Stanford University’s announcement that it was withdrawing from the competition to establish a new top-tier engineering school in New York City is a stunner. Mayor Michael Bloomberg clearly wanted Stanford to “win” his contest, but now he’ll have to accept a partnership between Cornell University and Israel’s Technion Institute of Technology. The biggest loser may turn out to be Stanford, not New York.
The conventional wisdom holds that New York needs better-trained engineers to bolster innovation and scale its budding startup culture. Stanford, after all, beats all other universities in the number of startups generated each year by students, professors, and alumni. And didn’t the renaissance in New York entrepreneurialism start when Google opened its mammoth office on the West Side?
Or was that coincidence, not causation, and Google lucked out, not New York? Truth is, the locus of innovation has been shifting away from the technological to the social, and from engineers to “culturistas” for some time now. It’s no accident that Kickstarter began through indie music (trying to find a new way to fund concerts) and is headquartered on Rivington Street (and soon to move to Brooklyn). It’s no accident that a large and growing number of successful startup folks have music, design, or art in their background, in addition to, or in place of, engineering. These include the people who brought you Apple (yes, it is still important to remember Steve Jobs wasn’t an engineer, loved Bob Dylan and music, was entranced with the aesthetic simplicities of Japanese and German Bauhaus design, and framed himself as an artist), YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr, Etsy, Airbnb, Behance, Instagram, Vimeo, Hunch, Gowalla, Path, Blurb, Square, About.me, YCombinator, the Designer Fund, and many more.
Designers, musicians, and artists understand the user experience in a way that engineers don’t. TechCrunch highlighted the shift away from engineering as a driver of innovation with an article on the death of specs. It said that product reviewers now focus on the user experience, not speed or memory or power–all the techie stuff engineers obsess about and forced all of us to pretend we cared about for so many years. That “user experience” is more and more social, local, and urban. Music, fashion, food, movies, advertising, art, personal manufacturing–the “indie” stuff of “indie” capitalism, are increasingly the driving forces of and the models for innovation today. And they tend to take place in cities. You need to be in Chicago (or perhaps Cincinnati) to create Groupon; Seattle (where they read a lot) for Amazon; Yelp in foodie San Francisco; Portland for Weiden + Kennedy’s “Imported from Detroit” ads; New York for Kickstarter. Digital fabrication is perhaps the best example of an open-source confluence of a fashion, art, technology, maker culture that is happening in cities. Shapeways, the Dutch 3D-printing company, moved its headquarters from Amsterdam to New York, not Palo Alto or the campus of MIT.
Stanford’s engineering school will now miss much of this. Los Angeles and San Francisco will cast their halos of food and movie culture over Palo Alto. And of course, the university itself will remain a center of innovation if only because it attracts the best students and faculty from around the world to its campus. Yet, as the soul of innovation moves away from engineering to the social and cultural, Stanford will surely begin to fade. In that sense, Stanford is losing more in not setting up in New York than New York is losing by not having Stanford.
The big loss for New York is not getting Stanford’s d.school. When Stanford appeared to be winning Bloomberg’s contest, there was evidence that the d.school would be heading east as well. Established by IDEO cofounder David Kelley, the school brings together engineering, design, and business students in classes where they learn about the user experience, community, and culture. Kelley, IDEO people, and Stanford professors team-teach design thinking and creativity. With another cofounder of IDEO, Bill Moggridge (who is already in New York as the new president of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum), and an IDEO office on Grand Street, it would have been terrific to have Kelley and the d.school come in and shake up the New York scene.
New York needs a design-school type of academic institution more than it needs a new engineering school. With Cooper Union, Parsons, SVA, NYU, Pratt, Columbia, FIT, the Cooper Hewitt, MAD, MoMA, the New Museum–plus the gallery, food, and music scenes–there needs to be an integrator to make a new creative whole that is greater than the parts.
The d.school has the creative DNA to do it. Alas, this is New York’s big Stanford loss. Can’t we get the design program without the engineering school?
[Image: Flickr user mugley]