Confronting Tech Developments Nimbly, Collaboratively and Head-On

Cities can let potentially disruptive developments just happen to them, or they can embrace the change and figure out how to use it.

by / December 4, 2014
Story Bellows, co-director of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, says that if cities don’t want to become irrelevant, they must develop policy that’s responsive. Flickr/City of Philadelphia
Story Bellows, co-director of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, says that if cities don’t want to become irrelevant, they must develop policy that’s responsive.Flickr/City of Philadelphia

It’s better to have change happen with you than to you. That was the takeaway from government innovators speaking at our annual re:public leadership retreat in November. And as we close out 2014 and look toward a busy 2015, it’s a good message to keep in mind.

Keeping pace with technological change is tough for many organizations, but it’s particularly wrenching on governments, which by design — and often by temperament — aren’t inclined to make major course changes quickly. Nor are the questions raised by disruptive technologies easy to answer. Cities struggled this year with regulating ride-sharing startups that challenged traditional taxi companies, for instance. And the FAA grappled with how to safely mix pilotless drones into airspace used by commercial airliners.

Yet it’s far riskier for governments not to engage on these issues.

“If we don’t want to become irrelevant, we have to develop policy that’s responsive,” said Story Bellows, co-director of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. “The timeline to develop policy is long and it’s fixed. We assume we don’t need to revisit it for decades. We have to figure out how to iterate on policy.”

Given that tech-driven change continues to accelerate, governments at all levels will need to figure out how to confront these developments nimbly, collaboratively and head-on.

“Cities can let autonomous vehicles just happen to them, or they can embrace the change and figure out how to use it,” said Gabe Klein, former transportation commissioner of Chicago and Washington, D.C., who is now COO of Bridj, a startup company that offers an alternative to public bus service. The same goes for 3-D printing, wearable health devices, big data and a long list of other potentially disruptive developments.

To be clear, engaging with new companies and technologies doesn’t mean giving them a free ride. “The argument that new types of companies can’t be regulated is BS,” Klein acknowledged. “But unless we embrace it, we can’t regulate it effectively. If we just say no, it doesn’t work.”

In there somewhere might just be a New Year’s resolution for regulators and policymakers: Pay attention to risk and public safety, of course, but also look for opportunities to say yes, and give innovators a little bit of leeway. 

Steve Towns

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic.