Will this new campus turn New York into the new Silicon Valley?
Cornell Tech is combining research, business and sustainability to usher in a new era.
When I first heard about a new campus on Roosevelt Island in New York, I was intrigued. The city's tiny islands always struck me as mysterious, probably thanks to a "Broad City" episode where a character has to travel to another nearby island and finds herself in a horror-movie style adventure.
Not that Cornell Tech is particularly scary. It began in 2011, when Cornell University in New York and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Israel, two research powerhouses, joined forces and won a contest to establish a new applied sciences graduate school in New York City.
At first, the college's students and professors worked in Google's New York office. But now, the roughly 30 faculty members and 300 graduate students are getting a real campus, on a tiny island between Manhattan and Queens. The campus will continue to grow, eventually serving thousands of students.
Once I arrived on campus for Cornell Tech's dedication ceremony, I saw the design logic behind the campus's location. Roosevelt Island is a bit more toned-down than buzzing Manhattan. The campus, which consists of futuristic-looking, airy buildings, is literally and figuratively removed from the city, making it a tranquil oasis with a spectacular view of both Manhattan and Queens. Being there felt a little like sitting on a mountaintop, peacefully separate from but intricately tied to the busy world beyond.
Such a view illustrates the school's mission: to combine academics and business, carrying research and creative ideas to entrepreneurs. The school's founders are hoping that Cornell Tech will bring to New York what institutions like the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University have brought to Silicon Valley: the brains to start a tech revolution. And of course some of the innovative energy from the Technion's base in Israel, a country dubbed "the startup nation." It's for good reason: In fact, Tel Aviv has more startups per capita than anywhere else in the world.
"Technological innovation played a central role in New York City becoming a global economic capital – and it must continue to play a central role for New York to remain a global economic capital," said Mike Bloomberg, New York's former mayor. "The companies and innovations spawned by Cornell Tech graduates will generate jobs for people across the economic spectrum and help our city compete with tech centers around the world, from Silicon Valley to Seoul."
You might think this goal would lead to some sort of metallic campus that looked like it was built by computers. But Cornell Tech is full of rolling lawns and sunlight-filled buildings. That's particularly eye-catching because it's unusual for a college to have a real campus in New York. Most of the time, city "campuses" consist of individual buildings spread throughout a neighborhood, islands in a sea of shops and apartments. But Cornell Tech looks a lot more like a poster-perfect campus, complete with a small, grassy quad in the center.
"This opportunity could not have come at a better time," said Peretz Lavie, the Technion's president, at the opening ceremony. He explained that the next Industrial Revolution was upon us, and society needed institutions like Cornell Tech to figure out how to adapt to it.
In such a global age, Cornell Tech's reach probably won't be limited to New York. And that gives it extra responsibility. The campus is trying to balance a lot of things: tech wizardry, business acumen, sustainability and an attitude of openness. It knows it's an institution of the future, so it's carefully trying to ensure that the future will be a balanced one, both groundbreaking and compassionate.
MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE: