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By Giving Up On NYC Campus, Stanford Loses The Innovation Race

Cornell wins the bid to create an NYC engineering school, and Stanford withdraws from the competition. Too bad, writes Bruce Nussbaum: Stanford needs the benefits of a big city.

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,, 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 When Stanford appeared to be winning Bloomberg’s contest, there was evidence that the 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 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 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]

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  • Dontetillio208

    I agree with your overall point about the direction of the tech industry, but your initial assumption that Stanford dropped out and New York was left with Cornell does not withstand scrutiny. While Stanford was the initial favorite, once proposals were submitted and negotiations began it became obvious that Cornell had far more student / alumni / admin support, submitted the stronger proposal and, currently expanding a large medical school they've run in Manhattan since the 1800s, was far better prepared for the tough demands of the city.

  • Bruce Nussbaum

    All great comments. But do read the Ives chapter in the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs to see how innovation really take place. In the Magic Circle of Ives' studio, just the two of them, every day, "played" at creating. Neither was an engineer, although Jobs certainly knew technology. That chapter is perhaps the best description of how you design disruptive innovation, not incremental innovation, I've seen. And read Life by Keith Richards--another deep look at how big disruptive innovation takes place. 
      Alas, the comments show exactly why Stanford's engineering school (it was the engineering school, not all of Stanford) that was expected to come to NYC) needs the denseness and diversity of an urban environment. 

  • Cam Drake

    I think that both sides of your argument are good, but I think that you overestimate the importance of social in your analysis. This increasing focus on softer computer science will lead our society to miss out on the real technical innovations that brought us companies like Google. Furthermore, Stanford does not significantly lack "cultural" awareness and i think that your assumption that Stanford needs NYC as a cultural experience is not very well founded. Stanford students are the cream of the crop and not every one of them entering startups are engineers, but many are humanities majors as well.

  • Ivan Acosta

    Even design can be evaluated using engineering. This idea that design and engineering can be separated is rediculous. 

    It just comes down to this...
    Stanford does not need a big city. New York just wants to buy its way in. Why would Stanford dilute themselves? MIT just announced their MITx, and while they have said they will establish a certificate program, it will not say MIT specifically. To establish a campus on the other side of the continent would lose the authenticity of a Stanford education and would detriment the student's user experience.Even design can be evaluated using engineering. This idea that design and engineering can be separated is rediculous.

  • MichaelADeBose

    I agree that artist drive the Apple cart, but make no mistake Apple's engineers do a bang up job consistently beating higher speccd phones through great coding.  There will always be a place for great engineers. This focus in design is more a result of the lack of it in a Windows world for a decade that's all.

    I like great design and I pray that user experience will always be a priority, but I know that in the end it will come down to capable engineers to make it happen. Besides that's why Woz is a part of the Apple story, it should be quite clear to you that in the end Steve always needed someone to get his vision into the silicon. Dreaming alone doesn't make that happen.

  • Enrique Allen

    I'm planning on increasingly spending time in New York and would have loved to help establish a dschool there...There's still ways to collaborate with Cornell even without the engineering school.

  • Max Smolev

    I always thought that innovation comes from being able to attract bright and, well, innovative people (and students). It doesn't come from having a campus here or there. Their name is large and powerful to attract such people, so you can't really say they have lost on innovation. Perhaps not spending $350 million on new campus is not such a bad thing?

  • Jacob Wells

    This bodes well for the design community and supports the idea that more designers need to be entrepreneurs. However, engineering is still highly important. Innovation and advances in better User Experiences cannot be done without the knowhow of talented engineers. The future of great startups depends on the collaboration of the engineer and the designer. Equal parts leveraging technical advancement and increasing empathy for consumers of our products and services is the perfect recipe. 

  • Trend Guardian

    On the contrary, everybody is trying to imitate Silicon Valley still. The fact that Stanford chose to withdraw, prevented their brain population to dilute outside the Valley. People still don't get what the Valley is about: http://trendguardian.blogspot....