Cities and Tech Companies Can Accomplish Great Things Together

By partnering early and sharing data, cities and technology companies can create regulations that build new industries.

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By Kish Rajan

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To say that big cities and technology companies have a dysfunctional relationship is probably something of an understatement. Right now, most cities are on edge. City staff, legislators and regulators see technology companies, like Uber and Airbnb, disrupting markets faster than they can write regulations. Instead of working together to ensure new companies to fit in and strengthen the existing urban fabric, both sides too often devolve into wars of words and lawsuits.

That doesn't need to be the norm. Technology and government shouldn't be at odds. They could be partners.

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It's possible. Just look at what Postmates is doing in Washington, D.C. The delivery service realized that when people order food from restaurants or stores less than a mile away, it really doesn't make sense for a driver to pick up and deliver that food.

"Sometimes it's not financially advantageous for our fleet to make such short distant runs. So we were inspired by a desire to reserve couriers for higher-paying trips, while still facilitating merchant sales for hyper-short distances," says Vikrum Aiyer, vice president of public policy at Postmates.

Instead, they wanted to use self-driving robots -- think of them as coolers on wheels -- to deliver short distances. So Postmates and robotics company Starship Technologies went to the city government in D.C. to discuss a partnership. In exchange for letting Postmates test the robots, the companies would share their data with the government on an ongoing basis. Some of that data included information about how the deliveries are helping local business, how they are impacting sidewalk congestion and how removing cars from the equation is affecting local traffic.

That good-faith open dialogue not only helped build trust between Postmates and the government, it also gave the government data-based information -- hard facts -- at their fingertips as they continued to discuss whether to regulate these new robots. The experiment has gone so well that Postmates is expanding the pilot program to more neighborhoods in the Beltway.

Compare that to legislation that was recently passed in San Francisco.

In the heart of the tech world, the city council voted to put in place strict regulations that will ban self-driving delivery robots from most city streets. Amid concerns about the robots taking jobs and endangering pedestrians, the council reacted emotionally instead of trying to work with Postmates and Starship to find ways to truly measure the impact of robots, through data.

Related: 'The Jetsons' World Is Becoming Reality. Innovators, Start Your Engines.

Both cities and tech companies have to do better.

Last year the Rockefeller Foundation, in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities, hosted the first CityXChange summit for government officials and tech leaders to start discussing how they can work together. The event, which took place on the shores of Lake Cuomo in Italy, produced a list of recommendations to help cities and tech companies better understand the benefits of working together, build foundations for partnerships and rethink process and regulations to encourage innovation.

Their recommendations included:

  • Startups taking city politics seriously. By understanding the motivations and risks politicians deal with every day, startups can think more deeply about how to help to the people they will need on their side.
  • Cities using their bully pulpit to advocate for innovation. While a city like San Francisco might feel comfortable turning away tech companies, cities in the rest of the country are courting the tech industry. Every city has a platform for making that pitch.
  • Cities should convene local tech communities to help with resiliency challenges. Often the best new ideas are coming from tech entrepreneurs. By working with startups, cities can start to find solutions to some of their biggest problems.
  • Cities should update their procurement processes. Structures like Requests for Innovation can help cities find new technology companies to work with.
  • Cities and startups should enable phased projects. As D.C. and Postmates show, working together to roll out a technology can produce great results for both parties.

Related: Apple, Facebook and Google Vets Form Coalition to Fight Tech Addiction

It's time for these two worlds to come together. The new services that tech companies offer have the potential to make people's lives better and easier. But those benefits will struggle to break through if the companies are constantly engaged in battles with local government.

When both sides come to the table early to work towards data-based 21st century regulations, everyone wins.

Kish Rajan

Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates

Kish Rajan is chief evangelist at CALinnovates, a non-partisan technology advocacy coalition of tech companies, founders, funders and nonprofits. He is the former director of Gov. Jerry Brown’s GOBiz initiative. Email

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