I know Mayor Bloomberg did not use the 21st century word "crowdsourcing" this past July in his innovation initiative speech. He talked instead in old-speak, about providing "infrastructure upgrades" and enabling a "critical mass" of talent to allow New York City to reclaim "our title as the world capital of technological innovation."
For those sleeping under a rock: Mayor Bloombergs proposal, contest really, is about the City giving away land (either Governors Island, the Navy Yard, or Roosevelt Island) and "up to $100 million in infrastructure upgrades." The prize, to be announced soon after the New Year, will go to a university with the best plan for bringing a brand spanking new Engineering and Applied Science campus into the heart of New York City.
The point of course is that innovation is the primary rocket fuel of economic growth. Innovation is the elixir that brings jobs and pain-free tax revenues, the citys objectives, along with interesting and even life-changing products and services, the citizens objectives. Without innovation, there wouldnt be the hundreds of thousands of jobs in the likes of Intel, Apple, Google and Microsoft – just a shrinking cadre of employees in steel mills and car companies.
The Mayor deserves special credit for recognizing that innovation of the fundamental and transformational kind does not emerge from a committee or agency gazing into a crystal ball and laying bets on any specific company or technology. It emerges from a one thousand year old concept called a university – itself infrastructure – that fosters talent, ideas and energy.
So, with all due respect, the point his Honor missed is that what hes talking about is infrastructure, of the very best kind, and at the very best time. Think crowdsourcing.
Credit for the word goes to Jeff Howe, author of the book Crowdsourcing, which he describes simply as the "application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software." Or to put it simplistically; large groups of people can often collectively solve problems individuals cant.
Howes idea finds a complementary underpinning in what Matt Ridley describes in his book, The Rational Optimist, wherein he concludes that it is trade, people exchanging ideas, that has been the engine of innovation. Ridley famously wrote that "when ideas have sex" innovation emerges. That requires physical interaction. All this interplay of people and ideas, even old fashioned coffee-table and back-of-napkin brainstorming, are profoundly enabled by modern communications technology — and by the infrastructure of a great university.
And in the end, while quality is essential, scale matters. The idea of a mega-campus devoted to technological innovation nestled in the dense metropolis of New York City is spot on because people on average work better, and need to be, and like to be, co-located. (Its not just the ideas that like to have sex.) Density drives more than efficiency, it facilitates spontaneity and creativity.
The timing couldnt be better, quite aside from the political and psychological lift from Mayor Bloombergs vision. The generation of students and entrepreneurs emerging today is perhaps as, or better, prepared as any in American history. They are a generation inherently flexible and dynamic, coming of age steeped in reflexes naturally attuned to the unprecedented amplifying power that modern communications and computing technology now offers.
Another thing a great institution like a university does, as does a great city like New York: it puts in close proximity the older with the younger. Much has been made about the entrepreneurship and energy of youth. But it bears noting that recent research shatters the assumption that people under 35 "make change happen" as asserted by peripatetic venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. According to this new research "the average and median age of successful [business] founders was 39. Twice as many founders were older than 50 as were younger than 25." What better place to bring them all together than New York City?
Finally, a small bone to pick: while we know the Mayor is jealous of the innovation ecosystem of Silicon Valley, and the words "Silicon Valley" are telegraphic, the goal is not to replicate the past, but to create the future. Lest one forget, for decades the center of tech innovation was MoTown. Detroit drove innovation and economic growth for decades. Silicon Valley didnt try to replicate Detroit, it built on the new paradigm of silicon instead of steel. You can be sure that innovation is far from over, and that while both steel and silicon will be around for a long time, neither will anchor the next great innovation wave.
Which brings me to my vote. Since the future is opaque, I would bias for the broadest multi-disciplinary institution. And if the scuttlebutt is accurate and there are two finalists, Cornell and Stanford, the former should be the choice. I confess some prejudice, having had two progeny graduate from Cornell. Aside from that, in my travels visiting tech start-ups I am continually surprised at the frequency I find Cornellians. And it is precisely the mix of disciplines from architecture and human ecology, to hotel schools and medical engineering, from nanotechnology to ornithology, that provides a hedge against guessing the future incorrectly. Not to mention that Cornell knows its way around town, so to speak, and would likely bring a natural, salutary expansion of an innovation corridor from Manhattan to Albany; its just in their New York-based DNA and geographic anchor in upstate Ithaca.
Technology development and innovation is a weird thing. People study it, write about it, profess to understand it, invest in it and lust after it. Well, lust may be a bit strong. But the sheer volume and diversity of literature on the subject argues that no one really knows how it happens except at the very high levels of hand-waving abstraction. We know one thing though; in this case it really does "take a village," or rather a city.
If other American cities emulate the intellectual infrastructure build-out Bloomberg envisions, with geographically and demographically appropriate tweaks, we can virtually guarantee another century of American growth, and even dominance.
Huzzah for Hizzonor the Mayor. And whichever great institution wins, let the crowdsourcing begin.
Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/markpmills/2011/12/13/crowdsourcing-innovation-in-new-york-city-cornell-v-stanford/