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New York Startups Shine Light on New Paths for World Cities


FILE - A half-finished dock for a fleet of ferries is seen in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, March 28, 2017. The first of 20 high-tech, light aluminum ferries costing nearly $4 million each were set to arrive in New York in early April.

Snapping off a leaf of crisp baby lettuce, entrepreneur Andrew Shearer can demonstrate how colored lights in a hydroponic cabinet boost nutrients or alter the flavors and colors of plants that can be grown in a restaurant kitchen.

Strawberries, peppers and tomatoes are the next crops for his start-up Farmshelf, which aims to cut food miles and waste by selling the lighting units to grow vegetables for commercial use, home kitchens and even mobile vans.

"Going the next step, changing the way the food supply system can work for the highly perishable items that often end up in the landfill," said Shearer, 27, at the New Lab workspace at Brooklyn Navy Yard (BNYDC).

Farmshelf is one of 95 companies at New Lab in the former shipyard, home to firms such as Honeybee Robotics, which makes arms for Mars rovers and mouse-sized robots, and Spacial, where one of its drone blimps hangs from the ceiling.

Cities around the world are looking to BNYDC for inspiration as they struggle to replace declining industrial jobs with well-paid alternatives while regenerating areas left vacant and neglected by dying industries.

Once a thriving center on New York City's East River employing 70,000 people, Brooklyn's waterfront fell into dereliction as the shipbuilding business shut down, said David Ehrenberg, BNYDC chief executive.

Packs of feral dogs would chase prospective tenants away as efforts at a revamp got underway, he said.

Fifteen years later, the yard is home to 330 companies and employs 7,000 people in what has become a hip neighborhood dotted with housing projects and chic apartment buildings.

BNYDC partners with struggling local schools to get children interested in fields such as robotics and internships or jobs with one of the cutting-edge companies, Ehrenberg said.

"If things work out well, other cities can end up where we've ended up, he said.

Alongside entrepreneurs developing nanotechnology or designing kinetic furniture, other companies at BNYDC are creating hundreds of blue-collar jobs, which urban experts say is key to making communities economically resilient.

At Steiner Studios, where the hit HBO series "Girls" was filmed, more than half the employees work in jobs such as on-set carpenters or electricians.

Crye Protection employs more than 200 people, many of whom sew specialized camouflage gear and bendable body armor.

To be resilient, "any city can't be over reliant on a single industry, whether that be Rotterdam and the port, New Orleans and petrochemicals, New York and finance," said Michael Berkowitz, president of the 100 Resilient Cities program.

The Rockefeller Foundation-backed $164 million program aims to help urban areas protect themselves from stresses and shocks.

"There' no one magic bullet," Berkowitz said.

For cities such as Glasgow in Scotland, once the world's biggest shipbuilder, a challenge is making growth inclusive as it looks to fill the space left vacant by industry and find new ways to use existing manufacturing skills.

"We're looking at the diversification of our economy. We're too dependant on bashing metal. But those same engineering skills and links to universities are ones we can use again," said Duncan Booker, chief resilience officer for Glasgow. "We're not going to get that mass employment again, but we can get lots of lots of clusters of smaller companies and some of the larger manufacturing companies and utilities to take on people," he said.

Repurposing a one million-square foot (305,000 square meters) of space for entrepreneurs seeking solutions to flooding and climate change is an option being considered in New Orleans as the city tries to shift away from dependence on the petrochemical industry.

"For us, it's also about transitioning our people from the oil economy to the blue and green economy of the future," said Jeff Hebert, chief resilience officer and deputy mayor of New Orleans, using terms used to describe sustainable ocean and environmental practices.

"The most important part for us is to make sure we are training the people of the city, not just kids ... but people who are currently unemployed or underemployed so they can take advantage of innovations in the new economy," he said.

Although cities with fewer resources may struggle to replicate the success of Brooklyn, diversifying economies and nurturing innovation can pay off, said experts.

"You can't pick the winner," said Ehrenberg. "You need to create the basic environment and the basic infrastructure and then let the market sort out who had the best idea, and then be ready to capture those jobs when they're finally created."

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