New York City is poised to be a thriving hub for urban innovation, but first, it must get out of something researchers at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech and the New York City Economic Development Corp. call “pilot purgatory.”
The phrase refers to a pattern in which successful urban innovation pilot programs don’t advance to large-scale adoption of their technologies.
In a new report, the two institutions lay out a road map for the city to change this pattern, saying that the passage of federal spending bills including the Inflation Reduction Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the CHIPS and Science Act presents the opportunity for New York City to apply newly available federal funding into tech-based solutions to urban problems, most notably problems related to climate change.
In 2022, more than 600 companies applied to pilot their products through a dozen city-run or city-affiliated programs; more than 50 pilots were chosen and deployed, the researchers found. But often, there’s more focus on getting the pilot done than tracking the long-term outcome and implementing any changes those results might call for, said Cara Eckholm, a fellow at the Urban Tech Hub of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech and lead author of the report.
The question the report addresses is “How do we actually get that information to the right stakeholders, whether [they] be in City Hall or regulators, and then ensure that policy change happens based on the evidence that was collected during the pilot phase?” she said. To answer it, the researchers spoke with more than 120 stakeholders and compared New York City’s experience against best practices and other cities.
The report suggests three major avenues for change, identifying for each the challenge, the opportunity and the recommendations for action over the next three years. While Eckholm said this plan is tailored to New York, other metro areas can replicate and modify the methods as needed, she said. The report suggests New York City should:
- “Bolster its innovation capacity” by supporting innovation teams and personnel across city government agencies. These teams, which have become more common, are trained to apply new technologies and support pilots in a way that most city government workers are not. The teams should work with universities for technical support and research and development, and should get city departments more comfortable with working with external stakeholders, the report says.
- “Modernize” its procurement process. Traditionally, cities describe the solution they’re seeking for an ongoing problem, and vendors send in bids for how they would provide that solution. In “challenge-based procurement,” in contrast, a city describes its problem and invites vendors to propose creative solutions which can be piloted in the real world. California has been operating this way since a 2019 executive order for technology contracts ranging from $100,000 to $750 million, the report states.
- Build a central business portal that would better support startups in the city. While New York is home to new startups and those that have grown into large corporations, its Department of Small Business Services is set up to serve more traditional businesses, like brick and mortar shops, Eckholm said. However, many nonprofits and third-party organizations serve the startup space, thus an effort to centralize that information and create a formalized network of pilot programs would serve startups and the city better.
For cities to have successful urban innovation, they need five types of stakeholders: the city government, universities, startups, financiers that help these companies grow and the intermediators among these groups, like nonprofits, Eckholm said. The Pilot NYC road map aims to show how each stakeholder can adjust to make New York City the “global hub” for urban innovation.
“To be successful, you really need all five of those actors to be working together,” she said.