NYC Welcomes Tech, But Only If It Helps New Yorkers

New York City is a leading hub for technology and innovation — but you wouldn’t guess it by its most-hyped headlines. Ironically, some of the most eye-catching recent news in the tech sector centers around how the city prevented one of the most influential tech titans from setting the foundation for a Big Tech colony in Long Island City. 

For the short span of a few months, it seemed as though New York was teetering on the verge of supplanting Silicon Valley as a home base for major tech companies. The city had a plan — and a provisional agreement — to host Amazon’s much-courted HQ2 within its borders that many in the tech industry heralded as the start of a new era of innovation and prosperity. During a press conference shortly after the announcement of the agreement, Governor Andrew Cuomo celebrated, saying: “This is the largest economic development initiative that has ever been done by the city or the state or the city and the state, together.”

The agreement certainly had some startling numbers to back it; analysts projects that the deal would generate no less than $27.5 billion in state and city revenue over 25 years with a 9:1 ratio of revenue to subsidies. HQ2 was expected to create roughly 25,000 jobs in its first decade, in addition to the 1,300 construction jobs and 107,000 direct and indirect jobs the building initiative would require. Amazon further promised to launch a tech startup incubator and a new school on its campus, as well as allocate as much as $5 million to workforce development efforts. 

On the surface, the partnership between New York and Amazon was a tech proponent’s dream come true; however, the proposed HQ2 deal faced vehement opposition almost immediately after its announcement. Several protests against the initiative were held in Long Island City in the fall of 2018. By February of 2019, the deal was off. 

Now, New York’s highly-publicized divorce from Amazon’s HQ2 plans could be interpreted as a sign that the city wasn’t interested in supplanting Silicon Valley as a home for Big Tech. However, I would argue that the issue the city had with Amazon isn’t based in bias against Big Tech or tech as a whole, but in concern that Amazon’s presence would come at too high a cost to the people of New York. The city courted the tech giant, perhaps to the point of overreach; all told, the public funds and kickbacks given to Amazon would have totaled close to $3 billion, with the city and state paying the e-retailer as much as $48,000 per job. With that cost, opponents argued, were the “benefits” Amazon offered even worth their price?  

Rejecting Amazon doesn’t mean that New York City is hostile to the tech sector — quite the opposite. The city wants a tech sector, but it wants it on terms that suit the people who call it home, rather than those who run Big Tech’s boardrooms. It seems to be relatively successful in its pursuit of that goal, too: Startup Genome reports that NYC ranks first globally in funding availability and quality in NYC, and the metro region alone received $13 billion in funding in 2018. In 2018, New York’s tech sector represented 333,000 jobs in 2018 and encompassed a full 10% of the nation’s developers

Moreover, it seems probable that the city will continue to serve as fertile ground for tech-center development, given that it currently supports over 120 universities and is ranked first globally for the number of STEM-field graduates produced annually. Those students are likely to stay and contribute, too; tech firms in New York City have the fastest average hiring time for engineers across all U.S. tech ecosystems and offer wages that are, on average, 49% higher than private-sector rates elsewhere. 

Amazon’s failed HQ2 deal notwithstanding, even Big Tech is expanding its presence in the city. This past spring, Netflix put down $100 million for a production hub in Williamsburg and promised to create over 100 new jobs in Manhattan. In late 2018 — around the same time that Amazon was fielding controversy over HQ2 — Google committed $1 billion to create a new Lower Manhattan campus and double its local workforce. Facebook wants to open up shop in Hudson Yard; Apple is reportedly looking for more office space in the city. 

The signs are clear that, despite what the failed HQ2 deal might indicate, New York City wants tech, big and small alike. The city will continue to keep pace, if not ultimately overtake, the Silicon Valley tech scene. Provided, of course, that the tech investment it facilitates supports — and is in turn supported by — its people. 

By |2019-09-23T16:55:59+00:00September 23rd, 2019|Current Events, Technology|

How Minecraft Democratizes Urban Design

There’s a reason young people love Minecraft. Called a “sandbox” video game, Minecraft is a blank slate that enables players to build brand new worlds using only building blocks and the contents of their imagination, then take on three-dimensional adventures from there.

If this sounds like paradise for the future architect or urban planner, you’re not the only one that thinks so. The United Nations’ Block by Block program operates based on the notion that, since urban planning is a community effort, community members young and old can take part in public redesign projects. According to their website, Block by Block uses Minecraft as “a community participation tool in urban design and fund the implementation of public space projects all over the world, with a focus on poor communities in developing countries.”

The beauty of Minecraft, in this regard, is its ease of use. Young people with big imaginations take to it easily, but so can adults, whether or not they are familiar with similar software. In Haiti, for example, a group of fishermen with no computer experience—let alone reading or writing—successfully designed a seawall to prevent flooding at Place de la Paix, complete with public toilets, and presented it to architects.

Block by Block is a partnership between Mojang, Minecraft’s maker, and UN-Habitat, the UN’s program for sustainable cities. UN-Habitat is determined to upgrade 300 public spaces in the next three years with its Global Public Space Program, of which Block by Block is a part.

Democratizing Urban Planning

With cities and public places specifically, a democratic, collaborative approach makes sense— because it’s something everyone has a stake in, and which everyone will use and share.

Public spaces include parks, marketplaces, and public squares; they are the shared areas where people are free to walk, relax, and mingle. Public space adds to the health of a city, and in developing countries can make a huge difference since foot traffic stimulates economic growth.

New York City has made public space a priority (in fact it’s currently comprised of 60% public space). Other cities can take this example to expand public places with the input of locals. Technology like Minecraft is one way to get the public engaged and involved in planning the future of the communities they live, work, and entertain themselves in.

According to the Guardian, “Governments are…waking up to the idea that the public are not only users, but also a powerful resource – and that engaging them online is easier than ever before.” Technology like Minecraft is one way communities can be a force for change in their own neighborhoods.

More generally, tech and new media are providing tools for the public to offer up ideas, point out issues, and connect to advocate for collective needs. From apps, to crowdsourcing platforms, social media and augmented reality, emerging new media and digital technologies invite the public to take part without significant limitations. In other words, innovation levels the playing field.

Minecraft and Beyond

Minecraft is unique in its appeal to younger individuals, and its ability to gamify urban planning, making it attractive to a wide range of people regardless of experience level. With Block by Block, citizen players, architects, and government workers can walk around the virtual space and make important decisions together. In this way, it truly democratizes the important job of urban design.

But Minecraft is far from the only technology opening urban planning to the public. There’s Zooniverse, an online platform that organizations can use to launch citizen science projects, and the US National Archives’ Citizen Archive dashboard, which lets citizens transcribe and digitize handwritten documents. Then there are more city-specific projects like FixMyStreet, which lets locals flag problems in their neighborhood digitally.

According to the Guardian, “It’s examples like these, where governments use technology to bring communities together, that demonstrates the benefit of embracing innovation.”

Indeed, the mutual benefits are clear when citizens get involved in public efforts to improve either specific communities or society at large. As the saying goes, many hands make little work. Well, many blocks can make big, monumental changes. Perhaps the urban planners of the future will look back and wonder how and why it was done any other way. 

By |2018-10-31T18:13:55+00:00May 1st, 2017|Culture, Current Events, Technology, Urban Planning|

6 Green Innovations That Could Revolutionize Urban Planning

The world’s cities are in constant flux, being built or built upon to accommodate fast-growing urban populations. The standard approach to urban design has changed, as it has countless times throughout the ages. Today, a new trend has dawned: sustainable design for greener cities, and ultimately a greener planet.

Sustainable design boils down to two main goals: conserving energy and reducing waste. There are many innovations that deliver these goals that are worth paying attention to. After all, they could be staples in the future of urban design, construction, and renovation. As a seasoned real estate entrepreneur, I find it useful to watch these developments carefully.

Here are seven innovations that, though not necessarily new, I believe may explode in popularity as cities are designed and developed with sustainability in mind.

1.Green roofs

Not unlike the habitats of the Hobbit’s Shire, green roofs are structures either partially or fully covered by vegetation. Why? The benefits are extraordinary. Green roofs limit the need for heating and cooling, filter pollutants from the air, insulate buildings, and offer extra square footage for agriculture. They also help mitigate the “heat island” effect in urban spaces — when cities are hotter than the surrounding land — by lowering temperatures.

The modern trend started in Germany in the 1960s and spread to other European cities, many of which are known for their sustainable initiatives. It’s an effective use of space that reduces energy consumption and adds new functionality to formerly barren roofs. North America also has a growing market for green roofs and other types of eco-friendly “living architecture.”

2. High-speed transport

Elon Musk’s future-forward Hyperloop has been in talks for years, and recently the much-hyped high-speed rail had its first public test. It could take many years to be fully realized, but it’s not the first of its kind: also known as bullet trains, high-speed railways can be found in Japan, China, France, Germany, Russia, South Korea, the US, among other countries.

Though expensive to build, high-speed rails are generally eco-friendly and save in greenhouse emissions by providing a speedy alternative to more fuel-intensive transport. Just look to California, where high speed rails run on electricity and reduce the need for cars. In future cities, mitigating the need for vehicular and air travel by implementing high speed rails instead will save dramatically on energy usage and mitigate pollution, too.

3. Floating buildings

With so much land overtaken by human activity, expanding onto the water could preserve greenery for agriculture and other uses. There are various of types of floating architecture designed precisely to be eco-friendly urban solutions.

Self-sustaining floating house units already exist: for example, the WaterNest 100 by EcoFloLife is made of 98 percent recyclable materials, with photovoltaic panels embedded in the rooftop for solar energy. This type of innovation could work for an entire city, in theory. In fact, various eco-friendly floating cities have been designed, including Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypad, proposed as a city for climate refugees, and Silt Lake City, which would float atop the Nile River.

4. Water recycling

Speaking of water, droughts and shortages are predicted to become increasingly common as populations grow, supplies dwindle and the planet warms. Americans in particular use 100 gallons per day, 95 percent of which is wasted. Certainly there is a more efficient way to conserve water, in and out of cities.

Greywater refers to water in sinks, showers, washing machines, etc: essentially all streams but toilets. Greywater, along with stormwater and even wastewater can be better managed and recycled for reuse in urban settings through large-scale systems and smaller-scale innovations like this high-tech shower that recycles water as you wash.

5. Solar solutions

Solar is one of the fastest growing forms of sustainable energy and one of the most promising too. But for all the hype, it faces some key problems: mainly, the fact that sunlight isn’t always a guarantee.

Even so, solar technology is becoming better and more efficient, and more easily stored for not-so-sunny hours. One Swedish company is able to power 24 homes with one dish, and Tesla now offers a solar battery at the most affordable price yet. Individual solutions like these could be scaled up for implementation in urban areas, like this solar road used in the Netherlands that generates enough power for a year’s worth of electricity.

6. Microgrids

Solar energy is great for easing reliance on the electrical grid, but grids will likely be necessary in powering cities for a long time. However, there are less wasteful ways to provide electricity, like the use of microgrids for example.

Microgrids are small, decentralized energy systems that collect, store and distribute electricity in an even and balanced way. Where large-scale power plants are often powered by fossil fuels, localized grids are better suited to sustainable energy sources like solar and wind, and can act as backup in case of blackouts. For cities, a network of microgrids would waste less energy and derive it from a variety renewable sources. The market for microgrids is expected to grow to $40 billion by 2020.

These are just several of the innovations that are likely to inform sustainable design in cities as we move into a more environmentally-conscious future. Whether all at once or a little at a time, the urban greening trend shows no sign of sunsetting anytime soon — which is why it’s smart for those in the real estate industry to take note and adapt.

 

By |2018-10-31T16:17:02+00:00May 20th, 2016|Urban Planning|