Five Elevator Pitches for Bringing Amazon to Boston
How some of the city’s brightest design and development experts would sell Jeff Bezos on Boston.
Amazon fever has swept the country. Earlier this month, Jeff Bezos announced that the company will invest $5 billion into a second headquarters, dubbed HQ2, which will eventually be home to 50,000 well-paid employees. The announcement sent city halls across the country into a tizzy. From Denver to Pittsburgh, mayors and governors are pining after Amazon and busy hammering out proposals chock full of tax incentives and humblebrags.
Boston, of course, is the obvious choice in our eyes. There might be a few hurdles, though, including Amazon’s desire for 8 million square feet of real estate, or as the Boston Globe reported, a plot 20 times the size of GE’s future digs in Fort Point. So we reached out to a handful of design and development experts. The question: What would be your elevator pitch in terms of a design solution to Bezos? Is it feasible? And what points would you hit on in selling Bezos on Amazon? Some wrote letters to Bezos, while others poked a hole in Amazon’s grand ambitions. Everyone agreed, though, that there’s no better fit than Boston.
Jesse M. Keenan
Lecturer of Architecture and Urban Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Design
Elevator Pitch: Your existing business model is not sustainable and is predicated on weak anti-trust enforcement and cheap fossil fuels for your logistics. Is a central campus necessary to achieve your management goals and to foster product and service innovation? Maybe. Are bots and robots going to displace most of your casual work force? Yes.
Therefore, you need to invest in a central location where you can attract and retain talent. The Boston metro area has the capacity to handle the housing life cycles of your employees and it offers a very high quality of life along the way. More importantly, it is a hub for talent and ideas. This you already know. What you may not know is that Boston has a robust manufacturing capacity and a robust infrastructure system (i.e., intellectual, financial, physical) for translating ideas into material products and services. No matter what you design for a headquarters (HQ), it will be obsolete the day that you open it.
The challenge is to find a city with a diverse population and infrastructure base that gives you the flexibility to promote the adaptive capacity of your firm and of your HQ. The greater diversity you have in people, places and things, the great genetic variation you have in adapting your business models in an ever-changing world. Why have stale mass-produced bleached bread in Denver when you can have a fresh local scone, steamed bun, bolillos, or soda bread in Boston?
Chairman and CEO, Suffolk
We’ve all heard about Amazon’s criteria for its new headquarters, including tax incentives, infrastructure, and access to airports and public transportation—Boston can confidently check all those boxes. And for those who question whether Boston has the land for a building this size, I would argue there are plenty of creative development opportunities in and around the city that could accommodate a new Amazon Headquarters, including possibly the Seaport District and Newmarket areas.
But in the end, I’m sure Jeff knows that a critical decision like this cannot be made based on taxes, transportation or square footage alone. This decision has to be about people. He understands talent drives the world of technology and innovation. And it just so happens Boston is the home of world-renowned colleges and universities that provide a steady flow of young, creative, and vibrant talent that is revolutionizing the workplace, breathing new life into our businesses and communities, and spreading game-changing ideas that are improving our quality of life. Our world is changing, and the city of Boston is leading that change through the development of the greatest and most talented workforce in history. So I would encourage Jeff to visit Boston again, not just to scope out locations for his new building, but to meet with the young people attending and graduating from our unrivaled higher ed institutions. I think he’ll find a group of young people who are thinking bigger than ever today and have ambitious plans for tomorrow. And he may just get a glimpse of his future workforce at Amazon.
Principal, Elkus Manfredi Architects
The design solution for Amazon’s HQ2 has to be about talent, innovation, and culture.
Your number one business challenge is attracting enough talent to sustain Amazon’s growth, and that’s going to involve a lot more than beautiful buildings. Before you get excited by master plans or cool architecture or tax breaks, consider that the big question is not about designing buildings—it’s about designing an employee experience. That’s not only feasible, it’s essential.
You built Amazon into an innovation machine, and you need to locate HQ2 in a place where open innovation, design thinking, and entrepreneurial energy thrive. Think about the creative collisions among your people that resulted in Amazon’s gallery of disruptive products and services.
I envision your new HQ as the opposite of a gated community. Whatever city you’re in, the alchemy will come from being part of an open community of restless, entrepreneurial people inside and outside Amazon—trailblazers who are trying to solve the world’s problems. The design solution should be a network of bold spaces embedded directly into that vibrant community. That’s what creates open innovation.
Sure, Amazon employees will want amenities like world-class colleges, restaurants, and recreation. But there’s another critical consideration. The knowledge workers you seek value culture as much as money, so choose a cultural magnet city. It must be cosmopolitan, inclusive, and progressive in the best sense of those words.
Jeff, choose a home for HQ2 where Amazon’s workforce is networked into a community of talent, innovation, and culture. Everything else is secondary.
Director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy
Potential competitors for a new headquarters share important characteristics: a critical mass of residents available for varied employment, strong job growth, a deep and well-educated talent pool, available real estate in vacant and readily developable sites, experience in investing in public/private entrepreneurship, a solid transportation infrastructure, and an attractive quality of life.
Boston adds four key factors that make it special. We have multiple private and public universities that compete and collaborate in developing different ways of designing and delivering new products and services—no single brand of innovation dominates. Our transportation system facilitates supply chain management and encompasses several regional airports, roads, rail, maritime with a deep port, and local transit systems for people and products, with direct links to all parts of the globe. We continue to be welcoming to diverse people and ideas, and to global talent and investment resources. And we are embarking on the implementation of the most rigorously self-analytical and comprehensive strategic plan in America, Imagine Boston 2030, that encompasses housing and new neighborhood development, culture and art, demographic diversity and a culture of inclusion, real estate incentives, public education and job growth, and a vision of what the city should be as measured substantively, and what the quality of life should feel like spiritually, as of the time Amazon’s development process is underway.
Senior Designer and Strategist, Gensler
Dear Jeff Bezos,
In our technologically-driven day and age, one could argue that those attitudes which cling stubbornly to the vestiges of the past may, at best, be walking towards obsolescence. And this mindset, at worst (as current headlines prove) can be dangerous and harmful.
Amazon epitomizes this notion of a progressive force, not to be taken lightly. Failures are, and should be disposable. Kindle Fire Phone, one of the company’s most epic fails—Mr. Bezos, cut ties with it and moved on, profits be damned.
Nevertheless: In considering the locale for a new epicenter for Amazon, I would argue that we look past the obvious acronym-ical strengths (MIT) and weaknesses (MBTA) of my city, and take a deep, lingering gaze to our past to see what Boston can truly offer.
Our city has an ethos that, I would argue, is deeper and far more complex than most, and could potentially swing this reality-show-style competition in Boston’s favor. And that ethos is something which comes intricately tied to our past.
In fact, not just our past, but our origin.
Our John Winthrop once famously stated, “We shall be as a city built upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
Sometimes, we may lose sight of this origin, with our networked hub of best-in-class research institutions, plethora of brilliant minds (from young to old, academic to political), and relatively new-found confidence (sports curses seem so pre-2004). But that ethos is the undercurrent coursing through everything we do.
So come hitch a ride if you wish, Mr. Bezos. You won’t regret it. We, Boston, as a city, will lead forward in either case, and be that Beacon on the Hill (ver 2.0?).