Published on 25 April 2019
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Make Tech Work for All

Alexander Shermansong explores how tech companies can work with city leaders to create equitable solutions that work for everyone, looking at NYCx in New York.

It seems a long time ago that Uber fought back against city regulations by offering the “de Blasio option”. This snarky, only-in-NYC option mocked the mayor for running notoriously late. Uber was trying to mobilise public opinion against regulation, but it ultimately failed.

While there are still startups that prefer to sue than collaborate, many tech companies are coming to realise that maybe working with, not despite, city hall is the way forward.

  • Spin looks to roll out scooters with the city
  • WeWork created a new unit to partner with local groups to address urban challenges
  • Google launched a Learning Center to offer free digital skills training

A new paradigm: Equity and sustainability

New York City has been at the forefront of shaping this new paradigm. In 2017, the City launched NYCx to engage the tech industry to solve real-world problems. They assembled a leadership group that includes senior executives from Microsoft, LinkedIn, Union Square Ventures.

With a focus on equity and sustainability, NYCx brings new voices to tech R&D.

  • Co-Lab Challenges invite startups and entrepreneurs to work directly with community residents to solve neighborhood challenges. The Co-Labs aim to ground solutions in the lived experience of diverse New Yorkers, especially lower income communities.
  • Moonshot Challenges encourage global entrepreneurs to think big about cities’ most pressing problems. Built from the work experience of public sector practitioners, the Moonshots propose bold solutions and groundbreaking business models to transform lives of city dwellers globally.

Testing technology in real urban spaces

NYCx opens urban spaces as test beds for new technologies. In each case, technology, public policy, and test space were carefully selected to promote equitable, inclusive innovation.

For example, the Connectivity Challenge demonstrates new, less expensive modes of broadband deployment on Governors Island — and ultimately deployed the winning concept. The Climate Action Challenge invited electric vehicle charging innovators to show how they would serve diverse New Yorkers. In particular, innovators were asked to show how they serve people with disabilities. And the best ideas were invited to similar demonstration opportunities in Paris.

In more residential neighborhoods, the Co-Lab Zero Waste Challenge drew on the experience of public housing residents to select and test technologies to reduce waste in public space. The Co-Lab Night Safety Challenge invited solutions to be tested in Osborn Plaza in Brownsville. At the time, no businesses were open after dark in the neighborhood — an economic inequity the challenge sought to remediate.

A low-cost, easy-to-replicate model

The NYCx team has codified their approach into a “launch pad” to help other cities replicate their approach. In essence, the NYCx approach can be summarised in several steps.

The approach begins with the mayor’s vision. Each challenge is rooted in a specific goal of the City’s long-range plan OneNYC. From that, we seek to identify a problem inhibiting success of the vision. The NYCx team works with an agency to understand the difficulties they are facing with specific OneNYC goals. Alternatively, they may work with a community that’s facing re-zoning or other significant changes on a Co-Lab effort. Workshops with agencies and technologies help flesh out the problem and the potential impact. Often provocateurs like Cornell Tech or CUSP are invited to participate.

The team then turns to research. Targeted research uncovers industry trends, through interviews with the leadership council or with key informants like the Urban Tech Hub or New Lab. Complementary research uncovers agency practice or community expectations. These are done through interviews, workshops, and surveys. The NYCx Co-Labs organize community-learning events to address the disparities of awareness of new technology.

At the heart of the planning process is finding the “aperture” that combines tech innovation and policy opportunity. This aperture is then mapped to an agency’s upcoming decision, planning effort, or procurement to ensure the challenge is actionable. The result is the challenge statement. NYCx seeks global partners for each challenge to help winning solutions scale rapidly. The Cybersecurity Challenge, for example, includes London, Singapore, Korea, and several other jurisdictions as well as an Israeli venture capital firm.

The first round of each challenge makes it very easy to participate. Often an entrepreneur needs merely answer a few short questions about her or his idea, how it’s innovative, and who else is on the team. The key here is to get very broad participation. The second round invites compelling ideas to share more information. Sometimes participants are asked to team up with each other, if they’re ideas are overlapping or complementary. Again, the goal is to get participation, so the legal hurdles are few, with low barriers to entry, and many applicants are invited to provide more detail.

The final round is more targeted, asking a few participants to give demonstrations of their solutions. Often they receive “micro procurements” to support the cost of the demonstration. Finalists may be invited to negotiate a contract with the city or enter due diligence with an investor. It has been effective to offer relatively small monetary awards but extensive feedback from potential customers and broad exposure for winning ideas.

The result: Tech that works for people

By starting the needs of real people, NYCx takes a human-centered design approach. But unlike the typical tech startup, NYCx begins with the needs of policy makers or residents of lower income communities.

Cities and communities get potentially breakthrough solutions, often to the very problems that have been exacerbated by the rise of technology. Often the problems of one city are closely echoed by many other cities around the world.

Participating companies get feedback from potential customers. Those that make it to the finals get validation and often significant PR opportunities. Winning entries get help meeting global customers and investors.

As Miguel Gamiño said, the NYC CTO who launched the program, “we’re really trying to make sure technology is working for people and not the reverse.”

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Alexander Shermansong

Alexander Shermansong

Alexander Shermansong is on the faculty of NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. As the founder of Civic Consulting USA, he helps mayors and companies with urban innovation.

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