Most business interests in New York City are a bit wary of the newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio, a populist who has spent his career in the government and nonprofit sectors. The tech startup industry is especially nervous: January marks the end of a period of coddling by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the beginning of an administration led by a man who has very different ideas about tech in the city.
"I think that the incoming administration is going to have lots of competing priorities and probably will not be as single-focused on the innovation economy as Bloomberg was," says Kathy Wylde, president of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, an organization of city business leaders. "I do think that the industry is going to have to be better organized to take initiative."
January marks the end of coddling by Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Tech may get less attention in the de Blasio era, but that doesn’t mean it’s under threat. Maturing as a political lobby isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s actually probably overdue for the city’s tech sector.
De Blasio’s populist policies may even turn out to be more in line with tech’s interests than Bloomberg’s billionaire boosterism, despite reservations held by some in the industry.
The mayor-elect’s campaign positioned him as Bloomberg’s progressive foil. De Blasio, who previously worked as a liaison between the public and City Hall as public advocate, spent most of his time on the trail talking about class issues including education, income inequality, and the New York Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy.
However, his progressive principles have led him to champion one of the tech industry’s most important issues: investing in broadband access. De Blasio has spoken out against Verizon for promising high-speed fiberoptic access for the entire city, but defining "access" so loosely that it leaves many New Yorkers without the ability to connect — an arrangement the Bloomberg administration seems fine with.
His progressive principles led him to one of tech's most important issues
De Blasio has also proposed dedicating $150 million to science and tech scholarships at the City University of New York and $100 million in city pensions to a fund that would invest in tech startups. He has pledged continued support for the new tech campus, and to help widen its reach to the outer boroughs. He also supports immigration reform that would allow high-tech workers into the country, another high-priority issue for the tech community.
A de Blasio spokesperson declined to answer specific questions about the mayor-elect’s positions, instead pointing to his tech-related proposals.
Broadband access is the single most important issue facing the New York tech sector, says Andrew Rasiej, chairman of the 35,000-member New York Tech Meetup. De Blasio is the first elected official to make that a priority.
"The New York tech industry should be very, very excited because he has basically made making New York City the most wired city in the world a major policy priority," Rasiej tells The Verge. "The infrastructure of the city has to match the promise of the tech industry."
After broadband, the city must foster tech talent to fill jobs, he says — and de Blasio has plans to attack that problem at all levels of education, through a recruitment office, and through immigration policies.
"The infrastructure of the city has to match the promise of the tech industry."
Last, de Blasio has promised to make government itself more technologically enhanced, improving the software procurement process so that smaller startups can take government contracts.
The mayor-elect has paid lip service to every industry including tech. But he lacks his predecessor’s demonstrated business-friendliness and immense network of power players like Google chairman Eric Schmidt.
Bloomberg also considered the city’s nascent tech sector his pet project — especially toward the end of his three terms, when he was establishing the new Cornell–Technion technical school and cementing his legacy.
It is undeniable that the tech industry flourished during Bloomberg’s three terms. Investment in the city’s tech startups is on track to hit a five-year high, according to research firm CB Insights.
However, it’s debatable whether Bloomberg’s efforts actually did much to buoy tech companies in New York. Some techies feel that the industry was already rising before the city got involved, and its most significant investment — the Cornell–Technion tech campus — won’t fully open until 2018.
It’s debatable whether Bloomberg's efforts did much for tech
Bloomberg founded a high-powered conference of entrepreneurs and investors, and released a glowing economic impact study funded by his own private organization that says New York tech is second only to finance in wages paid out. His administration lavished attention on techies with press conferences, taxi TV ads, and an appearance at the New York City Tech Meetup.
These efforts often seemed more like marketing than substantive changes, however. For example, the city also hired its first chief digital officer, Rachel Haot, to great fanfare in 2010. Haot never had a budget, however, and despite the grand title, her job turned out to be a public relations role based in the office of Media and Entertainment.
Eliminating the CDO will reportedly be one of de Blasio’s first moves, just a small example of how his leadership will differ from Bloomberg’s outward-facing strategy.
Still, de Blasio has no track record to prove that he can deliver on his promises or will even maintain an interest in the city’s tech sector, which has emerged as a competitor to Silicon Valley due to a surge of interest in design and media-fueled internet startups. New York’s "Silicon Alley" is already flourishing, recently producing its first billionaire. With so much momentum in the industry already, there’s only so much damage a new mayor can do.