Cornell Tech’s Urban Tech Summit

Joel Epstein
5 min readNov 30, 2023


By Joel Epstein

NOV 30, 2023

The 59th Street Bridge and midtown from Roosevelt Island.

Technology is the answer but what was the question? — Cedric Price, 1966

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It had been a while since I had been to a professional conference. I find many of them little more than megaphones for ideas I have heard before or worse, ideas unworthy of the audience.

The recent Urban Tech Summit at Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island was a welcome exception. In lay language, the conference focused on reducing the urban carbon footprint. Founded in 2012, Cornell Tech is a collaboration of Cornell University and the Technion­–Israel Institute of Technology focused on developing the leaders and technologies of tomorrow through foundational and applied research, postgraduate education, and new ventures. The campus on Roosevelt Island is said to be one of the most technically and environmentally advanced campuses in the world. Cornell Tech applies its technologies in industries or sectors where New York City is a global leader including health, urban systems, media and democracy, cryptocurrencies and contracts and public interest technology.

The conference was nicely paced with presentations from local companies like Kelvin offering an understandable thumbnail of how heat pumps can reduce the carbon footprint of more of New York’s commercial and residential properties. As speaker after speaker emphasized, some carbon reducing upgrades are feasible while others are just not realistic yet on a large scale.

Based at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Kelvin has developed a heat pump that replaces room air conditioners and shifts heating and cooling to 80 percent electricity in New York City buildings.

Embodied Carbon Challenge

Wanted: Forward thinking commercial real estate owners with the chops to navigate the sometimes baroque New York City building codes.

Given New York’s office space vacancy rate of 17.4 percent (May 2023) and its decades old affordable housing crisis, a conference presenter from one of the world´s largest infrastructure engineering companies described opportunities for adaptive reuse of some of those office buildings.

Other conference topics that only a structural engineer or materials science researcher could love included high strength cement and other emerging construction materials. This lay person learned from presenters about the embodied carbon challenge. According to the Carbon Leadership Forum, this includes the greenhouse gas emissions arising from the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of building materials. Embodied carbon is a significant percentage of global emissions and requires urgent action to address it.

In many parts of the City the financially rational decision is still too often to build from scratch, rather than retrofit an existing building. We have an 80–20 problem. 20 percent of the buildings are 80 percent of the problem. How we scale the cost effective embodied carbon solutions that already exist was a common conference theme.

Other issues I learned about include decarbonization of the electricity grid and workforce development, training workers in the new technologies.

As a fan of Dollaride, a Brooklyn-based company that is working on clean transportation for New York and America’s transit deserts, I enjoyed hearing from the founder of Circuit Transit, an all electric, tech-enabled shuttle service providing first/last-mile connections to mass transit.

Tara Pham, Co-Founder, & CEO of Numina AI provided interesting comments on how her company is measuring curb-level activity (volume counts, paths, and traffic behaviors of travelers and objects in streets) both anonymously and in aggregate. There is a pedestrian safety crisis in this country. In her remarks Pham noted how since 2010, there has been an over 70 percent increase in pedestrian deaths on American roads. The good news for this Citibike bike share evangelist is that lots of short car trips can be relocated to bikes and other forms of micro mobility.

Over lunch on day one of the conference I met Gabriel Peschiera, CEO of Numa which offers Numa-I, the world’s first personal smart vent that allows each person to control their own clean-air micro-climate via a mobile app. Peschiera called it, “no more fighting over the thermostat.” Personal control and occupancy sensing make Numa the most precise and energy efficient distribution of heating, cooling and ventilating air. Oliver Henry, a New York-based VC, liked it.

Other speakers touched on the challenge of traffic enforcement amid the epidemic of ghost licenses and license plates obscured to evade E-Z Pass and traffic enforcement cameras.

One of the interesting workshops I attended was with a group of architects based in Denmark who are redesigning a multifamily property in Copenhagen. Given efforts in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities to reduce minimum parking requirements for new construction, I suggested that the architects get rid of the parking at the development, add protected bike and walking paths and provide a shuttle to nearby transit. These suggestions were embraced by the group and others proposed adding solar to the site redesign. The land gained from the elimination of parking could be converted to productive crop cultivation for residents of the buildings. Eliminating asphalt will also help reduce summer temperatures at the site created by the heat island effect.

Finally, I was impressed by the comments of Jim Anderson who leads government innovation programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies who spoke of city (government) as a platform — sharing data with parents, researchers, business and others. Anderson also explored the shift away from experts to developing programs with input from communities and the challenge of bringing ordinary city residents into the creation of policy. He touted Mexico City as digitizing at a breadth miles ahead of anywhere else. If we can do that we will be able to more equitably deliver services. They have also stopped their over reliance on consultants. They have built their internal capacity.

As presenter Jerry Hultin opined, the challenge is how to think about now, next and after next.

Yours in transit,


Joel Epstein is a New Yorker and an advocate for public transit, livable cities and public space.

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