Atlantic Cities

Why Microsoft Chose New York City

For decades, high-tech industry followed a Silicon Valley "nerdistan" model of development distinguished by sprawling industrial parks off freeway interchanges, but there is growing evidence that high-tech may be evolving toward a more urban orientation.  

Last week, Microsoft announced the opening of its new research lab in New York City. Microsoft Research New York City will start small, with a staff of about 15 well-known scientists and researchers (several who are moving over from Yahoo! Research), who will focus on bringing advanced computing tools to the social sciences, an area where Microsoft had trailed its competitors.

Jennifer Chayes, a mathematical physicist who heads Microsoft Research New England and will oversee the New York lab, told The New York Times why Microsoft chose New York:

The first-class universities, policy initiatives and Silicon Alley, she said, are producing “a groundswell of technology in New York. And we want to be in the places around the world where there is great science and technology.”

Chayes went on to further explain the decision in a blog post, noting the critical role of "location:"

With labs in seven countries worldwide, we’re always intrigued by how location plays such a critical factor in the development and success of each Microsoft lab. In a way, New York City can be considered a living laboratory, built upon an intellectual foundation of renowned research institutions, an energized collaborative culture, and a hotbed of activity in high tech, financial services, publishing, advertising, art, and design.

This new lab will provide an opportunity for Microsoft Research researchers and developers worldwide to share and interact with the NYC academic and tech communities. Specifically, MSR-NYC has started to reach out to prestigious research universities in the area, including Columbia, NYU, the new Cornell-Technion NYC campus, Princeton, and Rutgers, to discuss ways to collaborate more closely and to support each other. We look forward to continuing these conversations and realizing the potential opportunities available.

All of this couldn’t come together at a better time. New York City recently has dedicated itself to becoming a leader in technological innovation and entrepreneurship. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched an Applied Sciences NYC initiative, seeking to infuse New York’s economy with collaborative research between universities and businesses to spur economic growth.

Silicon Valley has been successful partly because it replicated "the essential function of a dense city," as Jonah Lehrer put it in a recent interview with Cities, drawing top tech and entrepreneurial talent from across the world. But over the past decade or so, a growing fraction of top talent has shown a preference for more urban living. In fact, a subset of leading scientists has always been drawn to urban centers, having taught at universities like Columbia, NYU, and the like. Duncan Watts, part of the new Microsoft New York team, is a case in point, having previously been a professor of sociology at Columbia University, where he specialized in social network analysis, before moving over to Yahoo! Research.

New York is home to more than 400 tech start-ups, and has surpassed Boston and its surrounding Route 128 corridor as the nation’s second largest technology hub.

While Microsofts' new lab is admittedly small, it represents another step in New York's evolution toward an urban model for tech.

Richard Florida is Co-Founder and Editor at Large at The Atlantic Cities. He's also a Senior Editor at The Atlantic, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Global Research Professor at New York University. He is a frequent speaker to communities, business and professional organizations, and founder of the Creative Class Group, whose current client list can be found here. All posts »

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