Will Cheaper Office Space in Kendall Square Drive Innovation?

Let's hope so—we need to justify those tall buildings somehow.

On Monday night, Cambridge approved some new zoning requirements for 26 acres of MIT property in Kendall Square. The big news is that the city approved a doubling in maximum height for buildings in the neighborhood, as well as approving hundreds of thousands of square feet of new residential, office, and academic spaces. All of that will go a long way toward increasing density and continuing the growth of the area as a major center for technology.

From an urban policy perspective, however, one of the more interesting ideas in the new zoning is the requirement that MIT keeps 5 percent of the new office space priced more affordable for new startups. As the Globe notes, if big companies like Google and Microsoft come in and take all the space, they’ll price out the tiny startups that got the whole community going in the first place. While the new requirement only applies to MIT, Cambridge is also considering expanding it to all new commercial space.

This is a pretty interesting approach to the problem of urban renewal and gentrification of neighborhoods. (One-sentence recap: Artists and quirky businesses are attracted by cheap rents to a struggling neighborhood; hipsters, coffee shops and bars come next; then young yuppie families and Starbucks as real estate prices soar; eventually, all the original residents are priced out). But while maintaining affordable housing in an area is pretty standard at this point, it’s never been done for businesses before.

While much of the attention is focused on not pricing out budding companies, Steve Marsh, of MIT, and Tim Rowe, of the Kendall Square Association, tell the Globe the real reason they want to keep some of the space cheaper: the “mix” and “hive mind” of businesses and ideas. 

This is a concept that’s becoming increasingly popular, due in large part to last year’s publication of “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” by Jon Gertner. In the book, Gertner explores Bell Labs phenomenal contributions to technology last century, including the transistor, silicon solar cell, the laser, communications satellites, cell phones, fiber-optic cables, and the programming languages Unix and C. How’d they do it? Here’s Gertner in the New York Times:

At Bell Labs, the man most responsible for the culture of creativity was Mervin Kelly… His fundamental belief was that an “institute of creative technology” like his own needed a “critical mass” of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr. Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing. Like an able concert hall conductor, he sought a harmony, and sometimes a tension, between scientific disciplines; between researchers and developers; and between soloists and groups.

That’s why Kendall Square is really maintaining the cheap office space. It also happens to be why new Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer made the controversial decision to do away with telecommuting and require everyone to come into the office. Everyone’s discovering that creating a physical environment where creativity and ideas can run rampant is essential to innovation.