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Northside Innovation Festival unveils the future of our cities

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By Megan Anderle, Editor and Contributing Writer

Neelie Kroes, a former Dutch politician who is now the Netherlands’ special envoy for startups, made the bold claim that “cities are the beating heart of our society” and waxed poetic about the need for startups to think about how they disrupt their urban surroundings at the Northside Innovation Festival on June 11.

“Nowadays cities extend far beyond connected cars, planes, and trains; it’s all about that 3.7-terabytes-per-second highway,” she said, referring to the speed (pun intended) at which technology is changing every aspect of our cities.

The annual Northside Innovation Festival, which runs June 8-14, is featuring a few panels on the future of cities. But it started with an impassioned, visionary stump speech from Kroes, whose role entails persuading foreign startups to set up in the Netherlands.

“The Netherlands has always been on the cutting edge of technology, from compact discs to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi,” she said. “The result is inspiration. We have truly smart cities.”

“Nowadays cities extend far beyond connected cars, planes, and trains; it’s all about that 3.7-terabytes-per-second highway”

— Neelie Kroes, Special Envoy for Startups, the Netherlands

The Dutch presence at this year’s festival — which featured Dutch influencers like Kroes and a few pitch competitions with Nordic, Hungarian, Belgian and Swiss startups that are juxtaposed with the usual run of Brooklyn-based companies — is giving attendees a taste of the New York borough’s unique culture.

A range of American innovators, including Roger Lynch, CEO of Sling TV, Kegan Schouwenburg, founder and CEO of the 3-D printing company SOLS, and Or Arbel co-founder and CEO of the viral app Yo, presented as well.

But out of all the panelists, Kroes was a standout for her ardor, who said that we’re at the cusp of a digital urban revolution.

“Urban connectivity is where digital meets architecture, but we can still hardly grasp how the Internet of Things and machine learning are going to affect our lives,” she said. But it is “the startups meeting with urban planners that have the skill and rapid innovation to take this to the new world.”

European, New York innovators unite

Following the festival’s theme of melding of two distinct worlds — New York and Western Europe — a few New York City urban tech types took to the stage immediately after Kroes. And just like that, it was a seamless transition, which seemed to symbolize the unifying power of technology in cities.

Among the panelists: Colin O’Donnell, a partner at the technology and design firm Control Group, and one of the members of CityBridge who’s working to turn old New York City pay phones into super-fast Gigabit Wi-Fi; Jay Cross, a developer; Jeremy Schneider, CTO for Alliance for Downtown New York, and Noelle Francois, director of community outreach at Heat Seek NYC that aims to keeps the heat on for tenants and landlords each winter.

The panelists discussed the development of the Hudson Yards neighborhood in Manhattan, an old section of the city between Chelsea and Midtown that is currently undergoing a digital reformation.

“Hudson Yards is the exact opposite of lower Manhattan; when it first started, cow paths were being paved over and there was no grid,” Schneider said. “Now that the infrastructure is being built, we can be creative.”

Bringing fast Wi-Fi to the area, creating a safer community with novel tech solutions that help emergency service workers respond faster, and developing digital amenities for businesses to better serve customers and make more money are a few top initiatives for urban planners.

While some of these ambitions are more straightforward than others — such as bringing super-fast WiFi to the area — others are more complicated — such as building a framework for aspirational entrepreneurs to make their creative vision come to life.

“How do we create opportunities for people to innovate for people who aren’t even using the Internet there yet?” Francois asked.

And the cost of these kinds of solutions can be astronomical, especially when the redevelopment is at an unprecedented scale, Cross said.

“It’s a huge investment, but we’re investing in a future,” Cross said.

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