With Silicon Valley pretty much a trash fire right now it would behoove small cities to look elsewhere when trying to create centers of innovation. While Brooklyn, that gem of an island surrounded by bodies of water containing guns, dolphins, and scum, is not perfect, it’s a pretty solid choice for hardware, software, and services startups to emulate.
As I’ve traveled around the world I’ve seen places that reflect parts of Brooklyn. Charleston has Brooklyn’s old-town feel girded with suburbs. Raleigh and Denver and Ann Arbor are deepest Hipster, just like Williamsburg. Cities like Krakow, Belgrade, and Budapest are a Whitman-esque mix of old factories, warehouses, beautiful homes, and modern high-rises. But geography does not create start-up fervor and, thanks to the recent slowdown, I suspect it will make less sense for young people around the world to spend a few years building a food delivery app and instead spend a few years hating themselves for working at Citicorp.
We have to stop this sentiment. It took most of a decade to convince young people around the world that building a life was better than being bought by a corporation. And it is important for cities and countries that want to bring the engine of entrepreneurship to their borders follow models that makes sense, not models that have been proven be based on old ideas about disruption and innovation.
Every city needs a few things to be the next Brooklyn. They need an urban core with live-work spaces. They need good places for folks to eat and drink. They need VCs on the ground who actually care about the space and aren’t some bloated Baron Harkonnenn-type who made a lot of money selling cancer of some sort and now wants in invest in “tech”. Then you need a community. Most cities I’ve visited have all or some of those things and most of these things are easy to build but hard to maintain.
Finally, you need people who want things to work. And that, sadly, is the hardest thing to find.
Brooklyn is important in the entrepreneurial space because it is at once urban and suburban. It has an excellent quality of life and, if you’re willing to schlep out to places like Sunset Park, Red Hook, and Bay Ridge, there is plenty of space to live and work. It is also a safe space to innovate. Most tech talent in New York can always go straight to Wall Street and most cities have similar “safety nets” for young people who might be afraid to set out on their own. By leveraging the fact that, say, a young person can graduate college and either work for an insurance company or a startup you can create a real choice rather than the false choice of flying to SF with a great idea and immediately being given a back rub, free lunch, and a wildly expensive apartment by Google.
There are VCs in New York who are interested in small startups mostly because they want to get good deals before they get big. There are groups like NYC Resistor, the Startup Guild (cheap plug), and all the freaky events run by FirstMark. Every city needs all of these things to succeed and because Brooklyn is, distance-wise, about as big as most minor cities, you can move from event to event and VC to VC without much trouble.
But the next Brooklyn needs people who care about innovation. If you don’t have a core group of people thinking about it in a very real way you create innovation dead zones where nothing changes. A buddy in Knoxville is creating a unique co-working and music space and almost every city has one of these or is building one. The key is to spread the word and to let people know that they don’t have to toil in silence. In short, the other thing you can steal from Brooklyn is the unending desire to improve, a desire driven both by money and philosophy.
I have a dog in this fight. I live here. Disrupt is in Brooklyn this time and although it’s a pain to schlep to Red Hook it’s great to see other parts of the city I’ve never visited. There are new startups almost everywhere, from Dumbo to Downtown to Bed Stuy. There are places to go to meet investors over coffee or drinks and there are places to meet potential partners, founders, and hires. All of these things come from Brooklyn’s sense of community and riotous excitement. That’s what cities should copy when they try to create a center for innovation and change. Paris is Paris, London is London, New York (barring Brooklyn) is New York, and SF is a dump. You’ll never match them in terms of cash and deal flow. But if you want to create something sustainable, intelligent, and fun, look to Brooklyn.