I recently had the pleasure of accompanying the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) on its annual LINK trip in my capacity as the ARC’s citizen board member for the City of Atlanta. The purpose of the trip is for more than 100 government, business and non-profit sector leaders to visit other cities to learn from their successes and failures in addressing issues ranging from transit to affordable housing. This year’s trip was to sunny San Diego, and I found a panel about smart cities and the impact of technology on government to be particularly instructive.
As is the norm for discussions amongst technology professionals in government, the San Diego regional leaders showed passion for the potential of technology and open data to transform how cities work. Indeed, it is undeniable that the connectivity enabled by these technologies can ease traffic congestion, reduce energy consumption and greatly improve the delivery of critical services like public safety.
Cities all around the world, from Singapore to Amsterdam to right here in Atlanta, have already demonstrated that technology can simply make governments better at their core functions. And, there is little doubt that we are just at the beginning of the progress.
As a long-time enthusiast for the potential of technology to improve how government functions, I was unsurprisingly energized by the panel and caught myself daydreaming about the progress yet to come. Then, my friend Nathaniel Smith, founder and Chief Equity Officer/CEO of the Partnership for Southern Equity, directed a series of questions to the panel that challenged my perspective.
“Can a city be truly smart if it is inequitable?” asked Smith. “It is encouraging that we are moving towards more energy-efficient cities, but we cannot allow renewable cities to become engines of urban renewal that displace vulnerable populations who live in our cities.”
He went on to examine clean energy technologies as an example. “Solar is a great form of renewable energy,” said Smith. “However, most of the residents I engage with in low-income communities cannot afford solar. We must make sure that communities of concern are also positioned to benefit from the smart cities revolution.”
These are good and fair points. Often in the tech industry, we are so focused on quickly launching and scaling new technologies that inconvenient questions such as, “Who will truly benefit?” and “Who can afford this?” inadvertently get lost in the shuffle.
Yes, government can stifle innovation by overregulating technologies that are in their infancy. And no, state and local governments should generally not attempt to create their own conflicting regulatory regimes for things like driverless cars and drones, which would make compliance with a patchwork of laws on a national and international level virtually impossible.
But there does need to be a balance between supporting innovation and the public interest, which means ensuring that equity is a part of the overall calculation. This intentionality is critical in instances where governments are partnering with companies to implement things like smart city technology. Without it, the profit motive that corporations must focus on may overshadow all else.
Simply put, governments and corporations exist for different reasons. It’s incumbent on both sides to recognize this inherent tension between profit and inclusion while building the cities of tomorrow.
President Barack Obama put it best in a discussion on science and technology at Carnegie Mellon University in October 2016.
“Government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy,” said President Obama. “This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.”
Obama continued to say that the tech industry sometimes gets, “the sense of, we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.”
In the well-intentioned rush to push new technologies for the cities of tomorrow, this need for balance between promoting innovation and protecting the public interest is one that those in both the private and public sectors would be well served to remember. For even the most exciting, world-changing technologies of tomorrow are ultimately missing the mark if smart cities aren’t also inclusive ones.
Amol Naik is a Director on MailChimp’s Legal team. He formerly served as Google’s Public Policy & Government Relations Senior Counsel for the Southeast region. In this role, Amol was the head of external affairs for Google in Georgia, including state and local government affairs, public policy and community affairs. He is the City of Atlanta’s appointed Citizen Commissioner on the Atlanta Regional Commission, a member of Atlanta Mayor Lance Bottoms’ transition team, and Corporate Secretary of the Fulton County-Atlanta Land Bank Authority.