The heart of New York’s Silicon Alley won itself another tenant this week, but this one was not Google, Facebook or Amazon. New York landed a deal to construct a 21-story high-rise for what will become the NYC Tech Hub, an imaginative hybrid space — part incubator, part skills training center and part office for technology startups.
The approval process was marked by local and vocal community backlash, but the project represents a vision for innovative office space and for this city’s future. While the city’s initiative to expand tech training should be recognized, New York City should take it one step further and begin to develop a comprehensive tech strategy and tech hubs in each of the borough to support skills training.
The NYC Tech Hub will soon be the second vertical mixed incubator and office space catering to the emerging technology ecosystem that is beginning to define this city’s economy. Only months ago Company, formerly Grand Central Tech, announced its ambitious plan to bring corporate clients closer to the startups they were incubating, in a 1.1-million square-foot building. Both symbolize the evolution in office space in the age of coworking and in the urban ubiquity that is WeWork.
Across the city, coworking is tearing down office cubicles and replacing them with benches, long tables and glass offices named after TV sitcom characters. The rise of coworking has taken the real estate world by storm, growing at unprecedented clip as the tech ecosystem expands and as companies reform their office space culture. Though Manhattan alone has over 245 coworking spaces and Brooklyn has less than 30, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx each have three.
Technology clusters have been forming in what’s marketed as Brooklyn’s Tech Triangle, and along the Long Island City waterfront — a location with the raw potential that will attract impressive tenants in the future. But city economic development planning in fostering tech’s dynamism has overwhelmingly concentrated on Manhattan.
It is no hidden secret that the jobs of the future will be based on the innovation economy. But less known is how severe underemployment is in the outer boroughs. According to research by the Robinhood Foundation, 1.6 million New Yorkers are underemployed. In the Bronx it is as high as 58%, and in Queens this rate is nearly 46%, while another 6% are unemployed.
In an era that may be defined by looming automation, job uncertainty,= and a gig economy, we should be empowering each of the borough’s residents to become invested and reskilled in this digital age — not just Manhattan’s.
While ambitious nonprofits like Per Scholas and Pursuit have admirably worked to increase the tech skills gap, these programs graduate dozens to hundreds of students; they are a far cry from achieving scale. New York City, in its own efforts, should develop large-scale tech-training programs and collaborative spaces for the continuously underemployed residents of Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island.
Providing pathways to tech for the middle class — jobs that do not require university degrees or software engineering but instead persistence and technical training — will be critical for the next opportunity when the next high-growth tech company looks to expand to the outer boroughs.
What is needed is an audacious plan to rethink New York’s technology ecosystem planning to provide evenhanded outer-borough growth. As so much of the strategy has occurred in piecemeal fashion — both Brooklyn and Queens have separate plans not spearheaded by the city — it has led to fragmented and often unattainable goals, and through default, Manhattan-centric planning.
A holistic approach to this city’s tech strategy could include well-defined and integrated action plans for office allocation, cultural institutional support, capital projects, community development, broadband access, coworking and incubator creation, higher-education, and much-needed skills training. It would provide vision, guidance and a blueprint for this city’s economy.
Beginning with the massive workforce redevelopment effort that’s needed to reorient the workforce towards tech, the newly appointed Deputy Mayor Vicki Been can work with the Department of Small Business Services to undertake efforts to overhaul and reprogram the city’s outdating and nonperforming workforce training centers — Workforce1.
Nonprofits that have achieved proof-of-concept in tech training should be supported and scaled so that tens of thousands who don’t have access to expensive code schools are trained annually. We should, at the very least, be investing significantly into this city’s human infrastructure.
We can decide to make our economy equitable by providing opportunities for the lower and working classes to be a part of the economy of tomorrow. Why shouldn’t there be a 21-story tech hub in every borough?