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Brooklyn's 'Neighborhood Innovation Lab' Targets Quality of Life, Tech Jobs

The Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn will debut several smart city projects later this year as part of the city's first Neighborhood Innovation Lab, which also aims at stimulating tech jobs.

The Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn, east of Crown Heights, will be home to New York City’s first Neighborhood Innovation Lab, city and technology officials announced Monday, March 20. The initiative is the latest in an ongoing series of penetrating, wide-ranging tech partnerships.

Perhaps fittingly, given how municipal and other local agencies are beginning to use technology to reinvent departmental roles and service availabilities, this won’t be a laboratory in the traditional sense.

Rather, in a news release, the city described it as a “tech equity initiative” to convene residents, educators, tech companies and government around addressing “neighborhood concerns with cutting-edge technologies.”

It begins later this week with what were described as a number of strategic planning sessions for community leaders who, over the next four months — roughly through the end of July — will work with the city to assess how smart city technologies can boost quality of life, modernize infrastructure, improve city services and enhance economic development.

Coming in May, residents will be invited to try out the first of those innovations — interactive digital kiosks, so-called “solar-powered benches” that provide free cellphone charging, and smart trash cans that notify the city when they’re full — and give notes.

Other milestones ahead, likely later this year, include the opening of applications for technology companies interested in finding solutions for community needs; and the launching of a Calls for Innovation focused on Brownsville.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who last month unveiled plans for the Union Square Tech Hub, said in a statement that Neighborhood Innovation Labs do more than update neighborhoods. They educate residents on careers in technology, said the mayor, which he described as “a fast-growing sector of our economy.”

“New York is a city of neighborhoods and there is no better way to prepare communities for the future than by empowering residents to define their needs and help shape our technology investments,” de Blasio said.

Neighborhood Innovation Labs are supported by initial $250,000-a-year funding from the city, which will consider expanding the effort to all five boroughs based on how this first one goes.

Currently, Brownsville has a nascent community of tech entrepreneurs but hasn't had the same opportunities as some of the city’s wealthier areas. It has the most densely concentrated area of public housing in the United States. Median household income in Brownsville is just $25,252 — roughly half of the citywide average, and crime rates are nearly twice the citywide average.

The lab is an effort to correct this situation and level the playing field.

The Union Square Tech Hub, a city-backed project at 124 East 14th Street that was announced on Friday, Feb. 17, aims to bring an estimated 600 “good-paying” tech jobs to Manhattan and give Civic Hall, a digital job training facility and space for startups, a new address.

Miguel Gamino, the city’s chief technology officer, extolled tech’s ability to transform cities and improve their qualities of life — but said officials must realize they face a specific task moving forward.

“Our challenge – and responsibility – is to ensure these technologies reach and benefit all New Yorkers, not merely a select few,” Gamino said, also in a statement, praising Neighborhood Innovation Labs as “an important step toward fulfilling Mayor de Blasio’s vision for a stronger, more sustainable, resilient, and equitable future.”

The lab, a partnership between the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation and New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), is part of the de Blasio administration’s plan to invest in high-growth industries and connect residents to opportunity by creating 100,000 jobs over the next seven years, New York City Economic Development Corp. President James Patchett said.

That was a commitment the mayor made during this year’s State of the City address on Monday, Feb. 13.

“We have identified the smart cities and civic tech industry as having major potential for job growth in New York City. By connecting this industry with neighborhoods across the city, we can both increase the impact of smart cities solutions and teach communities about an entirely new segment in our economy,” Patchett said.

In an interview, Lara Croushore, vice president for NYCEDC’s initiatives group, said it has been doing planning for the lab since 2015.

“I think ultimately, from EDC’s perspective, we hope that the Neighborhood Innovation Lab provides a platform for entrepreneurs and emerging and new technologists to have an opportunity to demo their technologies in a real-world setting,” Croushore told Government Technology, noting that jumpstarting the tech jobs market is another ambition.

“That’s really, I think, the higher-level goal that we’re looking for here,” she added. “We’re really building a pipeline of support for those companies from support to incubators to growth-stage phases.”

The Brownsville Community Justice Center is the lead community partner, while Osborn Plaza will be the anchor site for public programs and technology demonstrations.

The model for Neighborhood Innovation Labs was first announced by the White House as part of President Obama’s Smart Cities Initiative in September 2015.

In a statement, Erica Mateo deputy director of Brownsville Community Justice Center, praised de Blasio’s willingness “to be accountable for responsive local investment.

“As our city becomes smarter," Mateo said, "tech equity across New York City becomes even more important to growing local economies.”

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.