Massachusetts Institute of Technology, June 2015
Department of Urban Studies and Planning

Scholars and policymakers cite many important factors to explain why some cities are becoming new locations for entrepreneurship and innovation, but one generally has been overlooked:  quality of place and its relationship to new forms of production.  In the context of a knowledge-based economy, it appears that the value of urban environments is changing.  Jane Jacobs’s proclamation that “new ideas need old buildings” for economic purposes and for use diversity (Jacobs, 1961, 188) gets at part of the story, but it was made long before digital technology began to revolutionize the way we work and live.  This leads to my research question:  Do entrepreneurs associated with new industries prefer to locate in age diverse districts?  If so, why?

My general hypothesis is that historically diverse urban environments are important to entrepreneurs in 21st century industries because they possess a set of particular qualities that makes them knowledge-intensive and simultaneously provides conditions in which entrepreneurs can self-optimize.  Both are newly relevant in a network society (Castells, 1996).  To test this, I focused on understanding the location choices of entrepreneurs participating in information and communication technology (ICT) and the creative industries (CI) in situ in three historic maritime cities:  Venice, Amsterdam and Boston.  Using Boston (and including Cambridge) as a test case, I developed a statistical model to examine firm locations in relationship to building age diversity.  Accounting for centrality, I found that firms established in the last five years are disproportionately choosing districts with higher than average building age diversity and, even more notable, with higher than average counts of commercial and industrial buildings from the 1880-1935 time period.   

Data collected from interviews of entrepreneurs and other knowledge holders in all three case cities provides insight on how buildings and districts are utilized, concepts of entrepreneurial performance, and the nature of decision-making in the location choice of early stage firms.  I found that biophilic, flexible and sociable qualities of the built environment become more highly valued as entrepreneurial ecosystems become more competitive.  Even when producing disruptive technology, entrepreneurs persist as situated and social actors.