By Cailin McKenna
The Bronx could be, and should be, the next DUMBO or Silicon Valley, a home to startups and global technology companies. This was the argument at this year’s Bronx Summit on Technology Innovation and startups. “I believe that the consumers of technology are going to be the producers of technology and it has to reflect the people that are using it,” said Alex Albein, the co-founder and CEO of Liquid Talent, which connects professionals to technology enterprises through an online platform.
But the increasing emphasis on technology in the borough could have lasting effects on the residents of the Bronx. This was the question that dominated the discussion at the fourth annual summit: how to incorporate technological advancement into the lives of Bronx residents.
“When [venture capital investors] think about innovation [they] don’t think about the Bronx,” said Derrick Lewis, economic advisor to New York State Assembly member Michael Blake. “We need to change how individuals can see the Bronx as a tech incubator.”
Lewis talked about the importance of using technology to better the daily lives of Bronx residents, especially through healthcare technology and food incubators. Since many areas of the Bronx are considered “food deserts,” the incubators could be vital to improving the lives of residents.
Speakers and panelists explored the opportunities and challenges that an influx of technology-based innovation companies could provide for the Bronx. Fordham’s Center for Digital Transformation co-sponsored the event along with the University’s urban studies program, the Urban Law Center and the Bronx Technology Innovation Coalition.
A panel discussion of local entrepreneurs, start up CEOs, representatives of local politicians and Fordham community members focused on how already existing resources could promote economic development in the borough. In particular, the innovation of health care technology was a focal point of the discussion, including the impact of health hackathons, in which students and other programmers collaborate on building mobile applications.
The discussion also focused on incorporation of minority youths into the industry. “By 2020, the demand for technology resources is only going to be met by about 60 percent by people who come from universities,” said Keith Klain, co-CEO of Doran Jones, a technology consultant firm located in the South Bronx. “There is a huge opportunity to keep those jobs in New York by providing people with alternative backgrounds access to those jobs.”
However, technological enterprises in the Bronx will have to be much smaller in size compared to their Silicon Valley counterparts. Klain believes that these medium enterprises, as they continue to fall victim to outsourcing markets, will look to alternatives in hiring. The solution will be individuals who do not possess a four year degree in computer science and instead held apprenticeships or took part in a work force development program. “There is a huge opportunity,” he said. “Forty percent of the labor market in technology can be met in the Bronx but the demographics aren’t going to look like a DUMBO.”
On Sept. 16, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio announced a ten-year plan to initiate computer science programs in all New York City public schools in order to ensure that students have the skill set to compete in the city’s fast-growing technology sector.
“You give me every kid’s phone and you could have them coding on the subway on the way home from school today,” said Tom O’Connell, program director of Code Interactive, which aims to increase youth interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “There is the technology out there, there are the resources out there to do it this afternoon and ten years is ridiculous.”
While the technology exists, the problems arise with a lack of educations and infrastructural challenges in many public schools in the South Bronx. “The problem is who is going to instruct and educate this class,” said Albein. “It’s not just people willing to consume it and be the next coders of our country, it’s going to be who is going to be the ones teaching [it.] We need more people and more organizations in this space.”
Albein first came to the Bronx while working with Google’s non-profit investment strategy and worked with initiatives like Girls Who Code. Before city schools can implement computer science programs, they must first find experienced educators. “A lot of the rising engineer stars aren’t looking at education as a way for them to exercise their knowledge,” he said. “They’re looking at profit and building their own company.”
While the resources and market exist in the Bronx, there are still many issues that need to be addressed, such as weak infrastructure and how to connect Bronx youth with technology companies. Lewis sees a solution in the collaboration between academia, and programs like Fordham’s Social Innovation Collaboratory and the start up community, such as offering Fordham students or individuals with apprenticeship experience credit for working with tech start-ups in the Bronx. “We also need an increase in collaboration among social impact and non-profits with tech companies,” he said. “There’s a possibility for us to find the solution to real-world problems with technology.”
Albein believes the solution to remove the negative stigma around the Bronx as a tech center could be done through a media campaign. “We need to rebrand the Bronx as a place where amazing talents and products are created,” he said. “We need one or two clear entities that come out of the Bronx like the garage in Silicon Valley. If we can recreate that, that would do a lot [for the borough] over the next five to 10 years.”
“I think that Williamsburg and DUMBO and Flatiron were yesterday,” said Albein. “And I think the Bronx is tomorrow.”