CUF’s ‘New Tech City’ report

An interesting report on New York City’s powerful wave of digital-technology startups has issued from the Center for an Urban Future (a non-partisan think tank where I’m a long-time advisor and occasional author, though not involved in this report).

The report “New Tech City” does a solid job capturing the way Internet-enabled startups (supercharged these days by mobile technology) have begun to cluster and thrive in a way they did not back in the dot-com 1990s. As the report correctly notes, the secret sauce has been a new enthusiasm by City government and civic leadership for facilitating healthy symbiosis between digital entrepreneurs and the several sectors where the City already boasts world-dominating business clusters. Mainly, that means the media/publishing/advertising sectors, finance (toujours finance), and what might be called the creative/cultural/educational complex. These happen to be clusters that both exhibit clear vulnerability to disruption and wield enormous purchasing power.

All this is pretty much consistent with recommendations captured a dozen years ago in strategic framework for a City technology policy commissioned by City Council from ITAC, and subcontracted to my group at Battelle. If there are any shortcomings in CUF’s current and well researched document, they relate to vocabulary: after correctly observing that technology as the word is used in New York City is just “a narrow slice of a much larger industry space,” the report nonetheless proceeds to use the word “tech” to mean essentially only digital technology, reinforcing a broader public confusion about digital’s role in the much wider set of human endeavor based on advanced science and engineering.

Failing to sort this out unambiguously, the report consequently also reinforces another common conflation: use of the word “engineering talent” when what is really meant is the much narrower domain of software engineering — a skill set that obsesses many local entrepreneurs and investors, but certainly not the entirety of what NYC lacks.

While “New Tech City” urges policymakers not to neglect other technology domains, it provides little detail and underestimates, in my view, the degree to which the City’s widely publicized Applied Sciences initiative will support the digital technologies and their application “verticals” alone, as opposed to across-the-board engineering excellence. It also under-rates the City’s rich (albeit pre-integrated circuit) legacy of hardware innovation, and doesn’t make the connection between what’s missing now and the noted lacks of success in hardware-dependent fields like cleantech, biomedical engineering, etc. Much has been done in recent years, but a lot remains to be accomplished.

If read with care, this report is a good guide to understanding. Well done, CUF.

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