Greater Boston’s One Thing

Opinion

[Updated 6/23/15 with video. See below] It is a truism in career development that you should only do one thing and do it well. You don’t want to pursue multiple business endeavors—that would scatter your energy. Offer a consistent image to the world. Focus.

When I moved back to Cambridge for my sabbatical at MIT, where I earned a doctorate in engineering a decade ago, I thought I knew what to expect. The revitalization of Kendall Square, the Innovation District in South Boston, the new MBTA stop in Somerville, pharmaceutical companies building their new headquarters within walking distance of the Charles River, Google opening an office nearby: I was aware of all these. They were aligned with Greater Boston’s brand as an innovation hub in science and engineering. Left-brain innovation, I call it. For me, that was Greater Boston’s One Thing.

But I was most struck, after I came back, by the amount of right-brain innovation going on—new arts-related offerings that customers pay for. (It is not innovation if it doesn’t have marketplace value.) Everybody knows Boston’s reputation in science, technology, and engineering. But an innovative mindset is sustained by right-brain activities: spend an hour at the museum or two in a theater and view the world differently, especially if the cultural offerings are on the cutting edge. Of course, Boston has all the events that residents count on in a metropolis: open artists’ studios on First Fridays, a book festival every October, a film festival, a jazz festival, community programs at local museums, authors’ events at indie bookstores, and so on. Every large city with any hope to attract the educated, however, does the same. I like to think that Boston is more successful at it—I’ll argue that the Boston events involve writers and artists of a caliber rarely seen elsewhere—but those events alone don’t make Boston special. What does is the role of new works in the city’s cultural scene, and what they mean about Boston’s identity.

Boston Ballet has just premiered a new Swan Lake. Guerilla Opera has dedicated itself to commissioning new chamber operas since 2007. Boston’s edge is particularly obvious in theater, whether mainstream or experimental. In the heavyweight category, A.R.T. has developed a reputation at the vanguard with productions that later transferred to Broadway to great acclaim. The importance of fringe theater in Boston, though, is what makes the city stand out culture- and innovation-wise. Dozens of small theaters, from Company One to the Zeitgeist Stage Company to Fresh Ink, present brand-new work to small audiences at affordable prices—“theater startups,” the rightful counterpart to technology startups on the Boston scene.

That, for me, is the “sleeper story” in Boston, the hidden facet of the innovation landscape: artistic initiatives that are about more than providing entertainment but also make novel contributions to the stage. Theater and performing arts in general are also part of Boston’s One Thing. Experimental theater and tech startups both express facets of early-stage innovation. They have a lot in common: opportunities identified where others saw nothing, nimble casts of players, strong appeal for the many local students in Cambridge, Boston, and beyond, fresh ideas as works in progress, small audiences of early adopters, a vision for something new, and a belief that some people out there will care for it.

Not every idea succeeds: some startups fail, some plays are best forgotten. But it is by repeatedly trying out ideas quickly (whether pushing out new software releases or workshopping three-act dramas) that innovators of all stripes create works that will withstand the test of time. The staging of new plays—whether at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts or at the OBERON in Harvard Square—is thus very much aligned with Greater Boston’s brand as a hotbed of entrepreneurship and innovation. It is more than a “nice-to-have” addition to the long list of things to do in the city. It is another expression of Boston’s innovative spirit, part and parcel of Boston’s innovation landscape, a key element of its unique identity.

Aurélie Thiele is a Visiting Associate Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and an Associate Professor at Lehigh University. She is at work on a book about higher education and innovation, and enjoys looking at the Boston area with fresh eyes after a decade-long absence. Follow @aureliethiele

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One response to “Greater Boston’s One Thing”

  1. Bill Ghormley says:

    Agreed! We love the Speakeasy Stage Company in the South End — definitely out on the edge — great stuff!!