Scale, Flexibility, Partnerships, & Identity: How Cities Become Centers for Innovation

Photo credit: Wally Gobetz/Flickr

Increasingly, entrepreneurs and other professionals are gravitating toward small and mid-sized cities, and the quality of life they provide. As smaller cities look to harness their futures — and superstar hubs including San Francisco and New York become increasingly saturated — cities including Denver, Austin, Portland, and Salt Lake City are attracting new waves of economic growth and vibrancy. Often overlooked, these cities and many of the mayors leading them have the opportunity to propel economic progress. Over the past decade, Jersey City has emerged as one such hub.

In the early 2010s, Jersey City’s population grew by 4.8 percent, and today a full 40.8 percent of its workforce is creative class, in jobs that include science, design, arts, tech, and engineering. That’s a distinct rise from the second half of the 20th century, when the city was on the decline. Under Mayor Steven Fulop, elected in 2013, Jersey City has morphed with companies like Forbes and Ernst & Young moving in alongside startups. The city also greatly benefits from its location directly to the west of Manhattan, only 10 minutes by PATH train.

Jersey City’s rise is a model for how other small and mid-sized cities can think about their growth, even as the city develops into a tech hub in its own right. Recently, the NYUSPS Urban Lab at the Schack Institute of Real Estate released a report and convened a conversation with Mayor Fulop and other tech leader to discuss the city’s rise and should be done for next. Below are five keys lessons for Jersey City and its peers as they seek to establish themselves as innovation centers. Full report here.

Smaller scale is an asset.

Mid-sized cities looking to harness tech growth should leverage the qualities that distinguish them against bigger hubs. For instance, among the key waves of tech today is urban tech — a field populated by ride-sharing, property and real estate tech, and the like. For urban tech companies, the city is the platform.

For these companies, a smaller, scalable city is incredibly useful. Jersey City and its peers are large enough to support urban tech innovation, but small enough to give emerging companies the space to test drive their ideas. In Jersey City, city-driven projects include a system that integrates ride-sharing-style mapping technologies with the EMS system. “It’s in our DNA to be nimble,” says Mayor Fulop. “At 300,000 people, you’re big enough to be a laboratory, but small enough that you can adapt quickly.”

Develop identity and maintain inclusion.

Many cities including San Jose, Tacoma, and Baltimore have operated as secondary communities to their neighboring hubs. Jersey City has often been thought of as a bedroom community for New York. To thrive, cities like Jersey City should work to create the stickiness between workers and their community that rivals major hubs where a density of workers and lifestyle factors produces a commitment to community.

Through a series of city-driven projects, Mayor Fulop is working to cultivate that community. Projects include the planned revitalization of Journal Square, one of the busiest transit hubs in New Jersey, and Liberty Science Center’s SciTech Scity. LSC — a 300,000-square-foot center focused on STEM — is partnering with the city to create a veritable magnet for STEM companies, housing, and K-12 education in SciTech. “We’ve tried to develop projects that give Jersey City more of a sense of place,” Fulop says.

At the same time, Jersey City’s largest strength is found in its diversity: The city is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. And, roughly 44 percent of the city’s population works in low-skill, service-based fields.

Jersey City and its peers should work specifically to build inclusion. For instance, Mayor Fulop passed $15 minimum wage for city workers in 2016, and the city builds affordable housing into its growth. “Startups have a tendency, because of the limited runway, to have a myopic focus even if they have a larger vision,” says Matt Joseph, Senior Engineering Manager for Intersection. But Jersey City’s Office of Innovation focuses on the entire city, helping startups keep the community and civic picture in mind.

Leverage the city’s flexibility.

Due to its smaller size, Jersey City has been able to tailor some of its growth by strategically placing some developments away from the waterfront to encourage growth and bring jobs to other parts of town. Mayor Fulop has sought to build for specific groups, such as young professionals. The plan is to “grow smartly, incorporate affordable housing, and make smaller units that are more affordable to younger people,” Fulop says.

Like many other mid-sized cities, Jersey City benefits from a downtown urban space and sizable suburban surrounding. That combination encourages startups to look beyond communities in major urban centers toward the broader population, says Joseph. Relatedly, rather than follow a business model overly focused on success for every population every time when thinking about tech, Joseph posits thinking about the needs of various populations and serving them each well.

Identify key sectors and anchors.

Jersey City and each of its peers should focus their growth across a few key sectors. For instance, Jersey City has naturally aligned with the life and health sciences. Those associations, alongside its proximity to institutions such as New Jersey City University and the Liberty Science Center, have helped build momentum for the city. These key anchors and institutions are crucial to the success of cities like Jersey City.

SciTech Scity in Jersey City is a key example of one such project. It promises to be a tech ecosystem that brings together industry, education, and housing for a national — or international — audience. SciTech Scity is focused on a few major areas, including K-12 education. With it, LSC wants to help address the gap in work opportunities, and, more broadly, in skilled tech workers. “Nobody has done it in a measurable way that has effects on getting our kids into the sciences and technology — and making a difference to our neighborhood,” says Paul Hoffman, President and CEO of Liberty Science Center.

Create a strategy and a public presence.

The ambitious thinking that lead to a project on the scale of SciTech Scity is also behind a new wave of results-oriented local governance. Mayors and cities haven an taken increasingly important role in spearheading growth and development across economics, data-driven work, sustainability, and immigration efforts. Part of that is due to the pressure on local government to achieve outcomes for its residents. “Local government has to drive results,” Mayor Fulop explains.

To harness that capability, Jersey City and its peers must set up a strategic plan and a public face that will carry on for decades, beyond the tenure of any specific elected official. In addition to an advocate with vision such as Mayor Fulop, cities need a dedicated point person who will oversee and build on a plan over time. Jersey City’s Office of Innovation, for instance, is an excellent starting place.

Mid-sized and growing hubs across the U.S. are quickly becoming the new central locations not just for tech, but for workers seeking a better quality of life and companies seeking a community feel. Those cities need tools to achieve that growth. Jersey City is a model for how to begin to scale up, and where to go next. Looking toward strategic, deliberate innovation and inclusivity, Jersey City and like-minded cities will become innovation centers that last.

STEVEN PEDIGO is the Director of the NYUSPS Urban Lab at the Schack Institute of Real Estate, and a Clinical Assistant Professor for Economic Development at the NYU School of Professional Studies.

ABIGAIL SINDZINSKI is a writer, editor, and communications professional. Her work has appeared in outlets including Curbed, LAmag.com, JNCI, and Guernica.