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San Francisco Proposal Would Create an Emerging Tech Office

Civic leaders have been talking for years about establishing a procedure for manufacturers to get the city’s permission before beginning operations. Now, a new office might be created to oversee technology deployments.

San Francisco is moving to bring some oversight to the proliferation of new technologies in the city — a repudiation of the adage that it’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.

Under Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee’s proposal, a city “Office of Emerging Technology” would vet any new tech that could create a nuisance in the public right-of-way or risk a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act CEQA. Yee’s proposal came up Oct. 8 and is in a 30-day review phase.

San Francisco, like several other large California cities, has been grappling with the proliferation of electric scooters for the last couple of years. First it banned them, then it issued a reprieve. Now, a year and a half later, the city is poised to again see a fleet of the geo-fenced devices appear next week — as many as 2,500 of them — as a result of a pilot program involving purveyors Lime, Spin and Jump that begins Tuesday. 

The scooters aren't the only newcomers in the public spaces. San Francisco has also seen companies experiment on its thoroughfares, with food- and package-delivery robots that roam the sidewalks, and with dockless bike-share companies. Amid all these emerging technologies, civic leaders have been talking for years about establishing a procedure for manufacturers to get the city’s permission before beginning operations. These discussions have involved stakeholders and groups on all sides of the issue.

Yee’s proposed ordinance would take several regulatory steps:

  • Create the Office of Emerging Technologies and put it under the Department of Public Works;
  • Codify the Public Works director’s authority to take official actions and issue regulations governing the adoption of emerging-tech pilot programs;
  • Require a Public Works permit before obstructing a right-of-way that’s in the department’s jurisdiction;
  • Amend the city’s Public Works and Police codes to provide for administrative, civil and criminal penalties for obstructing the public right-of-way; and
  • Ensure that any emerging-tech projects comply with CEQA.
The city is allowing four e-scooter carriers to operate or expand beginning next week, according to reports: Scoot will be allowed to increase its fleet to 1,000 from its current 400; and Lime, Jump (owned by Uber) and Spin (owned by Ford) will each be given permits to operate 500 scooters. That means there will be as many as 2,500 scooters on the streets before the Office of Emerging Technologies is up and running.

“I am often incredibly impressed by the ingenuity of start-ups and the pace of technological innovation,” Yee said in a statement. “But technology should serve the public’s best interests, not the other way around. As a city, we must ensure that such technologies ultimately result in a net common good and that we evaluate the costs and benefits so that our residents, workers and visitors are not unwittingly made guinea pigs of new tech.”

A story in Axios notes: “San Francisco is home to many tech companies that aim to reshape urban life, but the city has often seemed ill-prepared to deal with them, whether by welcoming or regulating them.”

The issue can be a thorny one in a city that’s home to several big tech companies and that’s so close to Silicon Valley, raising questions about whether the new level of regulation will stifle innovation.

Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C.
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