NYU Stern Urbanization Project event: Conversations on Urbanization with Richard Florida and Fred Wilson

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending Conversations on Urbanization with Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures and Richard Florida of NYU and the Atlantic, with MBA students from NYU Stern. It was a really interesting conversation for me as a native New Yorker, tech enthusiast, supporter of STEAM education, and recent attendee of the evening session of the Atlantic Cities City Lab event.

There were a number of conversation points that were thought provoking and compelling:

1. The World Wide Web as the most important factor in the shift from electical engineering to social engineering.

I have definitely seen this shift. There was a time when you had to have specialized knowledge, skills, and access in order to build web sites and create and share content. Now, you can set up a web site or blog in a matter of minutes as long as you have an Internet connection. The ease of being able to access and share information naturally leads to such a shift and acts as a platform which helps connect people and their ideas in real time.

2. The importance of art and artists to innovation

There was a lot of discussion on how many entrepreneurs have artistic talents and interests and how innovation often happens where artists hang out. Mr. Wilson talked about how technologists and artists are similar in that they create things and can show people their work. Mr. Florida talked about how the combination of art and cities can lead to innovation.

In my view, art and innovation go hand in hand. Art is about expression and getting people to see the world as you see it. Art is about creating things. Art is about challenging the status quo and it may not necessarily be subversive, it could be a change in the use of a medium or existing platform or technique. Mr. Wilson talked about the application of what has already been built, that Edison didn’t build the parts of the lightbulb but he was able to build upon what already existed. What comes to mind for me is how software engineers build apps on platforms or how companies like Square, Breathometer and AliveCor have built onto mobile phones.

At a PEN World Voices festival in NYC that I attended a while back, Salman Rushdie spoke about the idea that artists live at the edges, that they push the boundaries. I believe that innovators do the same thing and that in many ways artists and innovators are not only alike, they often exist within the same entity. It’s all about creating something, adapting and reacting to what is going on in the world, and doing something different, something that causes people to stop and think in wonder, delight, or even confusion lol.

3. How cities can attract startups- talent and quality of life (esp culture, safety, transportation,)

All startups are looking for great talent and to a certain extent, in the growing creative economy obtaining and keeping great talent has less to do with compensation and more to do with compelling mission, life goals, ability for growth and quality of life. I’m a proud New Yorker, and I have to say our city has it all.

New York’s communities have gone through a number changes over the past 20 years. I remember Time Square in the pre-Disney Lion King era (it was a *cough* very different and shall we say a more adult playground). Mayor Bloomberg and others have said it too, that safety has played a role in New York being an attractive place to live and start a business.

In terms of culture, we have museums, academic institutions, concert halls, restaurants. New York is very much a walking city and every turn can lead you to a new adventure. Life happens at the intersections and in New York you can always come upon something or someone new, interesting, exciting. I think that the interesections not only make life interesting but can also foster innovation as people who speak different languages, work in different field and have different experiences get together and talk.

Mr. Florida mentioned the idea that cities are great at surfacing problems and that startups that come to cities don’t just builld things that are purely technical but that often interact with the city and its people. I think about this a lot. The city as a source of inspiration and as a lab to test things out. Really love the NYC Big Apps initiative. What are ways that we as citizens can address issues that are affecting our city? What are the issues? (no one would know better than the very people that live here).

4. Real estate, startups and Brooklyn

I am very much a Brooklyn girl. I have lived there for many years and most of my education has been in Brooklyn. I love the distinct neighborhoods and the friendliness of its people. Mr. Wilson talked about how “Brooklyn is going to be fascinating…and I would move to Brooklyn in a heartbeat” which was pretty awesome. He talked about the changing neighborhoods (i.e. Crown Heights) and how startups have moved to the outer boroughs because of quality of life that can be found there as well as the fact that many of a startup’s employees may live in the outer boroughs so the move there makes a lot of sense.

I think that the NYEDC is doing a great job in terms of helping startups on the real estate front and in supporting co-working spaces/incubators/small businesses. Landlords too are starting to understand the nontraditional needs of growing companies which is great.

Brooklyn is fascinating. It’s home to chefs, tinkerers, Makers, artists, technologists, musicians and it’s a really interesting and inspiring milieu to float in, there’s always something interesting going on from Googa Mooga in Prospect Park, to what’s happening at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and NY3DP/Building 92, to the waterfront to the Bushwick Open Arts festival to Brooklyn winery, Brooklyn Brewery, Kings County Distillery and Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg, or pizza celebrations in Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge. What I mentioned is only a fraction of what’s happening out here and I thought Mr. Florida’s mention of a Jane Jacobs quote was funny but also true, “When a place gets boring, even the rich people leave.”

5. Transportation and the waterfront

I just finished reading “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck and transportation in the form of bikes, taxis and trolleys were cited as important pieces of a walkable city. Mr. Wilson mentioned the idea that we could be doing more with the city’s waterfront and its potential as a “Central Park”.

I agree that we should look into expanding transportation and water fun/activities. I have a map of NYC at home and we are very much surrounded by water. Ferries connecting Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island and Governor’s island have been very popular and they are inexpensive and might help relieve commuter congestion (anyone who has ridden the L train from 7pm to 2 am on a Saturday night or between 6-10 pm on weeknights knows what I mean by that). Plus, you can bring your bike on board.

Boats are nice to be on in the summer and I know that many tourists really like that they are able to see many different parts of our city by boat. Part of me hopes that one day there will be ferries that take you from Manhattan to say Bay Ridge or Coney Island as well because it’s far if you drive or even if you take the subway.

6. Change in public education

The topic of changing education has come up in many of events that I have gone to over the past couple of months, from events with city government candidates, to a talk given by Dr. Margaret Honey of the NY Sci Hall at a LiveatAppNexus event, to a NY3DP roundtable to City Lab.

Education, health, poverty, are all inter-related. What I would like to see is an education system that gives our children a diverse set of tools and life and career-building skills that they can build upon. I think that we need a system where children are encouraged to ask questions and one that doesn’t necessarily slot them into a straight path but enables them to think critically, learn, grow and adapt. Instead of teaching them something that could be potentially irrelevant if the technology changes, let’s encourage them to create the technology or to come up with solutions.

7. Regulatory relief

Regualory relief was mentioned as something that could be addressed in helping to foster an innovation environment. I think that rules and regulations can be both hurtful and helpful. I support the ones that make practical sense. Plus, rules and regulations can be changed or amended to adapt to what is happening in our time. I often think about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they were written many years ago but reflect what has happened over time and have lasted til our present day. Remarkable and a source of national pride.

Had a great time at the event and really appreciated that NYU Stern UP made the event open to the public. Looking forward to hearing about the Startup Project being undertaken with Endeavor.

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