linchpin right here in Seattle, Malarkey says.

One Way Seattle Gives Boston a Run for its Money

Though Malarkey acknowledges Seattle has a lot to learn from cities like Boston, the trip opened her eyes to a few gems about the Emerald City that leave many of our friends on the East Coast yearning. At the top of the list is Seattle’s booming global health industry.

“They are very envious of us for having the Gates Foundation and the way we are able to be a true center for global health,” she said.

And though Boston has the second highest concentration of venture capital outside of Silicon Valley—”if you look at 100 percent of the venture capital in the country, almost 50 percent of it is in California, another 20 percent is in Boston, and Seattle has got like four to five percent,” Malarkey said—many of these funds support early stage developments in the life sciences industry, something that isn’t as readily available to firms in Boston.

“They didn’t feel like there was very much early stage VC in Boston, so we were actually fairly comparable in terms of that early money that it really takes to grow companies,” Malarkey said.

And the nurturing of emerging industries is what will help Seattle grow into a world class city that others aspire to follow, she added.

Looking to the Future

“The fact is this is going to be the Asian century. And your natural inclination when you’re on the East Coast is to look to Europe… We look to Asia,” Malarkey said. “I do believe Seattle has a big advantage in that we are focusing our thoughts about global competition by physically looking in the direction of where it’s coming from…There are wonderful advantages to have lots of tradition, ergo lots of higher education, but I also think there are advantages to being able to be freed up to invent your own future.”

Thea Chard is a correspondent for Xconomy Seattle. You can e-mail her at theachard@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/theachard. Follow @

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  • Jerry Jeff

    Out of all the variables in student performance, why scapegoat the teachers in (economically) poor school districts? With all the variability in the quality of administration, political interference, parental distraction and non-involvement, language barriers, and neighborhood violence I think it’s willfully simplistic to dump everything at the teachers’ feet. Otherwise an interesting article, and I was pleased to see Northeastern Univ cited as the great program it is.