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The Top City in America for Social Innovation

Boston cityscape

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Published April 13, 2016 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Over time, certain cities across the U.S. have become well-known hubs for certain industries. Los Angeles is the capital of the entertainment industry. New York City, the focal point for finance and publishing. San Francisco, the center for tech companies and startups.

But which cities lead the social innovation sector?

Among a number of impressive cities across the nation, Boston is a frontrunner. Bloomberg recently named Massachusetts the most innovative state in the country, and as its state capital, Boston fosters an innovation ecosystem inhabited by world-renowned institutions, impact investors, science and tech corporations, and emerging social enterprises. It is even the home of the Collaborative, one of the largest showcases of social innovation from around the world.

Though hundreds of impact-focused organizations are taking root in Boston, what makes the city truly innovative is that its members work in tandem to advance social solutions. What results is a thriving community and culture centered around real, positive change.

We chatted with Justin Kang, Executive Director of City Awake, to find out what makes Boston such an innovative city, and why social impact organizations should keep a pulse on what’s brewing in the region.

Q: What makes Boston a leading city for social innovation?

Justin: Boston historically has been a hub for revolutionary ideas beginning with the American Revolutionary War and the country’s independence from the British Empire.

We were one of the first states to abolish slavery, the first to offer public education, the first state of gay marriage, the first to move toward universal healthcare. So historically, Boston has always been progressive in terms of moving the needle around social issues.

Now, that really represents the character of this state and the city. What makes it even more of a hub for social innovation is that we are also an innovative city.

We have all the characteristics of an innovation hub. We have major universities, we have the highest density of venture capitalists in the area, we have research centers. There’s a willing and supportive government.

“The combination of our innovation ecosystem with our historical commitment to social progress has really allowed us to become one of the leaders in social innovation.

This has been the case over the last 20 years specifically.

Q: Can you name some of the institutions and organizations spearheading social innovation in Boston?

Justin: This is the birthplace of National Service. City Year and Citizen Schools are a couple of programs that are considered as the pioneers of National Service. AmeriCorps was also founded here.

Boston is also home to venture philanthropy. New Profit, a nonprofit venture philanthropy fund, pioneered a model that essentially takes the best practices of venture capital but replicates it into the philanthropy world, and now it has become sort of a gold standard. Boston is also home to GreenLightFund and Draper Richards, two of the major venture philanthropy funds.

Then you have social impact bonds. It’s not surprising that two of the major financiers around social impact bonds, social finance, and Third Sector Capital Partners are based here.

We have three of the major nonprofit consulting firms based here: Bridgespan, FSG, and Root Cause.

So if you look down the list, Boston is the leader and pioneer across the entire spectrum of social innovation, whether it’s nonprofit innovation or social enterprises. We’re already a hub for innovation, but this generous mix also matches the character and the history of the city.

Q: How does the culture and the people of Boston help foster an atmosphere for social innovation?

Justin: It’s such a vibrant, increasingly inclusive ecosystem here. More recently, there have been dedicated efforts to really mature the ecosystem.

You have organizations like Social Innovation Forum recently spinning out of their parent organization and hiring more staff to support more social innovators. You have social venture partners hiring a new executive director to expand their brand giving, and so forth. You have large foundations like the Boston Foundation and the Barr Foundation really investing into the strength of these organizations.

And that’s what makes Boston such a great fit for Classy as well. Classy understands that if we make these organizations and nonprofits stronger, they’ll have increased impact.

For us, that’s why you’ll see many new programs and organizations really investing in organizational development and talent development. Funding for education and even policy advocacy for nonprofits in the area is increasing too. The last year and a half have been really exciting around these developments.

Q: How does the government impact this innovative culture?

Justin: One example is how Mayor Menino, the former mayor, helped create something called the Innovation District and really started to distribute this innovation economy. It was meant to focus not just on MIT, which is amazing, but across the entire city. So now you see startups popping not just around Kendall Square and MIT, but across the entire city from Roxbury to downtown.

A number of policies have been created to support this growth. For example, a full-time startup was hired in 2015 within the city of Boston to be the liaison to the startup community. That’s a pretty big investment that shows how the city wants to give these guys a clear voice with city government.

So the city and the state government are really just enthusiastic supporters of the overall innovation ecosystem.

Q: What are your favorite things about Boston that most people may not know or expect?

Justin: I think the thing about Boston is that oftentimes, we’re terrible branders. Even though Boston is such a well-rounded city, we’re not great self-promoters.

For example, people don’t recognize that we’re one of the sneaker capitals in the world. We are headquarters to Converse, New Balance, Reebok.

That’s just one industry. Again, what I always like to tell people is that Boston is such a well-rounded city. It’s a city that isn’t defined by one culture or one sector. There are very vibrant sectors across legal, real estate, healthcare, clean energy.

We try to be a leader in basically every industry, and the coolest thing is that each of these sectors is thinking, “How do we become more socially innovative?”

For example, one of the prestigious law firms here is creating a social innovation practice. There’s Bain Capital, which is this private equity firm that Mitt Romney founded. They’re creating an impact investing fund now. There’s Alliance Bernstein, which is a private wealth manager. They’re launching all sorts of impact investing now as well.

You’ll see that all of these different sectors are always ahead of their game, but now they’re also trying to become more community and purpose-driven. It’s really awesome to see not only the nonprofit sector here being so vibrant and committed to the community, but you’re seeing it across every sector.

It’s clear that organizations can look to Boston as a leader for emerging, progressive social solutions. They recognize the need to foster this culture in order to change the world in a lasting and powerful way, for the better. No matter where you are, you can research and engage with like-minded individuals and organizations in your community. Find out what resources and opportunities exist around you, and you can begin to get involved and foster a culture of collaboration and sharing across organizations.

Does your location influence the way you brainstorm, spearhead new ideas, and take your work to the next level? Comment below and let us know the innovative places you live in.

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