What It Takes to Cluster
It seems everybody these days wants a “tech cluster.” Municipalities across the country are repositioning themselves as tech friendly in hopes of capturing some of the promise the industry might hold for their local economy. Here’s the rub though: a tech cluster can’t happen just anywhere. It needs two primary ingredients.
One harkens back to that oldest of business clichés “location, location, location” and the other is a bit more under a municipality’s control: a coordinated strategic marketing campaign. The beginnings of a meaningful tech cluster are rooted in the strength and breadth of a location’s irreducible assets. Even in the face of the digital economy’s decentralizing potential, agglomeration is essential. One of these desired clusters can’t be faked, plunked down just anywhere or retrofitted neatly in the postindustrial landscape (unless you have access to an extraordinary amount of capital i.e. Las Vegas).
A preexisting creative cluster or digitally dependent core industry, robust academic assets, cutting edge telecommunications resources, access to financial resources for start-up and mature businesses alike and multi- modal transportation networks are just some of the characteristics that enable viable tech clusters. If those assets constitute the hardware needed to animate a tech cluster, the software is marketing. In order to build the right marketing software, a location has to first be ruthlessly honest in its appraisal of what its “hard” assets are.
Whatever your store of hard assets is, it will take a partnership amongst a consortium of stakeholders and investments in branding, social media and organizing to make the most of your locality’s strategic and competitive interests. In Lower Manhattan, we’ve been doing just that. In September of 2013 we created LaunchLM, an initiative to galvanize and grow the technology and digital communities in Lower Manhattan.
Over the past year, the number of tech companies in Lower Manhattan grew by 24 percent, from nearly 500 to 600 companies today. And that doesn’t even count digitally oriented media and other creative industries. We believe the potential to build on that is vast. Lower Manhattan has a legacy rooted in innovation.
From AT&T building its first headquarters here in 1916 to being the location of the first transatlantic telephone call, Lower Manhattan has always teemed with possibility. We’re blessed with unsurpassed transportation access, a rich pool of knowledge workers, space for businesses to let at a variety of price points, the nation’s most advanced fiber optic network and we possess an already bustling mixed use environment.
LaunchLM grew out of a committee convened by the Alliance for Downtown New York—New York’s’ larges Business Improvement District. The committee, made up of stakeholders in the tech sector, real estate professionals, industry associations, community leaders, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, met for a year discussing and debating the kinds of catalysts needed to help Lower Manhattan reach its potential with the industry. Two bedrock principles of the effort were clear and became the pillars of LaunchLM. The effort had to make those it was seeking to influence the parties who defined our direction and also make them partners in content making.
The effort needed to be by and for the technologists, executives and locational decision makers and influencers that make or break clustering. It also had to be an effort that was committed to for the long haul. Whatever work was undertaken would have to be sustained with constant investment and effort over time. Years, not weeks. To quote the Carpenters “we’ve only just begun.” Launch likes to think of itself as relentlessly active and patient at the same time. Whether it’s our restless pursuit of building virtual community through our rich website, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts, the attention we pay to SEO and email list building or the regular public programming we sponsor from
Start-up Open houses to talks on the frontier of data science to discussions on the intersection of food and tech, we keep our ear to the ground about the industry’s latest trends and concerns and then invite them to partner with us to produce relevant content. We never forget it’s their industry, we help produce the venue, the crowd, make connections and spread the word. This is the key to marketing to the Tech sector. If it’s ersatz –you’re done. Be what you advertise. In addition to making content, Launch is an advocate. Among other things, we educate the real estate community about the particular needs of tech clients--flexible space, bike rooms, etc.
You can look to our website as a resource for tech friendly buildings in the district. We also energetically engage with government, educational institutions and the not for profit sector on the industry’s needs and agenda. We strive to be a connecter, problem solver and industry champion. Our next step will be creating a physical space where programming, networking and pedagogy can have a home. In the months ahead, LaunchLM will become a three dimensional destination where industry associations and startups, out of town executives and companies can come set up and shop, conduct business, sponsor hackathons, do product demos and convene audiences.
All that and have a killer cup of coffee at the same time. Never forget that caffeine is the fuel that the Tech industry runs on! Our results so far? Great press about the district’s assets, a constant drum beat about possibility, promise and achievement, a robust and growing social and communications network, a new sense of community, new connections between the real estate and tech industries and a palpable sense of momentum. We’re confident that it’s the dynamic interplay between the intrinsic appeal of Lower Manhattan and how and with whom we sell it that will ultimately tell the tale of our “cluster.” We’re also confident that, with the course we’re setting, the oldest neighborhood in New York City is going to play a big role in defining the City’s economic future.
About the Author:
Andrew Breslau is a Senior Vice President for the Alliance for Downtown New York. A former press secretary in New York City government, a not for profit executive and producer at CNN, he manages the Alliance’s communications, marketing and technology teams.
Daria Siegel, an urban planner, serves as Director of LaunchLM, an initiative designed to champion the growing technology sector in Lower Manhattan, created by the Alliance for Downtown New York.