By Zach Drucker
When sf.citi was formed in 2012, the word “rideshare” had yet to be coined, your sandwiches were delivered by humans rather than robots, and people had to go out in-person to find a date. It’s hard to believe that this not-so-distant past, though less than a decade ago, was so different from our technology-powered lives of today. Since then, we have seen substantial advancements and have secured San Francisco the title of the innovation capital of the world – but such technological advancements have not come without prolonged and sometimes challenging regulatory obstacles. Regulation is certainly necessary to ensure fair markets and protect the safety of citizens, but at what cost to advancements in technology? How should we balance the two? Let’s take a look at what this could mean for San Francisco and how other neighboring cities are grappling with these issues.
To Regulate or Not to Regulate
Among the regulatory challenges around digital innovation, policymakers understandably struggle to define new products and services that do not fit neatly into industry categories – even shifting categories as the tech evolves – which, in turn, creates government agencies with overlapping authority. Before we dive into how different cities are tackling this issue, let’s see what the experts have to say. Kevin Werbach, Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the Wharton School of Business at Penn, suggests a handful of recommendations for policymakers and regulators to consider going forward, a few of which we listed below:
- Implement co-regulation and delegated regulation as an alternative to traditional regulation.
Translation: Don’t waste the expertise of industry and try to build laws without them.
More common elsewhere in the world, the basic notion starts with the understanding that tech companies and industry collectives know the most about their market. With their industry insight and access to data, they can create mechanisms that achieve the goals of regulators, without government having to be intrusive or inefficient.
- Modernize regulatory efforts and update all existing laws to conform to the digital age.
Translation: It’s okay to scrap laws that don’t make sense anymore.
One of the problems regulators face is legacy in regulation. The legacy of previous regulations necessitates legislative change – rules are outdated using terms that no longer make sense, block innovation, or are duplicative.
- Generate trust between industries and the regulators.
Translation: Self explanatory.
There needs to be more dialogue between industry leaders, regulators, and legislators to strengthen public-private relationships. Neither side should assume the status quo, and instead, focus on a mutual process of generating trust to emphasize that both parties have shared goals.
So What’s Everybody Else Doing?
Across the country, various tech councils and innovation advisory groups have emerged over the past year. The two most established tech councils in large cities are those in New York City and Seattle.
NYCx Tech Leadership Advisory Council
Launched in October 2017 by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the NYCx Tech Leadership Advisory Council is a municipal program in the Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, consisting of top leaders in tech, venture capital, and organizations representing tech in local communities. The mission of NYCx is to educate New York City officials about the latest innovations and advise them on using new technologies to achieve benchmarks in New York’s 2018 strategic plan, including the three goals laid out below.
- Grow Job Opportunities for All New Yorkers
Help connect New Yorkers to companies and jobs emerging from the growing tech economy.
- Engage and Test New Ideas with the Public
Co-create with local communities — develop tech that improves civic life, and collaboratively test it to uncover real-life impacts.
- Make NYC the Place to Launch Tech for the Public
Enhance NYC’s role as a global leader in culture and quality of life, making homegrown tech another point of civic pride.
Taking a proactive approach, New York City is encouraging the tech industry to engage with both the city and community to better inform them about emerging technology. Paul Saffo with Singularity University – an NYCx member – described their work as “helping the agency make the most of their resources and push things toward desired long-term futures, and protect them against getting caught by surprise.” In one year, NYCx developments include the launch of “moonshot challenges” to encourage entrepreneurs to tackle the city’s major issues, the creation of co-labs to cultivate education and experimentation in high-need, high-opportunity neighborhoods, and more.
Seattle’s Innovation Advisory Council
In a move to increase engagement with the burgeoning tech industry in Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in August 2018 the formation of the Innovation Advisory Council (IAC). Made up of local tech leaders, the IAC plans to act as an advisor on policies and issues where data and emerging technology could be of assistance. Specifically, Mayor Durkan established that the IAC will “focus on issue identification, policy recommendations, and project implementation of technology solutions including new data analytics, dashboards, applications, and software for the City.“ The Mayor’s office recognized that tech alone cannot fix the most urgent issues in the city and must be part of a more holistic solution.
Seattle tech companies are ready to get to work with the IAC. Channeling the energy from the tech and innovation economy, Nicholas Merriam of sea.citi, sf.citi’s Seattle counterpart, emphasizes that member companies are excited to utilize their skills, resources, and expertise in a meaningful way to address pressing challenges facing the city, and have the opportunity to partner with policymakers in this capacity. At the time of this writing, IAC has hosted only a few meetings and will, according to the Durkan administration, start working on their first projects in 2019.
In a Nutshell
Created with similar missions, the tech councils of Seattle and New York City are uniquely their own. Employing Professor Werbach’s recommendations, one could evaluate that both councils were designed to establish and grow trust between the tech industry and city government, while only New York City established a system for policy recommendation. Neither council has publicly stated that it plans to reassess their existing regulations.
This year, the Office of San Francisco City Administrator Naomi Kelly hosted five meetings as a part of the Emerging Technology Open Working Group, which will culminate in policy recommendations presented to the Board of Supervisors this coming December. The Emerging Technology Open Working Group has already sparked important conversations that we hope will lead to new innovative policies that promote efficient and inclusive regulatory practices. And while we have yet to create a permanent body for engagement on tech and innovation policy here in our city, we believe that there is a significant opportunity for our members and the larger tech industry to play a proactive, collaborative role in shaping the regulatory future of San Francisco. Whether this role is formalized through a council like in New York and Seattle or whether, in true San Francisco fashion, we form an entirely new approach remains to be seen. What we do know, however, is that, in order to compete with other cities in the Digital Era, we must be working with, rather than against, San Francisco’s tremendous tech talent to build the forward-thinking, equitable policies our city needs.