CUF releases its study of innovation-led development in New York City

The Center for an Urban Future has finally released the long-awaited study of the City’s innovation sectors, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation through the NYC-focused civic program managed by Ted Greenwood. At the City Futures website you’ll find both a full study, and an appendix with an “index” of innovation indicators.

I can scarcely provide an impartial review, since I’ve been involved with this project from its earliest stages. I provided commentary to Sloan prior to the award and then served as an advisor (relax: unpaid) to co-authors Jonathan Bowles and Jim O’Grady through repeated drafts. However, if you’re prepared to accept admittedly self-interested commentary, I think this report hits the nail right on the head: what has stood in the way of New York City’s emerging as a technology center whose standing is consonant with its research preëminence is a series of primarily cultural issues. Go read it and tell me in the comments or by any other means if you think I’m wrong.

A funny thing happened while City Futures was grinding through its iterations. The very act of shining a light on this topic — together with the ascent to leadership at Columbia’s tech transfer unit of Orin Herskowitz — produced some significant improvements at what is by far the city’s largest single research institution. Not only has Columbia resumed reporting previously withheld data on its licensing and startup programs (without which informed commentary had been very difficult), but Columbia has also made significant improvements in what it does (somewhat as I’d predicted in an earlier commentary on the competitive effects of the NYU-Poly merger).

Orin had some problems with an earlier draft: his objections — and the new data he provided CUF to back up his claims — improved the report, and better results accruing with the passage of time also improved the reality. Of course, while this was happening, many of those who’d been quoted about Columbia’s attitude under prior administrators softened their commentary, while I stood by my quotes, even acknowledging the improvements under way. Probably I’ll never have lunch in Morningside Heights again. . . .

A similar process unfolded in the case of what the city government is doing to promote innovation-led entrepreneurship. The NYC Economic Development Corporation — already better and more ably staffed than I can ever remember it — is now scrambling to put into place “connective” programs of exactly the kind called for in this report. You can call all this “political” if you like, and surely it is related in some way to manner in which Mayor Bloomberg has chosen to run for reëlection under the banner of a “5-borough economic strategy” (and that’s from the city website, not the campaign) but it is a reality and will leave a legacy.

One can quibble here or there about this report, but I’m pretty sure Sloan got its money’s worth. Asking the difficult questions of why we are still not seeing very much technology-led economic development here was worthwhile, and the discomfort involved in this exercise improved the answers over the course of the study. Further progress in New York City comes down to leadership at the topmost levels of our major universities, in City Hall, and in our business community.

One area of unfinished business pertains to a pet recommendation of mine that (happily) made it into the final report: creating a university-based research center focused on the ongoing gathering, tracking, and analysis of the data necessary for development of sound public policy in this arena. CUF simply does not have the capacity itself to keep its “index” fresh and well targeted. Of the several policy schools at the city’s research universities, I’d say Wagner (where I used to teach as an adjunct) is probably best suited to the challenge. How about it, Dean Schall?


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