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NYC’s Tech Economy and the Double Meaning of ‘Innovation Complex’

By BETH HARPAZ

The title of Sharon Zukin’s new book has a double meaning. The Innovation Complex describes the physical places where tech companies cluster, as well as the “’psychological ‘complex’ or cultural anxiety” that cities experience when tech jobs impact the local economy. Her book offers “a layered history and a critical interpretation” of how the tech industry is reshaping New York. 

City government has played a “major role” in the emergence of New York as a “superstar” locale in the U.S. tech economy, second only to California’s Silicon Valley. But much of that activity by government agencies and officials to attract and support tech jobs here has been “under the radar,” writes Zukin, professor emerita at The Graduate Center and Brooklyn College.

Since the 2008 financial collapse, New York has not only “subsidized new locations for individual tech companies,” but it’s also “subsidized private sector and nonprofit partnerships to outfit workspace, set up training programs” (including some at CUNY), and build infrastructure, from ferry lines to broadband networks.

Many New Yorkers may not be all that aware of the tech industry’s physical presence, since there’s often little signage to mark its turf. But tech companies have filled vacant buildings and created jobs all over the city.

In addition to an early tech district on a stretch of Lower Broadway known as Silicon Alley, New York has experienced tremendous growth in tech along the Brooklyn waterfront, from Williamsburg to DUMBO to Industry City. There’s also a substantial Google presence in the Meatpacking District, a Frank Gehry-designed Facebook space on Astor Place, and the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island.

The tech sector has also helped push up property values while turning some industries upside down (think Uber, food deliveries, and Airbnb). And therein lies much of the anxiety alluded to in Zukin’s double-entendre title. “Private investment reaps most of the rewards” when tech booms, yet cities can’t fund affordable housing, mass transit, and schools.

The public has started to push back against this phenomenon–witness Amazon’s Long Island City fiasco–but it remains a contradiction inherent in the impact of the tech  economy.  As Zukin puts it: “The more successful the innovation complex, the less livable the city becomes.”

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The Innovation Complex
Oxford University Press, 2020

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Sharon Zukin (Professor Emerita, Sociology) | Profile 1

Bonus Content

"Sharon Zukin on economy as place" (Indoor Voices podcast)
"Sharon Zukin Book Talk" (YouTube/Skyscraper Museum )
"New York City's Gifts (&Cost) to the Tech Sector" (NPR)