Book Review: Robert Buderi’s ‘Where Futures Converge’ chronicles the transformation of Kendall Square
IIf your travels take you to Boston, Massachusetts, take the T, the first subway system in the United States, built in 1897, to get around town and visit Cambridge. Get off at Kendall/MIT station on the Red Line; yes, it’s the stop for the Kendall business district and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the renowned engineering school. When you exit the subway, you find yourself walking through the neighborhood that has earned the title of “the most innovative square mile on the planet.”
Right away, you’ll see tall steel and glass buildings on Main Street. These are the labs and offices of tech titans, biotech companies, and pharmaceutical companies: Google, Akamai, Novartis, Microsoft, and Moderna, to name a few. Less than half a century ago, despite the presence of MIT and Harvard University, just two T-stops away, this same area was once a depressing expanse of shuttered factories, fenced vacant lots and parking areas. . What changed?
In Where Futures Converge, Kendall Square and the Creation of a Global Innovation Hub, Robert Buderi, a well-known business and technology writer, tells the story of the movers and shakers, decision makers and planners, and the places and events that shaped the region’s knowledge economy. It offers a fascinating account of the history of innovation in Kendall Square, which sits at the confluence of world-class research institutes, universities and hospitals, all within walking distance of each other.
An ecosystem like this cannot be easily replicated elsewhere, but Buderi asks relevant questions: can this area continue to maintain its ascendancy as a global innovation hub? Can this economy better integrate minorities into the process of wealth creation? And the billion dollar question, what will be the next big thing?
Kendall Square is home to the first long-distance telephone, the Polaroid camera, MIT’s Radiation Laboratory, which helped the Allies win World War II. In the 1980s, Kendall had AI-based startups, but they quickly died, and AI Alley disappeared without a trace. The dot.com era came after. But Cambridge’s finest hour was when biotechnology first appeared on the scene.
Let’s go back briefly to the summer of 1976 to understand how it all began. The local newspaper had published an article about Harvard University’s plan to build a genetic engineering lab that would use recombinant DNA technology, which people knew very little about at the time. Intransigent Mayor Al Vellucci called for a hearing at City Hall. The audience came out waving signs, one of which read, “No recombination without performance,” in remembrance of the Boston Tea Party, that famous episode in history.
Scientists on both sides of the debate—yes, there were dissenters among them, too—explained the emerging technology and answered questions about potential biohazards and associated dangers. A citizens’ review committee, which included a nurse and a nun, was formed to oversee the case. This small group of non-scientists visited labs at Harvard and MIT to gather information. In early 1977, the group recommended approving recombinant DNA research within the city limits, a first in the world. The review board developed concise guidelines that gave universities and future businesses a clear set of rules to follow.
When Swiss biotech company Biogen opened a lab in the city in 1982, Mayor Vellucci showed up for the grand opening. Philip Sharp, who had hosted the Citizens’ Committee at MIT, was a co-founder of Biogen and went on to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine. Like him, other top researchers from MIT and Harvard would become the founders of the faculty, helping translate cutting-edge research into products, one of the main reasons Kendall Square is to life sciences what ‘Hollywood is in the movies.
Among the founders of the faculty, Professor Robert Langer of MIT, whose prodigious research results earned him the nickname “Edison of Medicine”, stands out. He founded his first company in 1987, and by 2021 that list had grown to more than 40. One of the reasons for the success of start-ups in the region, Prof Langer said, was the fact that young researchers , well-trained students and postdocs, wanted to turn their efforts in the labs into a larger reality. Of the companies he founded, some like Moderna remain in Kendall, while others like Living Proof, for which actress Jennifer Aniston served as spokesperson, moved after being acquired.
From the internet business world, one 1990s startup that still stands proudly in Kendall is Akamai (Hawaiian for smart or intelligent). Its founders, MIT professor Tom Leighton and his student Daniel Lewin, a former Israel Defense Forces officer, tackled the burgeoning internet congestion problem. They managed to solve the bottleneck problem and took their high-tech company public. (Lewin, unfortunately, was on the first plane from Boston to Los Angeles that flew into the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attack.)
Buderi also writes about the new spaces that have made Kendall a productive place. In 1999, a coworking space for internet start-ups organically sprang up in the area. The Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) was mainly inspired by the nightclub featured in the film casablanca. Like the owner of Cafe Americain, played by Humphrey Bogart, Tim Rowe, the co-founder of CIC, hoped to facilitate connections and help close deals.
bump and meet
More realistically, the CIC was designed so that beginning entrepreneurs could “bump and connect” with their peers and gain knowledge that would help them succeed in the business world. CIC, in turn, inspired the creation of Lab Central in Kendall, which provides a network of labs and shared workspaces for biotechnology and life science companies. Not having to worry about access to equipment or day-to-day operations allows researchers to focus on science, making these places vital to the innovation economy.
Despite these informal workspaces, there is still room in the square for beloved spaces where people of all kinds, including scientists, construction workers and local politicians, can come to eat and chat. The F&T restaurant, which closed in 1986 to make way for the Kendall T station, was one such place. Rainier Weiss, a Nobel laureate in physics who went there as both a student and a professor, remembers that the audience favorite at MIT was the round table where five or six people could squeeze in. “Scientists love to write things down,” he said. If they filled in the back of the paper placemat, they could go to the bar and grab a few more. “A lot of ideas have come to this place.”
There are still plenty of lively cafes and bars in the area. Sit down with a drink – perhaps you’re at the same table as professor-entrepreneurs, venture capitalists or graduate students – and feel the energy surrounding you. Conversations flow quickly and quickly. Eavesdropping is unavoidable as these places are small and crowded at peak times. Fortunately, scientists don’t always speak in jargon. If you are lucky, you can listen to the buzz and discover innovations and ideas that have not yet been presented in the media.
So what will Kendall Square’s next tech iteration be? In nature, thriving ecosystems continue to evolve and grow, giving rise to new species and adapting to changing conditions. Innovative ecosystems evolve, the author points out, mainly through the convergence of existing technologies or scientific disciplines, which inspires ideas and sometimes new fields.
Buderi spoke to a range of leaders in various fields to give us an idea of what could drive Kendall’s economy in a quarter century. Many talk about a convergence of AI, healthcare and biology, but some also envision non-biotech scenarios. Two centuries ago, Kendall Square was home to soap factories, rubber makers, forges, tanneries, confectioneries and printing works, and today the square is a hive of other types of industries.
The future of Kendall Square is once again full of possibilities. Now is a good time to pick up this informative and lovingly written book.
Vijaysree Venkatraman is a Boston-based science journalist.