Friday, January 25, 2013

INTERVIEW: 'Between Academic Activity and the Commercialisation of That Activity': New York's the Hub

Euan Robertson
Euan Robertson (The Observatory)
by Alex Katsomitros, The Observatory:

Interview with Euan Robertson, New York City Economic Development Corporation 

Euan Robertson is Executive Vice-President of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCDC), the city's business development arm. 

Euan has played a leading role in developing Applied Sciences NYC, an initiative that aims to boost New York's economy by creating world-class technology campuses. Originally from Scotland, he holds an MA from the University of St Andrews and an MBA from the London Business School. 

We spoke with him on 19 December 2012 about university consortia in New York City, the importance of STEM skills in rebalancing the economy, immigration policy and internationalisation in higher education.

Mr Robertson, there is a debate on both sides of the Atlantic on the right mix for economic growth. Some academics suggest that there is too much reliance on the service sector, particularly financial services, and that we should rebalance the economy by investing in manufacturing, technology and STEM skills in higher education. Where do you stand on this, particularly from a NYC perspective? Was it something you had in mind when you launched Applied Sciences NYC?

It is something we thought a lot about. When the Mayor [Bloomberg] first came into office he was the first person to say that the NYC's economy was probably too reliant on financial services. It is not that they should not be an important part of our economy, but like any good chief executive, he recognised that you have to diversify your portfolio.

For too long NYC was very exposed to financial services; in the good times the city does very well but when the industry takes a hit, the entire economy takes a hit. I forget the exact statistics but I think that finance is 8-9% of our private payroll, whereas in terms of the fiscal base it is around a third. That means that it has an outsized effect on the city government's ability to provide services.

So part of our development policy was to try to foster other sectors, and to geographically diversify the economy. Because of the history of the financial industry, a lot of the economic activity was concentrated in the business district in lower Manhattan and midtown.

So the policy drivers for the past 10 years have been diversifying the economy and also moving some activity to other boroughs surrounding Manhattan.

That whole process got a boost in 2008 when Lehman Brothers went bust and the financial crisis started. That was the spark for the Applied Sciences effort. It did not begin as Applied Sciences NYC, but as a big brainstorming exercise which we called 'game-changers'.

We engaged with more than 300 organisations and individuals, and asked them in workshops a simple question: 'If there was one thing that you could do or change to boost and reset NYC's economy over the long term, what would it be?' That process led to the Applied Sciences initiative.

Regarding STEM skills, I think that competency in STEM disciplines is so prevalent across so many different sectors, that it is more of a foundational piece. So it is not that we need to shift towards manufacturing or a specific type of economic activity. These skillsets are the enabling and foundational factor for pretty much every sector that we see as a driver for economic growth. 

So what can local governments do to engage students in STEM disciplines?

There is not one thing you need to do; it has to be part of a holistic plan. In the case of Applied Sciences NYC, the net result will be that we will have a lot more people who have been through quality graduate-level training in applied sciences disciplines, in addition to research generated by the various campuses, of which the Cornell-Technion campus on Roosevelt Island is by far the largest.

The projects that we have financed so far will more than double the number of full-time engineering graduates in the city, and that fulfils a need we have heard from businesses. If you talk to CEOs and investors and ask them what are the major constraints on growth, they say that they cannot hire the right technical talent quickly enough. There is a supply and demand mismatch.

Another thing is getting kids involved in STEM disciplines at a much earlier age. One of the things we have done in partnership with people from the private sector, including a well-known venture capitalist, Fred Wilson, who runs Union Square Ventures, are pilot programmes of a new type of education at school level.

These target kids to get them interested in science, creating a new kind of curriculum and training teachers in schools, because teachers also need some upskilling in these disciplines.

What about international talent? Research by Accenture shows that there is a location mismatch between employers and employees with STEM skills. So you have people with engineering degrees who cannot move to the places where the jobs are. And of course immigration is a controversial issue on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you want international talent in NYC?

We definitely want international talent here across all industries. NYC perceives itself to be an international city in diversity of population and economic activity.

The Mayor himself has been vocal on this issue. He frequently goes to Washington DC to lobby on behalf of reform of US immigration policy. His view is that immigration policy over the last few years has been moving in the wrong direction, becoming less open, making it more difficult for talented people to come and work here.

He points out that we have this crazy situation where we bring people, we educate them, a lot of them have ideas to create businesses, but we make it impossible for them to stay, as their student visas expire when their relationship with their academic institutions ends. So we are definitely in favour of an open immigration policy.

Speaking specifically about the Applied Sciences programme, one of the questions we had for the universities was whether they would face a challenge in filling the available slots with the right calibre students. They said to us that at that level within STEM disciplines there is huge oversubscription, which means that for every available place they will receive many applications.

So there is no problem in maintaining a high standard of quality in these particular campuses. But nationally, at the macro level and certainly for the city, I agree that there is a big issue with where talent is located versus where it could be deployed.

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