With a passion that he applied to so many causes – education, gay rights, the environment – Mayor Menino embraced innovation and change in the city of Boston.
While Menino famously eschewed some technology – he stopped using email during his last years in office – he was smart about cities, and understood that getting great minds together would be the key to Boston's success.
Back in the 1970s and 80s, the cluster of tech companies in the Route 128 belt were considered serious competition for Silicon Valley. But by the 1990s things had changed, and Silicon Valley opened up a real lead — thanks in part to their vibrant culture of idea-sharing, of co-working, and of easily moving from company to company.
Mayor Menino had a plan to fight back: make the Seaport area - which used to be a lot of parking lots and old brick buildings - into a hotbed of innovation, a place where ideas could be shared just as well as in the Valley.
Menino once spoke about the key to turning the ‘Innovation District’ into reality: “[The] most important part, we had entrepreneurs who really want to move forward. They’re very special people. They like to work together, share ideas, and one idea they use down in the Innovation District all the time is collaboration.”
There was also a focus on density as the foundation to incubating the next big thing. “All these little entrepreneurs, which someday they might be the Google there or the Facebook there – the possibilities are unlimited,” Menino said.
The mayor saw it as his responsibility to put out the ingredients for success – then watch his city reap the benefits. And it worked: the power that Boston wields in everything from biotech to robotics has soared in the last several years.
In 2009, Menino brought techies to Boston to run the Office of New Urban Mechanics, to improve the city through technology. One of its most famous feats: creating an app to find Boston potholes. It used the sensors in Boston residents' cell phones to track when their cars dipped into potholes. That information was then sent off to the city, so they'd know what potholes to fill.
A few years ago I talked with Nigel Jacob, from the Office of New Urban Mechanics, and he related what it was like having a bunch of young techies invading city hall. “There’s idea paint all over the walls, post-it notes everywhere; the mayor, every now and then comes in, takes a look, shakes his head and turns around.”
In some ways, Mayor Menino was at the forefront of a very significant trend - the rise of cities and the people who lead them. And that’s why I believe the man who was never at the forefront of technology in his own sphere, will be remembered as a very innovative mayor.