Like a bad breakup, Amazon ended its relationship with New York City on Valentine's Day. This was a short-lived relationship, an engagement that was called off before the ring was purchased--before the house, cars, and kids came along.
But Amazon failed to court all New Yorkers. It wasn't the public that wanted this premature separation--residents of the city overwhelmingly supported the project by a margin of two to one--it was the elected officials. For the next generation of New Yorkers--the millennials, the college graduate who will have six-figure debt, and the underprivileged young professionals of the outer boroughs diving into the world of technology--this will mean 25,000 to 40,000 fewer jobs.
The elected officials opposed to Amazon worked directly against the economic interests of all New Yorkers. They took for granted the technology sector's growth that had been fostered directly through smart economic development planning focused on the industries of the future.
New Yorkers will never know if a union with Amazon would have led New York City to become the global capital for technology. This has, after all, been the unabashed goal of city planners and economic development professionals since Mayor Bloomberg's administration. In the years since, New York's tech scene has flourished as the second global technology capital, becoming the fastest-growing industry in the city.
It wasn't always this way and Silicon Alley's rise isn't a revival, it's a stunning achievement: Of all the cities around the world that have tried to recreate the magic of Silicon Valley, none have come as close as New York City. Boston's Technology Corridor, Route 128, or Skolkovo's Innovation Center in Moscow never quite managed to grow as quickly.
What made New York's approach to attempting to build its own technology hub effective wasn't that it just focused on education, culture, community. New York City--the town where Starbucks are located on every corner--recognized tech here would be served up differently. Where Silicon Valley had Red Rock Cafe--the legendary Mountain View cafe where deals like the WhatsApp acquisition have been made--New York City had the Ace Hotel Lobby or Union Square Cafe. The coffee might be similiar, but the conversations would be different. Coders in New York City wouldn't just talk about technology, but also finance, media, fashion, real estate, and healthcare.
New York doubled down on its legacy industries. It didn't focus provincially on Silicon Alley as it had during the dot-com era when media companies reigned supreme near the Flatiron building with flashy billboards; it ensured tech would be tethered to all of its thriving industries. New York's aims became as ambitious as the immigrants that have settled here for generations.
If Mayor Bloomberg's Applied Sciences NYC initiative--the competition which comparatively drew proposals from universities all over the world to create a technology campus and which led to Cornell-Technion's arrival here--was New York's Erie Canal moment, Amazon's arrival would have been its crowning glory--the point at which New York overtaking Silicon Valley would have been economically inevitable.
Long Island City, the location that I correctly predicted Amazon would select last year, had been prepped for a tech company of Amazon's size to call it home. The elected officials who for years were most opposed to Amazon now swore to support to the tech ecosystem that had been budding in Queens. I sat down with those very same officials eight years ago while working in economic development and read their names on a support letter for Amazon last year. Their immediate volte-face wasn't driven by the public, but by politics and fear of powerful progressives.
The lesson to take away from Amazon's decision is that the political landscape is shifting sharply against Big Tech. Unfavorable media is negatively affecting tech companies, even when their impact is beneficial and the public broadly supports it. When the returns on subsidies overwhelmingly justify their economic impact, and the subsidy is essentially a bulk discount on a post-performance basis, how else do you describe the backlash other than political opportunism of newly empowered opposition? In the age of echo chambers, what else can drive aggressive naysayers more than misinformation and saying the city was putting billions into an already-rich man's pockets?
Amazon was wholly unprepared for the political landscape in New York. It was ready to commit, but these nuptials came with problems--no neutrality on organized labor and no reneging on the agreement. Relationships don't end because of one or two issues; they end due to the culmination of many problems--and this short-lived affair had too many.
The question now is will New York's leaders learn to love tech or will Big Tech become persona non grata? When an industry that's responsible for this country's economic growth over the last decade--and the growth of jobs in the future--is demonized, where should we look to for the next generation of jobs as more become automated and replaced by robots and artificial intelligence?
The future will not be forgiving if we turn away from it.