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Follow the Data Podcast Episode 12: Cornell Tech: Engineering the Future of New York City

The 12th episode of Follow the Data celebrates the launch of the new Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, by looking back at the project’s inception. Cornell Tech is the first campus ever built for the digital age, bringing together academia and industry to create pioneering leaders and transformational new research, products, companies and social ventures.

During his time as Mayor, Mike Bloomberg challenged top institutions from around the world to propose a new campus, with the goal of diversifying New York City’s economy in the wake of the 2008 recession. The winning bid from Cornell University and the Technion Israel Institute of Technology presented a cutting-edge graduate education institution, blending computer science, engineering, business, law, and design. The campus, made for New York, presents an opportunity to expand the tech community on the East coast, and offers a new space for cultivating innovation.

Cornell Tech is on track to generate over 8,000 permanent jobs, hundreds of spin-off companies, and more than $23 billion dollars in economic activity over a period of 35 years. Momentum builds with each graduating class: to-date, there are only 300 alumni, but they have already generated 38 companies with headquarters or offices in New York City.

Katherine Oliver, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment during the launch of the administration’s competition speaks with Cornell Tech Dean, Dan Huttenlocher, and former Deputy Mayor Bob Steel, who were vital to the campus launch, and are responsible for its continued success.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

MS. OLIVER: Students, academics, business leaders, philanthropists, and elected officials from across New York recently gathered on Roosevelt Island in New York City for the opening of the new Cornell Tech campus – conceived just seven years ago by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his administration. This state of the art facility is changing the tech community on the East coast, if not the world.

In the wake of the 2008 recession, when the financial sector suffered a catastrophic hit, Mayor Bloomberg recognized the importance of creating a diverse economy in New York City — one that would include a burgeoning technology industry.

Mayor Bloomberg saw the unparalleled opportunity to build a world-class applied sciences and engineering campus, designed to dramatically increase the City’s global competitiveness and capacity to create jobs.

The goal was to create a network of top-tier applied sciences and engineering campuses that would not only enrich the City’s existing research capabilities, but also lead to innovative ideas that could eventually end up becoming the next Google, Amazon, or Facebook — the difference was, these companies would be local — and bear the mark of being “Made in New York”.

Back in December 2010, New York City launched Applied Sciences NYC, issuing a challenge to top institutions from around the world to propose a new or expanded campus. The following year, Mayor Bloomberg announced the winning bid from Cornell University and Technion Israel Institute of Technology – pairing two of the world’s top institutions in the fields of science, engineering, technology, and research.

As the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment at that time, I was excited to see that this was a real opportunity to expand the Made in New York brand, which was widely recognized by the film industry, and see it take hold in the technology and start-up sectors. While New York was already known as the number one city to make your movie – it would soon be the number one place to start your company.

And so we frame this episode’s conversation with this data point on the projected impact of the campus: Cornell Tech is on track to generate over 8,000 permanent jobs, hundreds of spin-off companies, and more than $23 billion dollars in economic activity over a period of 35 years.

In honor of the opening, we look back to the project’s inception and what the future holds for the school with Dean Dan Huttenlocher and former Deputy Mayor Bob Steel, both of whom I had the privilege of working with and both who were vital to the project’s launch, and are responsible now for its continued success.

Gentlemen, good morning. Thanks for being here, Bob and Dan. Bob, you are very modest, but Mike Bloomberg has been very vocal in crediting you with being the real impetus for the establishment of Cornell Tech during your time as Deputy Mayor for Economic Development.

Tell us, what drove the Bloomberg administration to create this competition to bring a new engineering campus to New York City, and why was applied sciences such a critical focus?

 

MR. STEEL: Well, Mayor Bloomberg I think really recognized the need first. After the 2008 economic slowdown Mayor Bloomberg recognized two things:

One, that the city was very dependent on financial services and would likely need to diversify, and number two, that the skills of applied science and engineering were really catalytic to growing economies in the future.

And so, those were really the two drivers that led Mayor Bloomberg to think about framing this issue as an applied science initiative.

 

MS. OLIVER: And clearly after 9/11, the focus early in the administration was to make the city safe, but clearly to diversify the city’s economy and really look at what New York had going for it. And clearly the financial community is well known and embedded here.

But Mike Bloomberg had the vision to look at other sectors that could really help us through different cyclical changes so technology came close to home for him. It seems, now in retrospect, the natural progression.

 

MR. STEEL: Well, Mayor Bloomberg, as you say, was exactly the right person to frame this, being an engineer, having started a fin tech company that’s one of the most successful in the world– but I think there were really three parts to the strategy.

One was that Mayor Bloomberg recognized that the tech revolution was affecting how cities were run, and we need to think about that with regard to how we managed our day-to-day jobs in New York City.

Number two is that there were lots of great companies to recruit to New York, like Google, like Twitter, like Facebook. But, number three, that lots of New York’s current industries were going to be disrupted and innovated by technology.

So if you look at some of the mainstays of New York City’s economy – law, communications, advertising, retail – these businesses are being changed by technology too. So it’s not just about technology businesses. It’s about how the foundation of New York’s economy is going to change.

And what Mayor Bloomberg saw was that the key thing to frame the ideas for the future was to have very highly skilled workers who knew applied science and engineering and therefore Mayor Bloomberg led the charge for the applied science initiative.

 

MS. OLIVER: Now Cornell Tech was achieved through several public/private partnerships. Under what circumstances is the public/private partnership model the most effective in advancing the goals of the city?

 

MR. STEEL: Well, I think that Mayor Bloomberg really framed things with a philosophy, and the philosophy was that the city should have a vision of where we wish to go. And the city should often provide some seed capital for the framing and the understanding of the idea.

But in the end, often it’s the case the city isn’t the right person to plan or imagine the details of the project. And I think where Mayor Bloomberg really had this right was we organized a request for expressions of interest, which transitioned to a request for proposals, and then we heard from the institutions on how they thought we should take this forward.

And take the case of Cornell. For 150 years they’ve been running higher education. They know how to do it. They can imagine. They have all the people and they know the vision of what it should be much more than we do. So we framed it. We provided a perspective, but Cornell brought it to life.

 

MS. OLIVER: Okay. And, Dan, speaking for Cornell, it’s been nearly seven years since Mayor Bloomberg kicked off the competition. How do you think–how has the vision, for Cornell Tech evolved or changed since the project began?

 

MR. HUTTENLOCHER: So one of the things that I find most interesting about where we are with Cornell Tech seven years in is the initial vision for a campus, that was focused on digital technology, how it’s transforming society and the economy, and really tying academic work to economic impact and to social impact.

That was the initial vision. It’s still the vision today. But what has changed phenomenally since then is how to execute on that vision. So we now have a master’s program across a whole set of different — seven different disciplines — so seven different master’s programs that come together in one common shared curricula we call “The Studio.”

We had no idea that that was going to be the kind of implementation mechanism for this vision.

 

MS. OLIVER: And how important is it going to be to remain nimble? Technology is changing so quickly so you’ve got to adapt to demands in the marketplace.

 

MR. HUTTENLOCHER: It’s extremely important. One of the things that I’ve been focusing on as we’ve built Cornell Tech and that the leadership team has been focusing on is how do we iterate year in and year out to take the changes that are happening in industry and really — and in the economy and in society — and really reflect them in our curriculum.

But also to stay a little bit ahead of those, because if academia is completely following rather than helping lead, then we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing. So it’s really building processes that help us remain nimble.

 

MR. STEEL: I think, Katherine, Dan describes it perfectly and it’s why we at city hall were so excited to have Cornell be the leader for this project.

Since President Lincoln started Cornell as a land grant university more than 150 years ago, they’ve run a first class higher education institution. They understand how to adjust. They understand this responsibility and they’re terrific at it.

Getting city government out of it once they were awarded the prize is exactly the right strategy. And I can tell you all of us at city hall were excited that Cornell’s administration and their trustees are responsible for this, and it’s organized so they’re in charge for the next 99 years. And the idea that they’ve gotten it right for 150 years, I’m pretty comfortable they’ll get it right for the next 99.

 

MR. HUTTENLOCHER: So I love the fact that Bob brought up the Morrill Land Grant Act because Cornell has this really odd, and I mean odd in a good way, DNA as an academic institution.

We’re a private university. We’re one of the Ivy League schools, but we’re also the land grant institution of New York State and we’re actually the only private land grant university in the country.

So we mix this, sort of private Ivy League attitude and approach to education, with the land grants which are very concerned with serving society. So Cornell Tech is really a modern day land grant. The city, under the Bloomberg administration, granted a new grant of land very much like the original Morrill Land Grant Act.

 

MR. STEEL: I think the other exciting thing is that Cornell was birthed to handle the transition from one revolution; the revolution from an agrarian to an industrial economy.

And now, once again because of Mayor Bloomberg’s insight, Cornell is right at the forefront of the next change and revolution. And that’s the change from an industrial economy to a knowledge information economy. So there have been two of these economic transitions and Cornell is right at the center of both of them.

 

MS. OLIVER: And that the transition and the transformation of Roosevelt Island is startling. I mean Roosevelt Island is about two miles long, 800 feet wide, and for those listening to the podcast who’ve never seen the island, it’s located right between Queens and Manhattan, surrounded by the East River which flows all around it.

Talk a little bit about the challenges. I mean such an amazing opportunity to transform Roosevelt Island, but to build a brand new, state-of-the-art campus on this island, there had to be countless considerations taken at the time.

 

MR. HUTTENLOCHER: So I really love Roosevelt Island as a home for building an academic institution in New York because on the one hand you’re very connected to the city. You know, we have the F train. we have the tram. We now have the East River ferry there.

In fact, I’m very amused lately when I see people actually use Roosevelt Island as a place to connect between modes of transit. They’re not even going to Roosevelt Island. They’re taking the ferry to the F train or vice versa.

But it’s also apart. It’s its own small island. As you said, it’s long and thin. It really sort of looks on the city almost from the center of the city geographically.

With the construction, first we had to demolish the old Goldwater Hospital. Then we had to construct the new campus. With the construction, one of the things that we agreed with the community was to make as much use of barging as possible, to not take that narrow road down the long length of Roosevelt Island and turn that into a place to, you know, haul out debris from demolition and bring in steel and concrete and other things.

So we did what we believe is the largest private barging operation ever run for a construction project in the city of New York, and reduced tens of thousands of truck trips through there.

But there are a lot of other challenges to being anywhere near the water. And so one of the other things we did as we were demolishing the old hospital is we took the clean fill and we raised the site up by about seven feet from where it had been so that the entry level to our buildings now is at a point where much of Manhattan below 34th Street is at a lower altitude than our campus is.

And so as we think about sea level rise, there really will have to be more systemic solutions. You know, there are whole countries that are largely below sea level. But we won’t be the canary in the coal mine so to speak for flooding in New York City.

 

MS. OLIVER: The official opening of the campus includes the Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Center, named after Mike Bloomberg’s daughters, designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis, The Bridge designed by Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, and The House designed by Handel Architects, took place earlier in September.

Can you tell us a little bit about Phase One of the Roosevelt Island campus and what students, New Yorkers, and visitors can expect to see and experience?

 

MR. HUTTENLOCHER: Certainly. We talk about Cornell Tech as the first campus that’s been purpose-built for the digital age. And that refers to our academic programs, you know, our graduate programs, but it also refers to the physical campus.

And I think when you walk onto the Roosevelt Island campus, the Cornell Tech campus, you immediately feel that. In fact, one of the best comments I heard in the time around the dedication that sort of resonated most with me is someone walked onto the campus and said, “I really feel like I’m in the future.”

The set of buildings are designed to really be expressive of the digital age. There are buildings that couldn’t have been designed without digital tools. There are buildings that bring new forms of sustainability to construction and operation of the buildings in terms of–

 

MS. OLIVER: Net-Zero energy?

 

MR. HUTTENLOCHER: Yup, Net-Zero energy. Bloomberg Center, Passive House for the residential building.

 

MS. OLIVER: And why is this so important to New York City?

 

MR. HUTTENLOCHER: So this is important to the city and to the world. One of the things about New York that actually Mike Bloomberg often likes to refer to and was an important design principle for us as we thought about the campus is that in New York much of the energy demand is from buildings.

In most cities it’s from commuting, but our transportation network is so efficient in New York City that in fact here it’s mainly the buildings. And so if we managed to develop ways of constructing much more energy-efficient buildings in New York City, I don’t mean energy efficiency by making these places unpleasant to live in or to work in, I mean energy efficiency through new technologies, through digital technologies, through construction technologies, through design technologies. Then that can be replicated as new construction happens throughout this city and in fact that’s already starting to happen.

The Passive House residential building that we built was the first high rise Passive House building and now there are several others under construction and design in the city of New York.

 

MS. OLIVER: Well, we can only hope that other building projects go up as quickly. Bob — your impressions of the facility. It’s one thing to see it on paper, to see the designs, but to walk that campus now and to pinch yourself and think we did this in seven years. I mean, this is astounding.

 

MR. STEEL: Well, the people at Cornell deserve so much credit for the execution of the project and I think that when we conceived the idea we thought of facilities in rather a bland way, and we viewed facilities as the mechanism by which you facilitate our ambition.

And I think we didn’t plan as much about the actual facilities. We thought about what we wanted to accomplish with the physical space being the fulcrum to accomplish that.

But, to be honest, when you walk on the campus as you report, it’s goosebumps. It really is beautiful. And I think one of Mayor Bloomberg’s hallmarks was the recognition of the importance of design and architecture and art, and this is another form of culture and it’s inspiring.

This rhymes with the Bloomberg legacy generally of recognizing the importance of this. And these are really inspirational facilities and I’m pretty optimistic that they’ll facilitate things that are inspirational too. And so it’s exciting for sure, and all of us who were lucky enough to grab an oar and row on the project are excited.

You mentioned speed. You know, normally when you put government together with higher education, speed isn’t the image that comes to mind. And so the fact that that’s the reality, this is government coming together with higher education, and it was done in a pretty darn efficient and effective way.

 

MS. OLIVER: Now, Dan, you’ve had a long career in engineering. Do you see that there are parallels between constructing the buildings and now constructing a curriculum? And your alma mater, MIT, can you talk a little bit about what sets Cornell Tech apart from the competition?

 

MR. HUTTENLOCHER: Certainly. So, first, on this issue of parallels between constructing buildings, constructing academic curricula, and frankly I would add to that constructing software which is now around us every day.

One of the things that you have as an opportunity in software and in curricula is you can continue to change them. And that’s sometimes an opportunity we don’t take but it’s there as an opportunity.

Whereas in physical buildings, the rate of change is by necessity much slower. You’re not tearing them down. You’re not ripping the walls out on a daily basis. So we tried very hard on the physical campus to design buildings that would be very flexible, buildings that combined a lot of open floor plan space because of its high flexibility but also because of the academic work environment.

A huge number of meeting and conference rooms, because one of the things about research, so we have both our research and our education mission, one of the things about research is that it doesn’t happen on a schedule. And so scheduling a conference room is almost antithetical to the notion of research.

So we wanted there to be enough conference rooms so that people could meet and do research spontaneously while at the same time having the flexibility of a much more open floor plan kind of building like you might see in a tech company, in a financial firm, or, you know, quite frankly at Bloomberg LP is a great example of that.

So, but then the second part of your question was about academic programs. I think one of the things that’s been most exciting to me about Cornell Tech, as much as I love the architecture and the physical space, is not that; it’s the programs that we’re building. And the fact that we really have started to construct something that I would call deep integration across academic disciplines. So every university today has a lot of focus on interdisciplinary work.

But even the notion of calling it interdisciplinary sort of, you know, each discipline is kind of sitting there meeting in the middle. And what we’re doing is building something where very different academic disciplines – computer science, parts of engineering, business, law, design – are inextricably tied together on a day-to-day basis and that’s with our faculty and the research that they’re doing.

It’s also with the structure of our master’s programs. And getting that right is what’s taking a huge amount of iteration year to year.

 

MS. OLIVER: Bob, you know, talk a little bit about the economic development piece and how we can–the importance of this pipeline for growth.

 

MR. STEEL: Well, anyone that reviewed my academic record would know I was the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, not a deputy mayor for education. So really this was birthed as an idea to be a lever and a protector of the economy of New York on behalf of the workers and the citizens. Workers so we could have jobs; citizens so we had a strong economy.

And that was the crucible in which this whole idea was birthed. And we’re optimistic that this is really working in the right way.

You know, when you think about yourselves or your city or your responsibilities, you have to be honest. And the reality was that New York was under served with regard to applied sciences and engineering at the highest levels.

While we are a great university city –we have a fantastic higher education, we have great research universities. we have commuter colleges and we have community colleges. Over 600,000 secondary level students in New York. We have more students than Boston has people, so we were a college town but we really weren’t as strong as we needed to be in the highest levels of applied science and engineering.

Cornell Tech brings that to life in our city and that really was the vision of Mayor Bloomberg that’s happening before our eyes. And I believe this will be a terrific benefit to all of New York City, as I said, both offense and defense. Offense growing and protecting our economy going forward.

 

MS. OLIVER: How many Cornell Tech alumni have graduated since the first class? And talk a little bit about creating that pipeline, you know, we want to educate these folks but we want them to stay in New York and start their own companies here. So can you talk, both of you, a little bit about that pipeline growth.

 

MR. HUTTENLOCHER: Sure. So, one of the things about Cornell Tech today is that we’re at sort of a strange place in our evolution, which is we have about the same number of current students as alumni.
And if you think about most academic institutions of course there are many, many more alumni, many more living alumni, than there are current students. So we have about 300 alumni and about 300 students currently.

And one of the things that’s terrific about our alumni base is that about 60% of our graduates are living and working here in New York which is, first, delivers on part of the mission of the campus which is creating economic activity here in New York City because these students were attracted here from all around the country and all over the world. They weren’t New Yorkers to begin with.

But also that means that they’re part of the campus itself. So our alumni are back on the campus on a very regular basis and they’re engaged in some of our academic programs in terms of delivering the studio curriculum, working with our current students.

And just sort of one footnote on those 300 alumni. One very important footnote is we now have 38 companies that have spun out of Cornell Tech already with just that number of alumni, that have raised tens of millions of dollars of venture funding, that have hundreds of employees that are starting to generate revenue, and those companies are almost all based here in New York City or have an office here in New York.

Some of them are already multi-national corporations. Especially with our Technion partnership, there are a number of U.S./Israeli multi-nationals that have spun out of Cornell Tech.

 

MS. OLIVER: The world is watching with incredible enthusiasm. Does this model have potential for other cities?

 

MR. STEEL: Well, people ask all the time, can borrow your playbook and run it. And I don’t think that’s the right question. I don’t think our playbook is going to work for other people to be honest.

We’re in New York City and it’s different. I think when people ask me about this idea, my suggestion is to do an audit on what your strengths are and think about how can you make and organize your strengths as a way to model and attract what you might wish to become.

And New York had lots of people recognize the import and the opportunity to be part of New York City. And so when we ran the contest and invited people to participate, we had a significantly positive response.

I don’t think everyone will have that. So the question is what are the assets of your city, your community, your neighborhood, how can you organize and present them in a way so that they’re attractive to others and you might have to improve certain aspects.

In the end, that was what we just decided was that we needed to have a government engagement running a Bloomberg playbook to change the nature of higher education in New York. What was that playbook? Framing an idea, providing some capital, getting the benefit of the wisdom of people in higher education, listening to them, and framing a proposal that made sense for them and for us. And then lastly, letting them run it and those are really the three ingredients to the successful Bloomberg strategy.

And as a result, we haven’t just had Cornell Tech. NYU has expanded their strategies dramatically. They basically are now running Poly as part of NYU. That’s their engineering school. They’re reorganizing at 370 Jay Street and that will be exciting for New York City and especially for Brooklyn, right between Metro Tech and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. That’s a good story.

Number two is Columbia’s expanding their interest in engineering. And when you look at their new campus, engineering is a key part of that. And that’s not all. If you look at Carnegie Mellon going to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to organize their activities and RPI working with Mount Sinai.

All these activities moving forward are part of Mayor Bloomberg’s applied science initiative and he deserves that credit.

 

MS. OLIVER: So 10, 20 years down the line, what does success look like for Cornell Tech? Dan, you take it and then, Bob, some closing thoughts.

 

MR. HUTTENLOCHER: So to me success for Cornell Tech 10 or 20 years down the line is that we’ve spun hundreds of companies out of Cornell Tech; that those companies are a vibrant part of the fabric of New York City. And in fact they’re such a part of New York City that you don’t really identify them as Cornell Tech companies versus anything else.

And one of the things that’s so rewarding to me is that already at this very early stage where we’re literally counting our graduates in the hundreds and our companies in the tens, is that the city, the tech industry in the city, technology in other companies that are sort of tech functions in other companies in the city, is changing so rapidly.

So we’re really here and having a catalytic effect even at our teeny scale and I just–I think that as we scale, that effect is going to be one that’s going to be recognized to have helped transform the entire city economy.

And that doesn’t mean we do it all ourselves. We’re doing that with the other academic institutions in New York City. We’re doing that with the businesses in New York City. We continue to do that with the government in New York City.

It’s that something like the applied sciences initiative and like the Cornell Tech campus can become a focal point and a beacon for a much broader set of change. And that’s really how I think we’ll look back on this.

 

MR. STEEL: Well, that’s a great question to kind of come to the end on, Katherine. I think I’d maybe approach it two ways.

First of all, let’s think about Cornell. As I’ve said, it’s 150 years old and it’s one of the cornerstones of higher education in America. This is a game changer for Cornell.

While they had strong standing in New York City with Weill Cornell and other activities, this will really allow a new focus on New York City for Cornell. And I believe when Cornell thinks about the next 20, 30, 50 years, they’ll benefit from being connected more with New York City.

In terms of New York City, it really will benefit, I believe, the business that they’re here. It will attract new businesses to come and also the skills that we’ll need to make our city run better too. I believe in 20 or 30 years, no one will be able to imagine New York without Cornell Tech.

 

MS. OLIVER: Gentlemen, an incredible accomplishment and an incredible legacy for the Bloomberg administration so thank you.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data. To learn more about Cornell Tech, please visit tech.cornell.edu

We’d like to thank Bob and Dan for joining us today, and all the partners who have contributed to the creation of Cornell Tech.

Thank you for listening – if you haven’t already, subscribe. This episode was produced by Electra Colevas and Ivy Li, with music by Mark Piro.

As our founder Mike Bloomberg says, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Until next time, keep following the data.