“Innovation districts can address the world’s greatest challenges”

Beth O'Neill Maloney, Executive Director at Kendall Square Association, is one of the speakers at the summit Navigating the Future of Innovation Districts. Here, she explains the secret sauce of innovation success and the future challenges Kendall Square faces.

What is the Kendall Square Association?

– In 2008, a group of purpose-driven leaders from across Kendall Square came together to found the nonprofit Kendall Square Association (KSA). 

At that time, sixteen years ago, Kendall Square was a developing innovation ecosystem in Cambridge, a city of seven square miles, across the Charles River from Boston. Home to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a growing number of life science and technology companies, research institutions, and a handful of restaurants, Kendall Square attracted people committed to improving the human condition.

– KSA’s founders believed that they could do more to solve the world’s greatest challenges working together than working alone. That is still true today.

Now, in 2024 KSA has more than 150 members and is led by a Board of Directors who represent everyone in Kendall Square from academia, developers, funders, incubators, industry, nonprofits, research institutions, restaurants, startups, and more. KSA plays several key roles in sustaining the Kendall Square ecosystem.

  • KSA connects the people and organizations committed to improving the human condition.
  • KSA convenes the community on programming that matters.
  • KSA amplifies the community’s work building a better future for all.
  • KSA promotes Kendall Square and the work happening here, locally, regionally, and globally.
  • KSA collaborates, and advocates for Kendall Square to tackle challenges and to win the opportunities of today and tomorrow together as a global innovation center.

Kendall Square has been very successful in innovation, what is your secret sauce?

– Kendall Square’s legacy of innovation shaped our present, and hints at our future.

Four hundred years ago Kendall Square was little more than marshland across the Charles River from Boston. The marshes were filled, and the area became a port. In 1794, Boston and Cambridge were connected by a bridge and Kendall Square grew into a hotbed of industrial innovation–making flexible rubber hoses, train cars, and bike tires. In 1916, MIT moved to Kendall Square. Industry shifted to the production of soap and candy, and then radar, microwaves, the Apollo space project, cameras, planes, missiles, and technology including Lotus 123.

– Today, Kendall Square shines brightly across the globe earning the moniker, “the most innovative square mile on the planet” thanks to the concentration of 101 Nobel laureates here, 10% of the total ever awarded. Kendall Square has a long history of innovation, reinvention, and a relentless commitment to improving the human condition through science and innovation. There are a number of factors that, combined, could constitute our “special sauce.” Kendall Square has the essential qualities of an innovation district–density, diversity of industry, commitment to inclusion and belonging, culture, key stakeholders, leadership in sustainability, respect for legacy, a sense of place, and shared values.

– Kendall Square’s special sauce may lie in its willingness and ability to evolve, to collaborate, and to commercialize new technology and innovation.

In 1977, when many communities questioned the safety of the then-new field of recombinant DNA research, Cambridge responded by studying the topic and developing regulations to permit research in the field igniting the growth of biotech in Kendall Square. In 2012, as Kendall Square grew, leaders collaborated with local government to ensure space for startups.

– Every day the people and organizations in Kendall Square fuse academic knowledge with practical purpose, commercializing innovation to improve the human condition.

Being a mature innovation district, what challenges do you see in the future for Kendall Square?

– Kendall Square, like innovation districts around the globe, faces challenges arising out of new post-pandemic work patterns, rising pressure on transportation, the need for more housing, and global competition. As a 16-year old innovation district, we may be deemed mature, but we feel young. We are committed to our shared goals of improving the human condition and to addressing today’s challenges with creativity, flexibility, and collaboration.

– We see a future filled with opportunities for new technologies, new funding sources, and new talent. We are deploying KSA task forces with leadership from our Emerging Leaders Board members to help us navigate the future.

You will attend as a speaker at the summit Navigating the Future of Innovation Districts, what are your expectations of the conference?

– Innovation districts have the potential to solve, or at least address, the world’s greatest challenges. The ability to solve the world’s most pressing problems is grounded in collaboration. Collaboration drives science and innovation.

– I expect the conference will be a unique opportunity to collaborate with people and organizations from around the world who are united in their commitment to solving global challenges to human health.

– I hope the story of Kendall Square inspires others. I look forward to being inspired by others as we discuss the potential of innovation districts to address the present and future global challenges to the human condition.


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