Kendall Square’s community took a deep dive into the history and future of the region at the Kendall Square Association’s 15th annual meeting on Oct. 19.
It’s no secret that Kendall Square, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, moves fast. The event, titled “Looking Back, Looking Ahead,” gave community members a chance to pause and reflect on how far the region has come and to discuss efforts to shape where it’s going next.
“The impact of the last 15 years of working together with a purposeful commitment to make the world a better place was on display this evening,” KSA Executive Director Beth O’Neill Maloney told the audience toward the end of the evening. “It also shows how Kendall Square can continue contributing to the world.”
The gathering took place at the Microsoft NERD Center on Memorial Drive, on a floor that also featured music from the Kendall Square Orchestra and, judging by the piles of empty trays at the end of the night, an exceedingly popular selection of food from Kendall Square restaurants. Attendees came from across Cambridge’s prolific innovation ecosystem — not just entrepreneurs and life science workers but also high school and college students, restaurant and retail shop owners, workers at local cleantech and robotics companies, and leaders of nonprofits.
KSA itself is a nonprofit made up of over 150 organizations across Kendall Square, from major companies to universities like MIT to research organizations like the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the independent shops and restaurants that give Kendall Square its distinct character.
The night’s programming included talks about recent funding achievements in the region, a panel discussion on the implications of artificial intelligence, and a highly entertaining, whirlwind history lesson led by Daniel Berger-Jones of Cambridge Historical Tours.
“Our vision for the state is to be the best, and Kendall really represents that,” said Yvonne Hao, Massachusetts secretary of economic development. “When I went to DC to talk to folks about why Massachusetts should win some of these grants, they said, ‘You already have Kendall, that’s what we’re trying to get the whole country to be like!’”
Hao started her talk by noting her personal connection to Kendall Square. She moved to Cambridge with her family in 2010 and has watched the neighborhood transform, with her kids frequenting the old and new restaurants and shops around town.
The crux of Hao’s talk was to remind attendees they had more to celebrate than KSA’s anniversary. Massachusetts was recently named the recipient of two major federal grants that will fuel the state’s innovation work. One of those grants, from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), designated the state an “Investor Catalyst Hub” to accelerate innovation around health care. The other, which came through the federal CHIPS and Science Act, will allow the state to establish the Northeast Microelectronics Coalition Hub to advance microelectronics jobs, workforce training opportunities, and investment in the region’s advanced manufacturing.
Hao recalled making the pitch for the grants, which could collectively amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in funding over time.
“The pitch happened in Kendall Square because Kendall highlights everything magical about Massachusetts — we have our universities, MIT, we have our research institutions, nonprofits, small businesses, and great community members,” Hao said. “We were hoping for good weather because we wanted to walk with government officials, because when you walk around Kendall, you see the art, you see the coffee shops, you see the people bumping into each other and talking, and you see why it’s so important that this one square mile of geography become the hub they were looking for.”
Hao is also part of work to put together the state’s newest economic development plan. She said the group’s tier one priorities are transportation and housing, but listed a number of other areas where she hopes Massachusetts can improve.
“We can be an amazing, strong economy that’s mission-driven and innovation-driven with all kinds of jobs for all kinds of people, and at the same time an awesome community that loves each other and has great food and small businesses and looks out for each other, that looks diverse just like this room,” Hao said. “That’s the story we want to tell.”
After the historical tour and the debut of a video explaining the origins of the KSA, attendees fast-forwarded into the future with a panel discussion on the impact and implications of generative AI.
“I think the paradigm shift we’re seeing with generative AI is going to be as transformative as the internet, perhaps even more so because the pace of adoption is much faster now,” said Microsoft’s Soundar Srinivasan.
The panel also featured Jennat Jounaidi, a student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and member of Innovators for Purpose, a nonprofit that seeks to empower young people from historically marginalized groups to become innovators.
“I’m interested to see how generative AI shapes my upbringing as well as the lives of future generations, and I think it’s a pivotal moment to decide how we can best develop and incorporate AI into all of our lives,” Jounaidi said.
Panelists noted that today’s concerns around AI are important, such as its potential to perpetuate inequality and amplify misinformation. But they also discussed the technology’s potential to drive advances in areas like sustainability and health care.
“I came to Kendall Square to do my PhD in AI at MIT back when the internet was called the ARPA-Net… so a while ago,” said Jeremy Wertheimer SM ’89, PhD ’96. “One of the dreams I had back then was to create a program to read all biology papers. We’re not quite there yet, but I think we’re on the cusp, and it’s very exciting.
Above all else, the panelists characterized AI as an opportunity. Despite all that’s been accomplished in Kendall Square to date, the prevailing feeling at the event was excitement for the future.
“Generative AI is giving us chance to stop working in siloes,” Jounaidi said. “Many people in this room go back to their companies and think about corporate responsibility, and I want to expand that to creating shared value in companies by seeking out the community and the people here. I think that’s important, and I’m excited to see what comes next.”