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Help Wanted: Leaders for the 21st Century


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SERIOUS interruptions in global oil supplies imperiling energy-dependent New England. Global warming that raises the sea levels. A terrorist attack -- perhaps biologic agents employed against the Boston region's world-famed universities. Federal politics or budget squeezes triggering sharp shrinkage of the billions of dollars of research grants that fuel Greater Boston's biotech preeminence.

As scary as those scenarios sound, they're entirely plausible. But is the Boston region resilient enough to cope with any of them?

It ought to be. Seen from the outside, the region has amazing strategic resources at its command: Depth and variety of intellectual power rival few places on the planet. Amazing laboratory-to-product breakthroughs. Established financial power. A world-renowned collection of universities, colleges, health institutions, and laboratories.

For a dawning century of the intellect, what better strengths could a region enjoy?

Greater Boston's advantages are in fact so enormous that it might even rest on its laurels, and with a little luck, stumble past most early 21st century challenges.

The problem is that stumblers don't build muscle tone and easily miss big opportunities. Which would be a tragic error for Greater Boston. Why? Because this region has such immense resources. If it mobilizes them, if it moves vigorously to deal with its critical challenges, it can become one of the most rewarding places on Earth to live, learn, and prosper in the 21st century.

But it's not there now.

Take the region's social chasms, its highly paid educated elite distancing themselves geographically and economically from working classes, many heavily immigrant, that are barely scraping by in poor neighborhoods and threadbare old mill towns. This ominous divergence evokes deep ironies in a region that literally gave birth to American ideals of shared democratic rights across lines of birth and class.

What institution, by its public service mission and sheer magnitude, should be addressing that issue? We'd nominate Boston's world-renowned collection of colleges and universities and hospitals, repositories of global knowledge, now the region's largest employers. But they continue to float blithely in their archipelago of advanced thought, generally resisting suggestions that they focus their immense skills on how to assure a cohesive, equitable civil society in their home region.

Alarmingly, a single crisis is already poised to have devastating impact on the region: soaring house prices and America's highest rental costs. Starter apartment rents are too steep for many technicians and nurses, and housing sticker shock is now rattling even highly professional or MD levels -- people critical to building and maintaining a strong economy. There's peril of severe labor shortages when the regional economy hits full tilt again.

As if that weren't serious enough, the region's very birthright -- its wondrous New England town and countryscape -- is in a state of serial sacrifice to the gods of subdivision building. How incongruous -- at the very moment the notion of real town centers and walkable neighborhoods is catching hold around the country, the vast majority of new developments in the Boston orbit reflect characterless, cookie-cutter generica.

If housing costs are out of sight, if healthcare, tuitions, energy, and auto insurance all price above the American norm, and if the Boston region starts to look and feel like Anywhere USA, then why shouldn't today's creative but footloose professionals -- the talent pool for any strong region -- start to ask, why live here?

A related dilemma: Massachusetts's town-by-town home rule laws mix perversely with meddlesome state regulations to induce towns to "just say no" to new in-town units, notwithstanding a roaring regional need for more housing, especially affordable housing. A constellation of organizations -- civic, advocacy, foundation, academic -- have recognized the crisis. Since 2003, Governor Mitt Romney's administration has been seeking to push production and induce towns to loosen restrictive zoning.

But why, as the crisis mounted in the '90s, didn't Greater Boston's real heavy-hitters -- the top business employers, the universities and hospitals -- raise a ruckus over the peril to their worker supply? Last year, after a Commonwealth Housing Task Force produced an ingenious plan of "smart growth overlay districts" in or near town centers and transit stops, the Legislature did agree. But there was scarcely a public murmur when lawmakers stripped out a key incentive -- state funds to help towns cover added school costs incurred by new housing.

Why this Boston complacency, caving in to political checkmate, lack of alarm about real dangers? Perhaps it's the Bostonian attitude of assumed superiority, reflected from corporate and university board rooms to political circles.

The gap was dramatized for us meeting on Beacon Hill with a group of the Boston area's top city and town leaders. Out the window one could see the heart of historic Boston -- a treasure and modern economic powerhouse, yet for terrorist plotters, a tantalizing target. But when we asked the officials if they had turned for counsel on homeland security to the nationally known experts at Harvard, MIT, or the other famed local universities, their rather amazing answer was "no."

We found it startling that few of the hundreds of Boston-area leaders we interviewed expressed concern about lean and hungry competing citistates -- from Charlotte to Seattle, Atlanta to Austin, Barcelona to Berlin. We cover US regions regularly; with the exception of the Greater Boston Chamber's city-to-city leadership trips, we never encountered an area so disinterested in learning about other regions' best practices, either in economic development or civic-business partnerships.

On the one hand the Boston region is a virtual hotbed of experiments and small-scale innovations. But it seems extraordinarily risk-averse, poor at pulling off major, system-wide changes.

Boston's leadership structure is "fragmented, exclusionary, and adversarial," its business, hospital, and academic sectors too often isolated in their own "silos," James and Linda Howell of the Howell Group and Peter Karoff of the Philanthropic Initiative concluded on the basis of dozens of interviews with system insiders in 2003.

Or as the Rev. Ray Hammond told us: "We've made a lot of progress in Boston, but tribalism, parochialism, and aversion to cooperation still stop us from getting things done."

Can a few high-powered business leaders -- successors to Boston's fabled "Vault" that called the shots until 20 years ago -- rescue the situation? We doubt it. Corporations are diverted by fierce competition, national and global; the sellout of Boston trademark firms to national mega-firms continues. Leaders of local firms and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce can contribute.

But new Boston leadership needs to tap 21st century reality -- women and youth as well as male business leaders, the new immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe as well as leaders of ethnic and racial groups long entrenched in the region. Add to that the "intelligence sector" of academia and the region's multiple research and thought shops, the foundations, the remarkably skilled Boston consulting groups. All are too smart and resourceful to be left out of strategy-setting.

Let no one doubt, the real New Boston extends far beyond the city proper or established inner suburbs. Forward thinking needs to embrace leaders from the newer suburbs, spokespeople for the new Route 495 economies, and leaders of the Boston citistate's ring cities -- such as Worcester, Providence, Nashua, and Portland.

A resourceful, smart, successful 21st century Boston citistate community will rely less on the ideas of the few, however brilliant; rather it will look to the ideas of the many. To make the right new moves, it will cultivate a gene its civic DNA so often seems to lack: collaboration.

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Here's the housing formula and why we can't afford to live anywhere.

Cars are invented. They become cheaper thanks to assembly-line production.

It becomes easier to have "Personal Freedom" because you're no longer tied to mass transit. People moved out of the cities so as to escape the problems they didn't care to fix. People move to the sticks, McWalBucks follows (small businesses cannot afford to). More people follow. People who prize the isolation/safety they are losing move further into the sticks, McWalBucks follows. Sprawl ensues. People no longer live in walking distance to anywhere (not even public transit) and become chained to their cars. Transportation then becomes one of your largest expenses after shelter and maybe food (is transportation on the hierarchy of needs?). Cars use gas. Houses use gas or oil (same hole). Houses use more than apartment buildings per capita because of increased surface area thus increased heat loss. People have to drive further and further to get where they need to be. Around 300 million people use 65% of the world's resources. It gets expensive. They demand more pay. Things get more expensive to make due to higher pay (including houses). We are no longer competitive. Other countries that make things cheaper get to make our things for us. Jobs go to other places. So does our lifestyle. Now we have to compete for resources. It gets expensive. It stops being profitable to make affordable housing. Luxury housing gets made instead. Rich people that have gotten bored in the sticks get lured back in after making sure that the luxury housing has raised the local property taxes enough to force out poor people who can't afford it (because "Now it's safe") while other people continue to move outward. Poor people now NEED cars to get around as they get pushed out farther and farther.

Decentralization has been accomplished.

The community fabric is damaged enough to be taken over by the media (News, TV shows, radio,).

Americans are homogenized.

One culture is easier to dominate than a bunch.

Blah, blah, blah.

I could go on forever about this crap and bring up every possible negative from our obesity to how much easier a target we've made ourselves for the dreaded "1984" scenario we all like so much. I didn't even touch terrorism or race because we all know and it would have taken even more space but if I wanted to fill in the holes I'd have to write a book. If I wrote a book I would charge you for it and nobody would read it. The fact is this, our lifestyle is inefficient. Votes are counted in the register. If we all wanted change we would have bought it by now. The only goal we could hope to accomplish (I mean we the people, not we the wallet) in achievable government posts is to organize and try to guide people in a better direction. The rest is determined by the daily decisions of every citizen. If we all lived in the city and didn't need a car then we could all afford these outrageous rents but then it wouldn't be as expensive either. What would we do with all that extra money? Maybe then we'd be able to live up to the "Rich American" thing. Alas, I feel I may strayed from the topic but the point is that we're all suffering from the same illness. Just the symptoms are different. :mellow:

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Here's the follow up to that article, another goody.

GREATER Boston's assets, from its deep pools of talent and capital to the great center city and picturesque towns, are world renowned. So why rock the boat, spend time, money, or intellectual capital on risky new undertakings? We caught a whispered undertone in many interviews: "Aren't we already the `hub' of what counts?" But there's a fatal flaw in defensive strategy. Boston has seen its advantages wither before. If innovation is its critical resource, momentum should be its mantra.

We nominate three bold maneuvers:

Forge a new American healthcare system. Few places on earth compete with Greater Boston's distinguished constellation of teaching hospitals, schools of public health, and profusion of research-related clinics. A third of FDA-approved drugs originate with Boston-area corporations. In biosciences, Boston's lead over other regions is so wide that Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter confidently told us: This is "one lead we won't lose."

But there are risks. Expensive to run, teaching hospitals face growing crises in recruiting nurses and lab technicians in a high-cost local economy. Single-purpose private clinics are nipping at their heels. Massachusetts' extraordinary multi-billion dollar share of federal medical research outlays, already declining, may well become a political target.

Meanwhile, American healthcare is at a crisis point, its costs inflating wildly, unnecessary medical deaths at 100,000-plus a year, millions of Americans without health insurance. Hospitals are engaged in an arms race for advanced equipment and superior surgeons. Pharmaceutical firms are generating costs faster than cures. Inflating Medicaid costs are on a path to consume the entire Massachusetts state budget.

Are either Congress or state legislatures likely to solve the crisis? We think not. Some region of the country -- some citistate -- could lead the nation by redesigning today's dysfunctional system so that the quality of healthcare actually improves, costs stop their giddy escalation, and all citizens get basic care. Could Boston be that pioneer? We believe so.

The ingredients for a breakthrough may be at hand -- the systematic data collection efforts of the Massachusetts Health Quality Partners, models like the Longwood Medical Area's 19-institution collaborative, and the growing interest in radical system reinvention in the New England Health Care Institute.

But Boston's hospital administrators will have to squelch their historic turf wars and jealousies. The goal -- tough but not impossible -- must be a region-wide approach that stops medicalizing most conditions (got a problem, here's a surgery or a pill). Instead, the region's medical establishment has to shift course to make prevention techniques and smarter life styles a big part of its formula.

Sounds tough? Cracking the human genome did too. If any American region has the range and depth for 21st-century medical system reform, it's Boston.

Invest billions in transit. Lots of debate centers on stemming sprawl that devours the region's classic New England landscapes. But there's need for a vital, companion strategy: to "remagnetize" the region's array of cities, either grand today or potentially grand tomorrow -- Boston to Lowell, Somerville to Worcester, Lawrence to New Bedford to Providence. These are the communities where critical answers to the region's housing crisis will emerge. And they're where business increasingly needs to locate and relocate operations. More development along I-495 and beyond just feeds congestion, imperils water supplies, saps cities' strength. Let Nevada specialize in sprawl; let New England be itself, and rebuild on its grand urban tradition.

Commonwealth investment practices -- channeling money, skill, and ideas to the cities -- can do a lot to make this happen. Public transportation is critical -- improvements in a creaky and overextended MBTA on one hand, commuter rail improvements on the other. The Conservation Law Foundation is on the right track, we'd guess, in pressing the state to fund the MBTA extensions and rail service to T.F. Green Airport in Rhode Island it promised in 1990 as a condition for building the Big Dig.

But a bigger commitment is needed: to channel significant new capital into the MBTA, now operating beyond design capacity. The region needs to shake off its post-Big Dig exhaustion, the belief that one mega-project a century is sufficient. The proposed Urban Ring (emphasizing suburb-to-suburb travel) is a potential national model for adapting transit to the realities of modern commuting.

Would the Ring cost billions? Yes. Could the money be found? It's easy to say no, certainly to outright government appropriations. But how about tapping the minds and skills of the region's extraordinary set of super-economists, lawyers, and consulting firms?

For example: Several universities and major hospital complexes would be served by the ring's proposed line, touching Boston University's main campus, the Longwood Medical Area, Northeastern, BU's Medical Center, and -- depending on the precise route finally selected -- MIT, Harvard, and Tufts. Can these institutions contribute ideas or support? How about Harvard exercising leadership by offering a large bonding guarantee out of its endowment? What are creative financing possibilities that build on the value of MBTA-held lands near stations?

If the Boston region can't deploy its world-class set of legal and financial minds to solve these critical mobility problems, maybe throw in a measure of its fabled political acumen to get the strategic approvals, one fears for the region's future. Solutions aren't just optional: They're critical for the region's economy and viability.

It's worth noting that a successful Urban Ring would also be a godsend for such neighborhoods as Roxbury and Dorchester, and possibly later Chelsea and Everett, providing their low-income residents transit access to downtown, the hospitals, universities, and other job-rich locations.

Green up. Boston and all of New England are an energy Sahara, at the mercy of such places as Texas, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia.

So it's a good thing that Mayor Thomas Menino, Governor Mitt Romney, mayors and state legislators, the Green Roundtable, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, and others have warned publicly of the perils posed by global warming. Their collective call for conservation and "green," renewable alternatives could hardly be more timely.

The Romney administration is the first in the United States to include the impact of greenhouse gas in evaluating highway projects. Menino has an imaginative "green economy" initiative aimed at extended building life cycles, greater worker productivity and retention, even encouraging financiers to adapt real estate investment trusts to enable higher up-front outlays for green building features. World-class "green" buildings are sprouting in Boston and Cambridge.

But is it enough? Other states -- New York, Washington, and especially California -- are racing down the energy conservation track faster than Massachusetts. There's no sign of a big Boston area mobilization to tap the area's remarkable university and private lab brain power, its capital and legal skills, to elevate a renewable, green future from idealistic hope to on-the-ground reality.

Or, for that matter, in-the-sky reality. There's opposition on Cape Cod to the proposal for 130 massive wind turbines on Horseshoe Shoal off Nantucket. But the energy yield could be substantial. Think a few years ahead and those windmills' great turbines could be a symbol of collective will for sustainability in a new age.

Another argument for green energy: It promises to spread wealth and benefits in a refreshingly democratic way. Ask who benefits most from the region's highly touted biotechnology/pharmacology sector, and the answer is affluent scientists, physicians, corporate executives, and investors. But a truly green future would serve everyone -- energy security for all classes, career openings for scientists and high-tech workers, and real-life, on-the-ground jobs for building tradesmen at the construction sites. With a little luck, green construction and building retrofit may spell a century of blue collar jobs.

Fancy, high-cost, intellectual Boston needs that balance.

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