'It's the economy, clever,' says New York
- 27 June 2012
- From the section Business
Roosevelt Island is a long narrow strip of land beside Manhattan in New York, shaped like a fountain pen that someone dropped in the East River.
It has been used for a prison - with inmates including the jazz singer Billie Holiday in the 1920s. It has been a mental asylum and an isolation hospital.
If a Scooby Doo villain was looking for a place to put a ghost mystery fairground, it might end up there.
But this two-mile stretch is soon to become a $2bn hi-tech cradle of creativity, a "Silicon Island" launchpad for the industries of the digital age.
This is going to be the site of New York's technology campus - a hugely ambitious project to create a research hub from scratch.
And it is an experiment being watched as a blueprint for other countries trying to find a way to kick-start such hi-tech innovation.
Big Apple, big byte
The origins of this project go back to the financial crash of 2008, when the city authorities looked nervously at an economy over-reliant on finance and banking.
The new digital giants, such as Google and Facebook, were coming out of technology clusters around Stanford University in Silicon Valley and Harvard and MIT in the Boston area.
New York, reluctant to miss out on the party, decided it had to compete - and the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, invited universities across the world to take part in a competition to build a new science campus.
The winner was Cornell, in partnership with the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. And the first classes are set to begin this autumn.
It is already proving to be something of a tech brand-fest. While the Roosevelt Island campus is being constructed, the university is going to be housed by Google in Manhattan, free of charge until 2017.
The new university has hired Twitter's chief technology officer, Greg Pass, to be its "entrepreneurial officer", linking the academic world to the technology industry and promoting an entrepreneurial culture.
The start-up has also had the support of old-fashioned philanthropy. Charles Feeney, a reclusive billionaire, famous for not owning a car or his own home, stumped up $350m (£225m).
So what is this grand design going to bring to New York? As someone else almost said: "It's about the economy, clever."
Seth Pinsky is president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation - the agency charged with the task of driving the city's economy and creating jobs.
And what makes this such a distinctive project is that the city's economic ambition has now come to rest on the shoulders of higher education.
It is the university as an economic driver rather than an academic cloister.
Mr Pinsky says that building the technology campus is like the moment in the 19th Century when the city decided to invest in the Erie Canal - a strategic piece of infrastructure that made New York the dominant seaport on the US east coast.
Before the financial crash, says Mr Pinsky, 34% of the city's private payroll depended on Wall Street - and, needing to diversify, the city went in search of a "game changer".
"We spoke to every person we could think of - academics, entrepreneurs, community groups, business leaders, and we asked the same basic question: 'If there was one thing you could change about the city's economy, what would it be?'
"There was one consistent message. If you look around the world at the centres of innovation, what you see at their core is a critical mass of engineering and applied sciences, research and development and talent creation."
New York wanted its own tech centre - proportionate to its strength in areas such as the media, finance and fashion.
"All those industries are being impacted dramatically by changes in technology. We have to stay ahead of the technology in all these fields," says Mr Pinsky.
The technology campus on Roosevelt Island - and a second Brooklyn project headed by New York University - are going to be "economic engines", he says.
They will become magnets for the talented staff, the investors, the tech firms and the spin-offs - in a a virtual circle of innovation and entrepreneurial energy, which he says will "play out for decades".
"We do believe that this campus will be different from anything else that exists anywhere else in the world. And we think the opportunities in New York are different from anywhere else.
"We want this campus to be a model for how higher education, especially in science and engineering, works in the 21st Century," he says.
Away from the tech hype, there is also the practical business of jobs.
Since the mid-1960s three quarters of the city's jobs in manufacturing industries, including many middle-income jobs, have disappeared.
There is an expectation that the Roosevelt Island campus will create 8,000 permanent jobs - and a further 600 new companies and 30,000 jobs in associated spin-offs and support services.
Mr Pinsky says the campuses will be "job engines" - delivering employment paying above-average wages.
This concept of a competition for a start-up university has inspired imitators - with the UK's Universities Minister David Willetts inviting proposals for a privately funded science-research centre.
Roosevelt Island takes its name from the president who took the US out of the economic dust bowls of the depression and invested in a new deal.
With a rather uncanny verbal symmetry, before the name change it had been known as Welfare Island.
The big question will be whether this hi-tech regeneration project can succeed - and avoid the economy getting stuck on welfare island.