NYC mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner thinks Makerbot is a type of beer. Photo: Pablo Manriquez/Flickr
Wooing New York's Silicon Alley startup scene during a forum on tech policy in Queens on Monday night, four mayoral hopefuls had the opportunity to weigh in on the city's growing 3D printing industry.
"We happen to believe because we have Shapeways and Makerbot in this town already, that this an opportunity for a new cluster in 3D printing," one attendee, who identified himself as "Land Grant," told the candidates, referring to two New York-based 3D printing companies. "Would the panel like to discuss how you, as mayor, might support such an initiative?"
The candidates looked completely dumbfounded.
"I understood like every third word," Anthony Weiner joked. "You had me lost at Land Grant."
"Makerbot?" he asked later. "It sounds like a beer they serve in a Williamsburg bar."
In fairness to the candidates, Grant's question was the last of the night, and his name was undoubtedly a red herring. But the 3D printing issue could have been a chance for the candidates to talk about advanced manufacturing opportunities and economic development, a favorite political issue. It could have even been a chance to talk about guns. Instead, their bewilderment underscored the persistent divide between politicians and the tech community, and illustrated how both sides are missing opportunities as a result of those barriers.
"Makerbot? It sounds like a beer they serve in a Williamsburg bar." — Anthony Weiner
"The issue for the city moving forward is how do they build on what Bloomberg has done and really move the city into a 21st century stance," said Andrew Rasiej, chairman of NY Tech Meetup and founder of Personal Democracy Media, which focuses on the intersection between tech and politics.
"The problem is that many people think that technology is just a simple slice of the pie and really it's the pan."
Rasiej noted that the next mayor will have to deal with larger, structural challenges, including reforming the city's educational system to prepare students for the 21st century workforce, expanding wireless access, and upgrading the city government's digital infrastructure.
On Monday night, however, the candidates seemed out of their depth discussing significant issues affecting the Silicon Alley community. The four candidates at the forum—Weiner, Sal Albanese, Adolfo Carrión Jr., and John Liu—offered little beyond vague rhetoric and generalities. Liu, for example, promised to demand better service from cable companies, while Weiner suggested putting "a Kindle in every kid's backpack."
(Democratic frontrunner Christine Quinn, who did not attend Monday's forum, has made similarly vague promises in her tech policy plan, which largely piggybacks off of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's tech achievements.)
By some measures, whomever New York elects as its next mayor will have big, shiny shoes to fill. Under Bloomberg, New York overtook Boston as the country's second-largest tech hub, behind Silicon Valley.
In his third term, Bloomberg has put a lot of energy into tech initiatives, including appointing New York City's first Chief Digital Officer, Rachel Haot, whose office has put out a "digital Roadmap" for the city government and launched a Made In NY campaign to raise awareness about New York's startup scene. That's on top of programs like PlaNYC, the mayor's much-heralded green and greentech initiative. Last week, Bloomberg announced that New York would partner with San Francisco to launch a pair of "digital cities" summits in an effort to connect government with the business and tech communities.
"The impact of Mayor Bloomberg’s tech sector initiatives will be lasting, thanks to a strategy of launching long-term strategic investments like the Cornell NYC Tech campus on Roosevelt Island and the expansion of fiber connectivity to more startups," Haot told Motherboard. "Beyond that, New York City’s tech community has reached a turning point of momentum and growth."
Still, a lot of Bloomberg's tech initiatives have been merely window dressing. Haot's position, for example, is overseen by the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, and its minimal budget doesn't allow her to bang commissioners' heads together to effect real change. His efforts to extend fiber connectivity to startups, as well as initiatives like the CitiBike program, have been criticized for failing to benefit the city's lower-income residents.
Hoat pointed out that the onus isn't entirely on the government to figure out how best to accommodate the city's growing tech sector.
"It’s vital that the technology community continue to communicate the sector’s needs," she said, "and that future administrations are responsive and build on our shared success by investing in the City’s digital future."
The onus isn't entirely on the government to figure out how best to accommodate the city's growing tech sector.
To that end, the tech community hasn't done itself a lot of favors. When they're doing their "disrupting," startups tend to work around the government, rather than work with it and its mayoral candidates—an approach that has put companies like Airbnb and Uber in the crosshairs of New York City regulators.
"The reason I don't think Uber will ever be a success in New York City is that we have a system," Weiner said Monday. "You can argue with the structure but it actually works in New York City pretty well."
"Obviously you want to have technology that melds with the public interest as dictated by the legislature who comes up with laws, and sometimes things take a little while to catch up," he added. "My ethos is that we want you to be a successful tech company, but we don't want you to undermine the laws that are meant to protect consumers."
Those comments, which were generally echoed by the other candidates, suggest that there is a long way to go to before techies and politicians are on the same page. But Monday's forum--sponsored by Coalition For Queens, which encourages tech entrepreneurship in the borough--was at least an early attempt to bridge that divide.
"There's a lot of disconnect on both sides," Rasiej said. "I'm hoping that through these kinds of forums and through osmosis, the tech industry can get itself a better seat at the table to implement public policies that could conceivably get New York to a better place."