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Microsoft New England lives just over the bridge in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their mission is to promote research, software innovation, + community in the heart of the Northeast. They are also one of our wonderful sponsors! We recently spoke with Cathy Wissink of Microsoft New England’s Technology + Civic Engagement Team to learn more about Microsoft’s initiatives around New England.

In one sentence, what does the Microsoft New England Technology + Civic Engagement team do?

We support a healthy, thriving, innovative Boston community by providing resources, making connections to technology, and convening people to have conversations around civic innovation.

Tell us a bit about yourself and Microsoft New EnglandCathy-Wissink-300x300

I am the Director of Civic Engagement for Microsoft New England. My job is mainly to bring Microsoft resources to address the biggest challenges and opportunities in the city of Boston.

About three years ago, our Chief Legal Officer and President observed that cities around the country were at a really interesting point: people are moving back into cities at record rates, and at the same time, the federal government is providing less support to cities, meaning the cities are being asked to do more, with less. Infrastructure is beginning to age, and there are strains in the economy – people are having trouble affording the cost of living in cities. We realized that Microsoft needed to participate thoughtfully in this conversation, so this team is Microsoft’s stake in citizenship: looking deliberately at the intersection of technology and cities.

We realized that Microsoft needed to participate thoughtfully in this conversation, so this team is Microsoft’s stake in citizenship: looking deliberately at the intersection of technology and cities.

We’re now operating in 6 cities: Boston, Chicago, New York, Seattle, San Jose, and San Francisco. Each city has a unique character and faces different opportunities and challenges.

Who are your key stakeholders? How do you measure your impact?

Cities are a human construct, so think about all of the stakeholders who care about quality of life in a city: city government, state government, a range of community organizations and nonprofits focused on economic development, education, affordable housing, and technology, among others, as well as academics who are thinking critically about how technology can be used to benefit society. Our work is interdisciplinary, and it really represents the human aspect of any city. Therefore, individuals are some of our most important stakeholders. We try to create opportunities for people to get involved, on a personal level, and talk about the issues they care about. We consider ourselves successful when we’re seen as a trusted advisor to help answer the biggest questions that government, community organizations, and individuals are facing in Boston today.

We try to create opportunities for people to get involved, on a personal level, and talk about the issues they care about.

NERD MIPC March 2014_003

Tell us about some of the events you’ve held at District Hall. How do you use the space?

About two and a half years ago, we realized that there weren’t any sort of public conversations happening that were focused on the intersection of technology and civic issues. We started hosting quarterly conversations in partnership with the Venture Café Foundation. The Conversations on Civic Innovation focus on the impact of technology on civic matters in Boston, from big data to financial transparency to youth employment. We bring in representatives from all spaces – government, community partners, and academics – and really gather a wide range of perspectives. The most exciting part of these events, though, are the conversations that happen after the panels. That’s when we get to hear the most diverse perspectives, networking happens, and great ideas come out.

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What do you like about District Hall?

We rotate these events between the Microsoft NERD Center in Cambridge, District Hall, and Roxbury Innovation Center. District Hall is a public, ground-level, accessible space – it’s truly a physical representation of how we best interact with people. We want to foster a creative, inclusive outlet to approach these problems, and District Hall is the perfect place to do that. I recently brought a colleague from Australia on a tour of District Hall, and what surprised her was how open and accessible this space is. She said that innovation spaces can have an “ivory tower” feel – that is to say, they’re exclusive and often removed from the general public. Seeing District Hall totally changed her perception of what innovation spaces should look like, and she’s actually bringing that idea back to Australia and advocating for more open innovation spaces. The ethos of this space really captures the philosophy of being a public innovation space.

We want to foster a creative, inclusive outlet to approach these problems, and District Hall is the perfect place to do that…the ethos of this space really captures the philosophy of being a public innovation space.

Civic-Inno-Health-Panel-300x200What are you most excited about right now?

We are in the early stages of partnering with some civic organizations to implement Microsoft technology. We also have an event coming up focusing on the role of transparency and data visualization in fostering better civic engagement, which is going to be really interesting!

What is your favorite thing about Boston’s innovation community?

I love that here in Boston, it’s not just about innovation for innovation’s sake – we’re focused on innovation with a purpose. We’re focusing on a particular aspect of the human condition and building something significant to solve these problems.

To hear more from Cathy, check out her blog profile, and follow Microsoft New England on Facebook + Twitter!


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