Grading The “Road Map For The Digital City”

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When I got the alert that Rachel and Mayor Mike were announcing the Road Map for the Digital City and the associated Roadmap PDF for it, I typed the URL into my browser with the enthusiasm of a starving man looking at food on the table. After being part of the discussions for the 2008 NY Tech Meetup organiser election and having echoed my thoughts on the State of NY Tech, I wondered if they had considered what was needed for the tech ecosystem.After reading a lot of boilerplate, I was sadly disappointed.

Yes, there are a lot of services that the City Road Map will provide to its citizenry.  It will attempt to offer additional services to the machinations of city government and open up their data sources so that people can create interesting and worthwhile applications. And yes, it will expand its presence on various social media channels.

But when it comes to helping the NY Tech industry, the verbiage was incredibly disappointing–especially after communicating my own concept of the needs for a tech ecosystem to the EDC and seeing snippets of discussion here or there.

The Roadmap Supports NY Tech–Sort Of

Tucked firmly back in Page 53 of the 68-page document is the start of the discussion on how the NYCEDC will help foster NY Tech. These actions include:

  • NYCEDC Innovation Index: Measures innovation on R&D, Finance, Human Capital, Intellectual Property, High-tech Gross City Product and Entrepreneurship/Employment Dynamic
  • Streamlining New Business Creation: The Mayor’s Office of Operations is currently exploring new ways to further streamline the process of starting a business in NYC
  • Working withfor New York City: Lessening hurdles to getting vendors to work with the City
  • Help get government contracting from the Department of Small Business Services.
  • Making requests for proposals visible by supporting RSS feeds, email alerts and such
  • Creation of an applied science faculty from leading institutions
  • Workforce development though FastTrac and JumpStart, diversity training from MOME and support of the MOUSE program (via DOITT)
  • Recruiting Support: A keystone will be “ongoing outreach and listening sessions with private sector stakeholders including entrepreneurs, engineering institutions, and investors to analyse needs and evaluate progress.”
  • Industry event support like NYC BigApps and MOME’s support of InternetWeek
  • Financial support for the New York City Entrepreneurial Fund (in partnership with FirstMark Capital)
  • Development of low-cost work spaces for entrepreneurs with 160 Varick (hosting 35 startups) and Hive @ 55 (for 50 media professionals)

Now, after looking at this list, you may say, “But Sanford, there’s a lot there. They solved some things right?”

Actually, no.

Let’s go to the boards, shall we?

State of NY Tech 2011
There is a concept in technology academics called information and communication technology centres (ICTs). I was interested in them after leaving Silicon Valley and while living in England, and discovered that NYC was a budding environment for one. In 2008, during the crash, I was pointing out that the tech sector could be the guiding light out of the economic downturn (which Scott Heiferman was saying at the same time). But to get there, we needed to address the issues necessary for building tech businesses in the area.

I listed six particular characteristics that I thought would sincerely benefit NY Tech companies, and mapped out what the state of each was. Today, I will take the same six characteristics and map them out again:

  • Space (2008: 1, 2009: 3.5, 2011: 4) As I mentioned in the past, co-working sprang up and has proliferated (New Work City, Wix Lounge, Hive @ 55, GreenSpaces), incubators have grown (DogpatchLabs, 160 Varick, TippingPoint Partners, techstarsNYC), flexible workspaces have grown (General Assembly, WeWork, SunshineSuites), TechSpace, Select Office Suites) and even the fluid nature of the sub-rental market through mechanisms like LooseCubes have brought up the playing field for startups looking for space. I am certain there are scores more of similar places in the city–a list of them you can find on this google doc (NYC Incubators/Accelerators). But note: The City offers nothing to help ease or connect entrepreneurs to these locations. Once COSP perished, the funelling to the space ecosystem seems to have diminished. While it is admirable to have these two accelerators in place, it should be known that 160 Varick is due for a rental reset after three years and Hive @ 55 was already in place before this plan.
  • Platform (2008 – 3, 2009 – 3.5, 2011 – 4.5) Again, the press are interested in the stories that come about (see the publishing on the NYTM, Entrepreneurs Roundtable, UltraLight Startups), as well as the insane amount of startups for each programming language, framework or product category (my favourite is Fashion 2.0). The visibility of the NY Tech scene has certainly grown and the platforms are still creating the visibility we need. Add TechCrunch Disrupt along with Web 2.0 and you have some intriguing efforts. The City’s major contribution is supporting InternetWeek, which they have been doing for some time now. Not seeing something new here. Maybe if the City offered high-level strategy series like a TED or a foocamp for tech leaders at, let’s say, Gracie Mansion–now that might be helpful.
  • Infrastructure (2008 – 3, 2009 – 3, 2011 – 3) Sorry–it still sucks. After helping Andrew Rasiej with his campaign for Public Advocate and his vision of the City being blanketed with wireless, I still cringe when I am near Bryant Park or Union Square and cannot get access to the network. And while NYCWireless is working hard for this, the City barely seems to support the efforts. So while I see the possibilities from the Roadmap, I actually see the same promises given time and time again. Funny thing: This past March, in Lyon, France, I could easily access their public wifi with little problem, and I could find it almost everywhere I went. I also think that supporting mobile developers with a focused incubator for developing apps would be a terrific help to growing the mobile community in NYC. Having a place where Android, iOS, Windows and Palm could gather and caucus…now wouldn’t that be a great idea.
  • Capital (2008 – 3.5, 2009 – 2.5, 2011 – 3) Right now, when I talk to friends in the City, everyone under the age of 40 is telling me they have a new startup they are creating. And I have personally been in meetings where I watch Wall Street traders licking their lips at the possibility of flogging their equity to their friends so they can make money on their investment in the shortest amount of time. Ask them what they are investing in and they answer, “the idea.”  Ask them what the idea is and you get a blank stare. I truly think angel money is there – but I am worried that brains/experience behind it is missing. Cooler heads (read: survivors of Web 1.0) are also warning of the lack of Series A investors. How many of these angel companies are unable to raise the next round? And without these Series A people, these many fledgeling startups are going to experience a bad fall. And I mean Fall 2011. How can the City help? With the NY Entrepreneurs Fund, it is a nice gesture, but not the juice we would need in growing the Series A tier. Why not find ways to attract other experienced VCs into the City and offer some support. And since capital is the lifeblood of any startup, has the City thought of solving the healthcare cost issue for entrepreneurs? Or a tax break for employing startup individuals in the City?
  • Experience (2008: 2.5, 2009: 2, 2011: 3) Last time I drafted this section, I said: Show me the mentors. So now I see these new organisations (techstarsNYC, ER Accelerator, etc), and all of them tout their “mentors”. And I hear that programs like techstars makes sure there is a mentor to carry the company forward. And Nate has taken office hours one step further with But when I look at the mentor lists, where are the seasoned entrepreneurs? The ones who have the battle scars that can provide true guidance? That are in the space (or adjacent to it) that might be able to help? In the Valley, kabals/keiretsus work together to create bigger and better plays (see the Paypal Mafia and their prodigeny of YouTube, Facebook, Slide, Zivity, Yelp – juts to name a few). Where are our mafias? And how could the City help with them? Having more events is not the way – demonstrating the benefit of helping entrepreneurs from others is. How many office hours has Henry Blodgett put on ohours? Mike Bloomberg? Rachel Sterne? I know that there are not enough hours in the day (trust me I know), but how can others get access to the wisdom that is spilling on the streets in Palo Alto and Menlo Park?
  • Skills/People (2008 – 2.5, 2009 – 3, 2011 – 3.3) Yes, I think that everyone is now familiar with the concepts behind social media and using the new tools to support that ecosystem is well at hand. But we still have a problem with RAW TALENT or industrial programmers being available to be part of these growing companies. Oh yes, everyone and their father can code HTML and some CSS, but that does not make them an architect. Oh yes, you can plug in a jQuery library and have a nice interface look-and-feel, but that does not make you a UX/UI designer. And as friends of mine know, the academic rigour of having teachers teach knowledge within preparing them for skills development – I think is not the best source of new technical or design talent. I hate when I hear of people outsourcing because the outsourced talent is cheaper and better than our own. Having an engineering school here will add to the poor of potential talent, but I think the City needs to look long and hard at how people learn after they graduate and how programs like Hackathons, collaborative training efforts like hack/change and collabraCode(); (which I started) are working to grow developers out of others who wish the passion and to given them a sense of success instead of a lonely experience of failure. I have been preaching the thought of “Apprenticeship in the 21st Century,” and how apprenticeship is about skill development, business understanding and learning to work with others.  Gaining skills and becoming even more powerful than before, since the resulting skills and abilities are the apprentices; A melange of many experiences combined with the flavour of their own talents. City’s help with programs like these to expand our Technical Talent in Basic, Intermediate and Advanced programs would be wonderful. No, the very best may not come out of these programs, but the drive for entrepreneurship is not only about being the best–it is about being able to use the tools that will have you create a business and create success for yourself. The founders of Yipit had not prior programming experience, but they had an idea. They struggled through and found a model that worked – helping others through that process is what the City should do.

While I am disappointed in what I got from the City, I am glad they at least tried to make something happen. I think of myself as a New York Tech enthusiast first and foremost–fighting for the needs of NY Tech startups. Having city services easier to access is just not that exciting to me.

This post originally appeared at Sanford Dickert’s blog.