FutureBOSTON Project Invites Open Dialogue Regarding City

With world-class universities, innovative young companies, and a vibrant arts community, Boston is no slouch at attracting talent. But FutureBOSTON, an urban development project and competition organized by MIT, insists that the city can — and must — do better.

“Cities around the world are catching up fast,” the project Web site warns. “They’re more livable, more affordable, easier to get around, and faster at getting things done.”

Thomas J. Piper, FutureBOSTON executive director and principal research scientist at MIT’s Department of Urban Planning, said, “People are moving to cities like Portland without a job [lined up]; people are moving to Boston to get an education to move to Portland. We want to keep them here.”

To keep Boston competitive in an economy where talent is increasingly mobile — and fickle — FutureBOSTON targets the city’s health care infrastructure, civic design, and energy practices, areas that Piper says are of chief concern to the modern city. Using an online social networking application written by researchers at MIT, the project will invite open dialogue between all Bostonians about the city’s future, making public the sort of planning previously restricted to closed committees of academics, politicians, and businesspeople.

“We’re asking the beehive, as opposed to telling the beehive what to do,” Piper said.

At the heart of FutureBOSTON are three online competitions developing proposals for improving health, design, and sustainability in the city. Participants will be mentored by experts in the field and winners chosen from each category will further develop their ideas with the help of MIT’s Department of Urban Planning and Sloan School’s Entrepreneurship Center.

“Honest to God, it is a revolution,” Piper said. “We want to extend the MIT culture of innovation way beyond these walls.”

To stimulate dialogue for the project, WCVB-TV5 in partnership with MIT is airing four half-hour television specials to examine cities from which Boston can learn. This week, Vancouver was showcased as an one of the most livable cities in the world. Seoul and Beijing will be featured next. The programs air at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays this month on MIT Cable channel 25.

Next May, MIT will hold a televised conference where all submitted ideas will be synthesized and presented by a panel of national experts including former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Yung Ho Chang, head of the MIT Department of Architecture.

FutureBOSTON follows a decades-long MIT tradition of promoting discussion about Boston’s urban planning. Previous conferences, held approximately once every five years, have examined topics such as waterfront development and the use of the land above the Central Artery. Out of these talks grew plans that shaped and continue to shape Boston — the Boston Civic Design Review Commission, plans for the new Urban Ring connecting Boston neighborhoods, and plans for the Rose Kennedy Conservancy Greenway. “These projects really work,” Piper said. “We changed the face of the city.”

Piper said that FutureBOSTON plans to have these conferences and competitions once a year from now on.

But FutureBOSTON is also a departure from those talks, which typically involved city officials and business leaders in partnership with researchers from MIT. In contrast, FutureBOSTON takes the discussion online, inviting all residents to input ideas. It’s the first urban planning project to pose the questions directly to the public.

“[FutureBOSTON] is not a substitute for leadership,” Piper said. “But great ideas don’t come from leadership. They come from the tsunami of talent that arrives at our shores every fall.”

Piper said he hopes the project will bring out ideas that would have otherwise gone unheard, since he knows the talent is out there.

“This has never been done before,” Piper said. “But what better place to try it out than in Boston?”

More information about the FutureBOSTON initiative can be found at futureboston/.