What if it were as easy to grow a head of lettuce as to make a cup of coffee? Seed pods, like espresso capsules, would snap into glossy trays, with a remote botanist tweaking light and nutrient levels. You would plug it in, fill a tub of water and, before too long, harvest fresh romaine. Andrew Shearer, a co-founder of the Brooklyn startup Farmshelf, thinks this could happen within five years. He is developing a bookcase-sized unit, connected to the internet, that automates the hard parts of growing food. He imagines microgreens sprouting in dark city apartments and tomato plants in corporate cafeterias.
Farmshelf is one of over 50 technology companies thinking big at New Lab, a next-generation manufacturing centre that opened this autumn in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. A sprawling complex on the East River, the Navy Yard once produced warships like the USS Arizona, which was bombed at Pearl Harbour, and employed 70,000 people; New Lab’s airy iron building was the machine shop. Other companies here range from Waverly Labs, which is making earpiece language translators, to Honeybee Robotics, which sends drills and other gadgets to Mars. Loomia weaves circuits into fabrics, to be threaded into heated jackets or responsive jogging clothes. The 84,000 square-feet space has laser cutters, CNC machines, welding tools, and huge 3D printers, so inventors can turn a sketch into a working prototype. Even the catering service uses the place to experiment: Chefs Club has a test kitchen at New Lab, feeding members its latest recipes.
Partly funded by New York’s economic development corporation, New Lab is a sleek example of how the city is encouraging technological innovation. In particular, New York hopes to spark inventions that improve the way the city works, creating jobs in the process. This year it committed $7.2m to build New Lab and Manhattan’s Grand Central Tech, which will provide support to startups using technology to solve problems like ageing infrastructure and inefficient transport systems. A similar venture, Urban Future Lab, opened in 2014.
New York “rolls out the red carpet to startups,” says Shearer, citing the subsidised rent and easy access to municipal agencies. Shearer finds the city much more supportive than San Francisco, where Farmshelf was founded. Though it’s easier to raise capital out west, the Bay Area’s prohibitive rents and regulations make it more difficult to build things. New York is aiming to be a leader in 21st-century manufacturing, by creating an ecosystem of tech hubs, research institutions, private companies and city departments.
Other cities around the world are investing in similar initiatives. Future Cities Catapult, a social enterprise funded by Innovation UK, a government-sponsored agency, helps develop technology that will improve urban areas, such as smart rubbish bins that send out alerts when they overflow. In 2018, Berlin hopes to begin construction on a large urban technology facility at the soon-to-be-closed Tegel airport. Berlin TXL will be like a 546-acre version of New Lab, with space for 800 companies. Los Angeles, whose busy highways make it one of the smoggiest cities in the United States, aims to be a leader in clean technology. Like New York, LA transformed industrial buildings into an entrepreneurial hub, the new La Kretz Innovation Campus.
New York is also interested in improving energy efficiency, a challenge for a city filled with hundred-year-old buildings. Many of them are warmed by steam, with clanging radiators that overheat apartments. Residents often keep windows open all winter long. Radiator Labs, based in another Navy Yard building, addresses this problem with an invention called the Cozy. It insulates radiators and regulates the temperature, reducing carbon emissions and energy costs. This may seem niche, but the Cozy could have a dramatic environmental effect and improve New Yorkers’ quality of life.
New Lab is the only place in the city where inventors can design and produce samples in the same building. Technology has made manufacturing equipment smaller, so prototyping is now possible even where space is at a premium. The manufacturing facilities at New Lab shave months off the product-development process, says Shayne McQuade, founder of Voltaic Systems. He started making backpacks with solar-panel chargers in 2003, after finding himself with a drained phone in Spain, and produces a variety of portable chargers. Now experimenting with solar- and USB-powered lights, McQuade recently 3D-printed a five-part sample of a light body in less than 24 hours. To prototype an earlier model, he had to travel to China.
Entrepreneurs also find it valuable to work alongside like-minded makers, who mingle in the colourful lounges or at weekly happy hours. A conversation with roboticists or materials scientists could provide thousands of dollars worth of free advice. Farmshelf has given Voltaic Systems tips on LED lighting. Voltaic supplies solar panels to the company next door, Social Bicycles, which uses them to power frame-mounted computers. The two can now collaborate on fitting panels to new bike models, used in bike-share systems across North America. For all the shiny tools, it’s human networks that are the key to these city tech hubs’ success.