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Meeting of the Minds 2016: Using Tech to Enhance the Future of Our Society

At the 10th annual summit, thought-leaders shared their perspectives on the future of infrastructure, civic technology and bridging the digital divide in cities worldwide.

by / October 27, 2016
From left to right, Moderator Adam Hecktman, Dana Chisnell and Lourdes German Ryan McCauley/Government Technology

RICHMOND, Calif. — In what seemed to serve as a microcosm of the old meeting new, industry leaders, government officials and representatives from nonprofits spoke about retrofitting historic cities to adjust for population growth and overhauling human mobility. The event was the 10th annual Meeting of the Minds Summit, held in the old Ford Motor Co. Assembly Plant in Richmond, Calif., and the purpose was to explore what cities are doing, and demonstrate the potential benefits of utilizing technology to enhance the future of society.

Gathering for the two-day event on Oct. 26 and 27, more than 400 opinion-shapers, policy-makers, leading thinkers and innovators from more than 25 countries exchanged strategies and insights to build cross-sector alliances.

‘Tech in Government Uniformly Sucks’

The upcoming election has everyone talking, including Dana Chisnell, co-founder of the Center for Civic Design and consultant for the U.S. Digital Service. In a discussion about the role technology plays in making citizen experiences with government more effective and efficient, Chisnell noted the potential benefits it holds for assisting in elections.

One of the public sector's most critical jobs in handling elections is to ensure voter accessibility and intent. Take the infamous butterfly ballot used during the 2000 election in Florida, a situation that helped to spark Chisnell's interest in technology in the public sector. It was a mess, and did nothing for easing voter confidence. The butterfly ballot, which has names down both sides and a single column of punch holes in the center, led to widespread allegations of mismarked ballots.

“Election officials are gonna get sued,” said Chisnell. “The question is: What for?”

So many tools could be implemented to avoid confusing ballots and increase accessibility. But many barriers still make it difficult for governments to adopt these measures, she explained.

“Tech in government uniformly sucks,” Chisnell said, adding that procurement practices were meant for tanks and battleships, not software systems. It is getting better, but slowly, she noted.

One solution Chisnell offered is to avoid pooling funding into expensive election-only technology. Buying reusable machines that can handle different types of software makes problem-solving easier. Counties and cities utilizing software-as-a-service align with this model.

Reimagining Transportation

If you asked a crowd what transportation will look like in five, 10 or 50 years, chances are you'd hear a lot of different responses. Connected and autonomous vehicles and shared transportation systems are all potentially game changing theories that, according to James Kuffner from the Toyota Research Institute, could be the next biggest shift in transportation since the introduction of automobiles.

It is hard to argue with the fact that our current transportation systems are incredibly inefficient, said Kuffner, citing numerous facts: Vehicles sit idle nearly 95 percent of the time; 93 percent of the time, drivers are in a car alone commuting to work; and there are an estimated 1 billion parking spots for 253 million vehicles. In Los Angeles alone, there are 18.6 million spots for some 5 million vehicles.

Not only could autonomous vehicles be an incredible public safety benefit, but they could also drastically increase people’s productivity and create a higher quality of life. Kuffner argued that we could even put the vehicle network completely underground, counting on the influx of zero-emission vehicles.

“We can finally start rebuilding cities for humans, not cars,” he said, adding that parking structures can serve as charging stations away from urban centers, thus reducing urban density.

In order to prepare for this future, local governments should keep in mind three important things when trying to regulate the possible shared transit system, said Aarjev Trivedi, founder and CEO of Ridecell, a software company that specializes in mobility-as-a-service (MaaS).

1. Transparency: For governments, it is crucial to let residents and potential businesses know what is happening on the regulatory side. What is even more crucial, according to Trivedi, is opening up transit data and having ridesharing companies open their data. While not forcing the complete disclosure of users, it is invaluable for cities to know how many vehicles are on the streets and where they are.

2. Integration: One key issue with overhauling transportation networks as they currently stand is overcoming system fragmentation. Tying into transparency, vehicle data should be compiled by departments of transportation, transit authorities and private actors.

3. Separation of Power: Nobody knows exactly what transportation networks will look like in the future. The market for autonomous vehicles seems to be rapidly evolving, and private industry needs to be at the table when compiling and drafting regulations.

Broadband Two Ways

Many argue that Internet connectivity is a necessity. There has been much progress when it comes to Internet speed, but the disparity between the haves and have nots in urban centers like New York City and San Jose, Calif., is an urgent need that must be addressed.

Although still in the early stages of municipal broadband rollout, San Jose is determined to raise the floor of its cities. Although the city refers to itself as the "Capital of Silicon Valley" given that several tech companies’ headquarters are in and on the periphery of city borders, nearly 20 percent of the population lives on less than $20,000 a year.

As a part of the mayor’s Smart City Vision, one of the main pillars is the push for inclusivity.

“Kids are sitting outside of libraries trying to complete their homework,” said city Chief Innovation Officer Shireen Santosham, adding that the first step in this effort is simply to locate where everything is. And figuring out, block by block, what Internet options are available where is a massive undertaking, she said.

But the work needs to be done so that concrete steps can be taken, whether that's working with private Internet service providers (ISPs) or the city developing its own network.

On the other side of the country, Joshua Breitbart, special adviser for broadband at the New York City Office of the Mayor, shared his experiences in providing broadband across the boroughs. The first project was to convert old public telephone booths to Wi-Fi-enabled kiosks. By agreeing to franchise the locations and have advertising pay for the installation, the city was able to undertake this program and continues to build a corridor of Internet connection.

The second project Breitbart mentioned was an effort to deliver free Wi-Fi to public housing residents. As a demonstration project, the Mayor's Office is set to deliver broadband Internet to nearly 7,000 Queensbridge public housing residents for free. This program could receive assistance from the federal Lifeline subsidy, which reimburses low-income residents $9.25 for broadband support.

There are more than 400,000 people living in public housing, so the project provides an example of the feasibility of connecting low-income residents to high-speed Internet.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy to the good,” said Breitbart.

*Editor's note: This article was revised at 3:45 p.m. on Oct. 28, 2016, to include corrections about the NYC subsidized housing program.

Ryan McCauley Former Staff Writer

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.

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