SXSW 2019: Mayors and the Future — An Inextricable Bond

Body cameras, surveillance, neural implants and more are beginning to pop up in cities. During a session at the Civic I/O Mayors’ Summit at South by Southwest, local leaders considered their roles in a changing world.

by / March 8, 2019
West Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Christopher Cabaldon discusses technology with other mayors during the Civic I/O Mayors' Summit at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas on March 8, 2019. Government Technology/Eyragon Eidam

AUSTIN, TEXAS — Like it or not, technology is already shaping the way local governments function at a core level. Smart leaders acknowledge the potential risks and rewards, while the rest leave the details to chance. During an interactive session at the Civic I/O Mayors’ Summit at South by Southwest Friday morning, mayors from across the country grappled with the realities of the increasingly technology-driven world.

At the request of Katie Joseff, Digital Intelligence Lab research manager with the Institute of the Future, U.S. mayors thought through the implications of existing and emerging technologies. In one instance, she pressed the question of how connected neural implants — what she called a “coming reality” — could impact citizens and local government. 

West Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Christopher Cabaldon questioned what the technology could mean for “objective truth,” while Columbia, S.C., Mayor Stephen K. Benjamin framed the thought as “disconcerting.”

“We’re still trying to stop foreign actors from buying social media ads on Facebook,” Benjamin said. 

When pressed to consider more tangible technologies, the group of mayors turned their collective focus to the implications of surveillance and data collection. 

In Shreveport, La., Mayor Adrian Perkins said leaders struggled to address a lofty murder rate, and surveillance cameras were seen as part of the answer to the problem. Initially, he said, concerns about citizen privacy had not been thoroughly considered and conversations needed to be kickstarted. 

“Right now we’re looking at how we can roll it out in a responsible way,” he said.

When the conversation turned to future-proofing certain technologies, the group provided several examples of unforeseen challenges posed by technology. In Spokane, Wash., Mayor David Condon said the city's 350 body-worn cameras prompted a flood of highly specific requests on the part of developers. This uptick in footage requests had not been considered as a potential outcome of the program, but adapting was seen as central to maintaining the city’s commitment to transparency.

“What they are doing with it, we aren’t allowed to ask,” Condon said.

Joseff encouraged consideration about emerging technologies and the risks and rewards they bring, warning anecdotally that today’s fix-all solutions are sometimes the breeding grounds for tomorrow’s challenges.

“The capacity we have in local government to be able to engage, even in life and death questions much less all the others, is a challenge,” Cabaldon countered.

Cabaldon also pointed out that while the future must be considered, the past and present are equally important.

“We’re describing it as future-proofing as though the present and the past are just fine,” he said. “I know in my city we have a tendency to really obsess about the consequences of new things, but some of these new things are simply making visible the problems with the old things.”

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.

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