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Voices: Conversation

Managing innovation

The BRA’s Nicole Fichera pushes South Boston’s new economy

BY: Paul McMorrow
Photographs By: Frank Curran
Issue: Summer 2013


You’re the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s Innovation District manager. What does that mean? The Innovation District lives in between planning and economic development. It’s really meant to be an urban lab for testing a lot of new ideas about how cities can develop, how people can live, how we can be more sustainable. My job in all of that is to build community, and to be there to support all the businesses moving into the area.

How do you define innovation? I think innovation is the process of bringing new ideas to market in a meaningful way. Those new ideas can’t just stay in the research lab. And you have to do it in a meaningful way—you can’t just sell to your mom. The Innovation District is open. It’s not sector-based, it’s not meant to cluster one kind of company or one scale of company. We recognize the mix is important.

What are some of the ideas you’re testing in this urban lab? When you think about housing or infrastructure that helps people better connect with one other, that’s an entirely new idea. It means housing with less private space and more shared amenities that help you connect with your neighbors. So instead of having a lobby with a desk and a security guard no one talks to, and a couch that nobody sits on, you create a really active public space. We’re exploring relationship infrastructure very deeply. That’s what we’re working on with District Hall [a new restaurant and meeting hall run by the Cambridge Innovation Center]. That building is really a public platform for gathering and networking the innovation economy together. It belongs to the community.

How does government make policy on something as open-ended as innovation? It’s a very ground-up approach. The mayor set out a vision for what this place could be. More than anything, it’s a call to action. It’s not so much about recruitment or sales. It’s an invitation to be part of something new.

Give me some examples of types of work happening in the district right now. It’s amazing! There are 100 companies coming out of MassChallenge every year. Rue La La is the biggest employer of fashion models in the city. There are nonprofit groups and education groups like Invest in Girls. We have people doing medical diagnostic kits. We have people making sunglasses you can use to take the cap off of your beer—it’s the ultimate bro-tool. We have everything from people revolutionizing the wind turbine industry, to people manufacturing chocolate for athletes, to people who are making toothpaste. I literally brush my teeth with Innovation District toothpaste.

Take me through your path from architecture school, to working for a hot architecture firm like Hacin and Associates, to becoming a bureaucrat. It’s not something I ever expected. I never thought I’d end up in government. Never. I went to architecture school at Northeastern, which has a strong public policy and urbanism focus. David Hacin gave me the opportunity to work on a lot of nontraditional things. I was designing environments for innovation and collaboration and creativity. I was on the design team for District Hall, I did offices for startups, but I was also thinking about environments that aren’t just physical—economic space, social space. I ended up, unwittingly, building this trajectory in making spaces for innovation and entrepreneurship to happen. Then I saw the job at the city, and I had to go for it.  

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