The Great Recession continued to burn through 2009. Global economic activity shrank by half a percent, the worst downturn since 1945. By the end of the year, 7 million Americans had lost their jobs, and an additional 8.8 million were involuntarily working part-time. The unemployment rate had reached ten percent nationwide.
The economic crisis had begun in the banking industry, and New York City’s large financial sector made the city uniquely vulnerable. In the fifteen months between August 2008 and November 2009, New York City lost 36,000 jobs from its financial services sector alone. City tax revenue shrank by more than $2 billion in 2009 and by another $1.4 billion in the following year.
City Hall Calls a Huddle
New York City’s economy was not only suffering, it was hobbled by a serious imbalance that only the pain of the recession could have fully revealed. An economic recovery would not fix such a structural issue.
Mayor Bloomberg and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) needed to figure out how to rebalance the economy. NYCEDC turned to a high-level version of crowdsourcing it called a “game-changers initiative,” interviewing 325 CEOs of companies of all sizes, more than twenty-five community groups, and more than a dozen deans and presidents of New York City universities.
Everyone the team interviewed was invited to answer the big question: Imagine there are no funding constraints. What can or should we do to increase economic activity?
Big Apple Brainstorms
The NYCEDC team gleaned more than a hundred ideas about how to move the city’s economy forward. They ranged from generating electricity from subway turnstiles to immigration reform to better waterfront access.
One theme that emerged consistently was that the city and the region needed more—much more—science and technology talent to drive its future.
The Applied Sciences NYC Competition
New York City already had a few tech clusters. Some were quite established, while others were just emerging. As one report put it, the city had “a better than average foundation of IT and biotech companies that could easily be built upon,” as well as a large and growing digital media sector. But the city ranked only thirty-third in terms of a metro-area science and engineering workforce, behind not only tech hubs like San Jose, California; Austin, Texas; Boston; and San Francisco, but also Hartford, Connecticut; Sacramento, California; and Richmond, Virginia.
It wasn’t only tech companies that were scrambling to fill jobs. Many of the city’s other clusters, such as fashion, media, and health care, needed engineering and technical talent.
NYCEDC concluded that the game changer it was looking for would be a new, world-class science and engineering graduate school campus.
Building a brand-new institution from scratch was too risky; instead, the NYCEDC reasoned, the city’s best bet was to find a capable and highly ranked institution or group of institutions that wanted to come to or expand in New York City.
On December 16, 2010, Deputy Mayor Robert Steel unveiled an international competition in search of a university to build a world-class applied science and engineering campus within the city.
To help attract universities, the city offered the choice of four sites, including one on Roosevelt Island—the winning institution could take its pick, or propose another location—and $100 million in city funds for infrastructure improvements to make the site ready for development.
“People talk about college towns, and they talk about Ann Arbor, Cambridge, or Boston. The facts are that New York City has more college students than Boston has people. When we pull out the bragging rights on where we’re going to have innovation, New York City is going to be the place.” —Robert Steel, August 2, 2011
The Master Plan
One year and one week after the city first publicly proposed the idea, officials announced that Cornell and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology had won the right to build a new graduate school, the Cornell NYC Tech Campus, on Roosevelt Island, a sliver of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. The school will eventually be home to 280 faculty members and up to 2,750 graduate students doing applied research in “hubs”—nontraditional academic departments—organized around media, health industries, and the built environment.
The city realized, however, that there could be more than one winner. Two additional campuses were announced in 2012.
Cornell NYC Tech
The Cornell-Technion partnership, dubbed Cornell NYC Tech, is the largest undertaking of the three applied sciences schools. In addition to classwork, the school will offer legal support for start-ups, establish a pre-seed financing program to support promising research, and create a $150 million revolving financing fund that will be solely devoted to start-up businesses in the city.
“We intend to be one more piece of the puzzle of how to further diversify the economy of the commercial center of the country, if not the world. We’re in a new phase of the technology revolution—not technology for technology’s sake, but technology in the service of commerce.” —David Skorton, President, Cornell University
Center for Urban Science and Progress
A consortium led by New York University is creating a new applied sciences school in the former headquarters of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in Downtown Brooklyn. The campus will be known as the Center for Urban Science and Progress, or CUSP. Both city and university officials hope that the redevelopment of the MTA building will create investment and growth at the heart of the emerging “Brooklyn Tech Triangle,” an area bound by Downtown Brooklyn, the Dumbo neighborhood along the waterfront, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which has become a hub for niche manufacturers, tech companies, set designers, and media production. The first class of students will enroll in a brand-new degree program, the MS in Applied Urban Science and Informatics, in the fall of 2013.
Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering
Columbia University’s new Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering is located at its Morningside Heights and Washington Heights campuses, with a new facility coming to its Manhattanville campus. Students and faculty in this applied sciences school will focus on applications for new media, smart cities, health analytics, cybersecurity, and financial analytics, among other areas.
The city and NYCEDC believe that the Applied Sciences initiative is already paying off.
“If you look at the talented individuals and companies moving to the city, the evolving start-up ecosystem, and the number of construction jobs being created, it’s already been a huge success,” says Seth Pinsky, NYCEDC’s president. “We’ve leveraged $130 million in public dollars to attract as much as $2 billion in private investment, and we’re already seeing the dividends.”
However, the real measure of success won’t be apparent for years, even decades. “In that first phone call, I said to Deputy Mayor Steel, one thing that’s going to be hard to face is, you’re not going to know for thirty years whether this is a success. One mistake would be to overpromise immediate results,” recalls Charles Vest, president emeritus of MIT and the president of the National Academy of Engineering. Yet Vest, who was one of the people evaluating the entries, found that Steel was already thinking long-term. “I was astounded to get a response that said, ‘Yes, we understand that.’”
- Knowledge about what a city or metro area needs to grow isn’t found exclusively in government offices or, indeed, in any one sector but emerges from discussions with scores of economic, civic, philanthropic, and neighborhood leaders. In other words, crowdsource your game changer.
- New York City wasn’t building on weaknesses, but rather figuring out what was missing from existing strengths in media, medicine, and urbanization tools. The answer was tech. The diversification was not tech per se, but the strengthening of media, medicine, and other industries by adding this super-powered tech component.
This story is adapted from The Metropolitan Revolution book and iPad app by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley. Story presented by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. iPad app, including the graphics and videos in this story, produced by Melcher Media and designed and developed by Crush+Lovely.
Learn more about The Metropolitan Revolution at http://www.metrorevolution.org