What price, innovation?

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is courting major research universities to create an East Coast version of Silicon Valley. Can it be done without funding?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Infrastructure projects create jobs; jobs create wealth and wealth, fairly dispersed, begets a stable economy.

But what if there's no funding to begin with?

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg made headlines in July when he unveiled a grand vision to build an East Coast version of California's Silicon Valley, a reborn Silicon Alley if you will, replete with top-flight research institutions (including Stanford!) and prime real estate in America's most populous and wealthy city.

Since then, we've seen a number of architectural visions for the preposed sites, as ambitious as the plan itself. But what if the project never gets off the ground?

John Gravois of New York magazine asks this very question on its Intelligencer blog:

One of the more straightforward factors that gave rise to Silicon Valley was a Cold War boom in federal research funding. And right now, the congressional supercommittee is determining, among other things, how big our own era’s bust in research funding will be. According to the American Physical Society, funding for science agencies could fall by as much as 11 percent. No less than Harvard, in its financial report for 2011, has warned of a likely “material adverse effect” on the university should government resources drop too much. “I’m a little bit afraid,” says Henry J. Eyring, co-author of the new book The Innovative University, “that building facilities for performing academic research right now may be a little bit like upsizing your home with a larger mortgage—in about 2007.”

The private sector can help ease the pain, but it won't replace the outsize presence of the federal government when it comes to funding research that has no clear commercial use. (Exhibit A: speech recognition, which took a half-century to emerge as a worthwhile investment.)

It seems this project may be stuck in neutral before it's even begun.

Mayor Bloomberg may see construction jobs in this mega-project, but perhaps what New York really needs is not a massive visual ode to a community, but the community itself. With the city already crawling with science and technology students from NYU, Columbia, Cooper Union, Rockefeller University, Cornell and others, it may be that what New York needs is further effort to knit together this disparate but preexisting community through a common, collaborative goal, instead of creating yet another physical campus walled off from the city.

Illustration: Ennead Architects/Stanford University

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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