Boston’s innovation “secret sauce”: observations from the #JoinedUp Australia visit to the Boston innovation ecosystem

| Cathy Wissink

JoinedUp Boston

The idea hit the team late January this year. The first blizzard (of what would be many) had just struck, and the Civic Engagement team at Microsoft New England (MSNE) was hosting a colleague from sunny Australia. She had come to job shadow us, to see what ideas might be borrowed from the Boston innovation community. During her week here, we got a chance to introduce her to colleagues in local government, private sector and the startup space. The goal was to talk about innovation and what might be portable to Australia, which is grappling with pivoting their economy away from a dependency on natural resources and manufacturing, towards more innovation.

In spite of the bitter cold and increasing snow during her visit, our Australian colleague was inspired by the conversations she had here. There was an enthusiastic community in Boston, willing to share their insights. Could Microsoft find a way to bring together big thinkers from both the Boston and the Australian innovation communities to talk about innovation?

Seven months later, under significantly sunnier and warmer conditions, a 25-person group from Australian government, private sector and startups arrived in Boston to do just that. Under the joint auspices of Microsoft New England and Microsoft Australia, we convened a number of meetings to talk about the diverse facets of Boston innovation—the roles of government, urban planning, philanthropic organizations and place-making, as well as best practices like MassChallenge, CIC/Venture Café and District Hall. There were formal presentations, but also informal gatherings, tours and hands-on activities to fully immerse the group into the innovation space.

We got a chance to hear from the group about their key takeaways. Here’s what they observed:

  • Good innovation policy often means good urban planning. It’s important to think about the role of physical proximity, how it creates opportunities for face-to-face engagement, thus building trust that provides the glue for innovation.
  • There’s a sense of purpose to the work in Boston, where innovation is frequently aligned with social impact.
  • Cities appear to be the logical size when it comes to thinking about innovation places.
  • While there are large innovation initiatives, it’s good not to wait for a master plan, but rather, deliver smaller-scale innovation to help set tone and promote culture.
  • Innovation requires taking risks, and being comfortable that not every idea will lead to success.

Representing Boston as part of Microsoft New England, I was honored to be able to share such a rich ecosystem with key stakeholders from halfway around the world. Thank you to all of MSNE’s partners who came together to share their passion and insights in such a substantial fashion! I am grateful and humbled to work in a community of such generous and thoughtful people willing to contribute their time to foster international innovation.

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Cathy Wissink

Cathy embraces what others may tend to avoid. Kale? Loves it. Bugs? Enthralled by them. A cross country bike ride? No problem for Cathy. Solving some of society’s most critical issues by working with everyone from tech leaders to politicians to community leaders? Bring it on.