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Economic Policy2020.12.12 This op-ed originally appeared in Business Insider.

The next stimulus bill should include government-issued vouchers for local restaurants

Restaurants, bars, and brick-and-mortar small businesses have been unequally impacted by the pandemic as US consumers stay home or spend more online. Past stimulus contributed to higher rates of savings among US consumers as many Americans held onto cash. Past stimulus contributed to higher rates of savings among US consumers as many Americans held onto cash.

The American economy and workers are fighting for survival during a critical holiday season beset by rising coronavirus cases and less spending by customers at stores and restaurants.

Even with limited shutdowns and restrictions, consumers in the US have cautiously chosen to go out less and ordered goods or food for delivery instead. Online retailers and grocers have benefitted as more Americans hunker down at home, leaving restaurants, bars, and local establishments with fewer walk-in patrons.

As Congress negotiates another round of stimulus, lawmakers should get creative with the types of targeted stimulus offered to business. One effective way to provide a direct jolt to the economy and revive restaurants and retail businesses by offering vouchers for takeout and curbside pickup at local businesses.

In January, even before the first reported COVID-19 cases in the US, Harvard professor Gabriel Chodorow-Reich proposed offering restaurant coupons in the event of a downturn as an effective way of stimulating the economy.

Spending would take place in neighborhoods and be workforce-intensive, benefitting local economies and workers. These coupons or vouchers could encourage and enable money to exchange hands faster within communities and lift overall macroeconomic activity. China, in an attempt to keep consumer dollars on the mainland, has already provided spending vouchers with good results so far.

A variation of this voucher plan could serve as an ideal way to encourage Americans to stay home and order takeout, delivery, or curbside pickup. It would also allow restaurants and businesses to operate safely should new lockdown measures be necessary. The vouchers should come with strict terms: an expiry date and limited use for local establishments.

For millions of Americans, stimulus checks have proven to be a lifeline — they should, undoubtedly, be given to Americans again. However, a voucher could also be an effective supplement that supports local spending.

The case for including stimulus with an expiration comes down to a basic tenant of consumer behavior: people hold onto cash in times of uncertainty.

Shortly after the first round of stimulus in April, Americans' savings rate reached its highest point in 30 years. This data suggests that while countless Americans lived paycheck to paycheck and quickly spent their stimulus, many of those who pocketed the $1,200 stimulus put it towards debt or into a savings account. If consumer spending is the primary driver of the US economy, it is income that sustains and fuels that spending. But if money sits still, it changes hands less and growth consequently slows.

For the restaurant industry — which makes up more than 4% of US GDP and employs nearly 10% of US workers — the precipitous drop in patronage in March and April has slowly ticked back up. Shortly after Labor Day coronavirus cases increased and temperatures dropped making outside dining less desirable. Now the number of reservations has plateaued, hovering at an average of 44.6% less traffic than the same time last year.

The economic devastation that has left businesses insolvent or on the brink of bankruptcy requires measures of considerable financial priority. Of the nearly 500,000 brick-and-mortar retail businesses, 98% are considered small retail businesses that employ fewer than 50 employees, and they account for more than 40% of all retail workers in the US. Nine months after the start of the pandemic, over 164,000 businesses have closed in total with almost 100,000 ceasing operations for good and another 65,000 remaining temporarily closed. The hardest hit businesses are bars, cafes, and restaurants. In surveys, two-thirds of restaurants believe they are likely to padlock their doors permanently without government support. For-rent signs and empty storefronts have now marked the death of downtowns and main streets.

The innovation economy is critical to helping the national economy out of this recession. Yet, while most startups and venture capital firms are concentrated in San Francisco, New York, and Boston – cities that have recently seen significant outbound migration as evidenced in rent decreases — midsize cities should also develop their tech credentials. Why can't Tulsa, Oklahoma or Cleveland, Ohio also birth tech communities and grow global tech firms?

A recent study on the effectiveness of the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program in the Journal of Public Economics shows how small businesses were disadvantaged by the design of the program — a first-come, first-serve approach that put larger corporations at the front of the line.

Small businesses were less aware of the program or their eligibility, submitted applications later, had longer approval periods, and were overall approved less often. Of the over $2 trillion in stimulus and aid, only one-third, or $669 billion, went to small businesses despite producing 44% of GDP and employing just less than half of the private workforce in the US.

This underscores the fact that not all stimulus is created equal and how stimulus is deployed matters greatly. Stimulus can be designed for high economic metabolism and for lasting effect. Long-term customer relationships can be more valuable and generative than one-time payments.

Any proposal for voucher-based stimulus should come without an asterisk and fine print. Cash transfers to the public — such as the $267 billion in direct payments that were made to nearly 160 million Americans — shouldn't be replaced by local business vouchers. Likewise, direct grants and relief to provide lifelines to restaurants and small businesses under severe economic stress should be included in any upcoming federal aid program.

Consider how an additional $100 to $200 for each local voucher can be provided to the same number of Americans for a relatively modest $30 billion to $60 billion, with the likely return of an outsized impact on local economies. Vouchers could come with the stipulation that purchases be made by delivery or pick-up and by a certain date, but specifically for small retail once the pandemic has been controlled.

Americans are desperate for financial assistance for bills, rent, food and essential goods — but eventually they will need to return to work. Similarly, small brick-and-mortar businesses around the US will need more than just a temporary lifeline to make a rebound. They will need their customers back.

Economic Policy2020.10.20 This op-ed originally appeared in Business Insider.

Encouraging tech growth in midsize US cities can kickstart economic recovery and reignite the innovation sector

If America wants to bounce back from the recession and grow the economy for years to come, we should push tech companies to move to midsize US cities.

The urban-rural divide over the past decade has become the political and economic fault line in America. The polarization has deepened as workers in America's heartland have seen industries wane and jobs depart offshore.

At the same time, the US economy is increasingly centered in large urban metropolises – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, DC, and San Francisco – and is more and more undergirded by the technology economy. Today, in the midst of the pandemic-caused recession and as an internal migration takes place, cities that decades earlier sustained middle America have an opportunity to make a comeback.

To grow the US economy in this recession, policymakers should focus on tech growth in midsize and second-tier cities. By doing so, the economic drivers of big cities that have been recent winners in the new economy can be seeded elsewhere to provide growth across the US.

In the post-recovery period after the Great Recession, tech led US growth in economic output which was also reflected on the stock market. At nearly $1.9 trillion, the sector now generates one-fifth of the total US economy only behind manufacturing and government. All this with over 70% of the sector's GDP grown in just the past decade.

Correspondingly, during the longest bull market in US history, the tech-led NASDAQ hit a low of near 1300 points in March of 2009 and hit a high near 9800 points this February — a 650% return that doubled the rate of return compared to the Dow Jones.

The tech industry's stock market growth is impressive, but it is job creation where the industry's impact can be felt most. Job creation in the tech sector has outpaced all other industries — save for food preparation, personal care, and transportation — growing at an annualized rate of 2.6% year over year. Though the sector accounts for only 10% of jobs in the US, it produces 18% of economic output.

This is significant for two reasons, the first being that tech sector wages have delivered a significant premium over other private sector wages. In 1990, the average tech sector employee made $1.60 for every $1 earned by the average private sector employee. Today, that premium wage has risen to $2.20 for every dollar earned by Americans in other industries.

The corollary is that 12.1 million tech workers in the US make more and enjoy better living standards. Many of the jobs within food and transportation that have surpassed it in job growth, come with lower wages, less stability, or a high likelihood that jobs may be replaced by automation over the long-term.

The other notably beneficial effect of the tech economy is the high job multiplier of the industry. On average for most industries, every new job at a firm leads to the creation of less than one other job in the local economy as a result. But for the tech industry, the high job multiplier means that every new tech job creates roughly two and as many as five indirect jobs. Combined, the direct and indirect effects of job creation — a factor of four or more — as well as the economic growth of the tech sector makes it unrivaled as an industry.

The tech sector has become a pillar of American economic progress, but that prosperity hasn't been shared, causing widened economic, political, and social divides between cities and regions. It's this geographic sorting of highly-skilled and educated workers in urban areas that has driven socioeconomic differences.

As workers moved to major metropolises beginning in the 1990's, through the 2000's, and well into the 2010's, companies coalesced and accelerated job creation and economic growth in those urban, and mostly coastal, areas. The shift from manufacturing to services and tech exacerbated income disparities for rural, suburban and many second-tier cities that eventually faced decline.

The innovation economy is critical to helping the national economy out of this recession. Yet, while most startups and venture capital firms are concentrated in San Francisco, New York, and Boston – cities that have recently seen significant outbound migration as evidenced in rent decreases — midsize cities should also develop their tech credentials. Why can't Tulsa, Oklahoma or Cleveland, Ohio also birth tech communities and grow global tech firms?

In fact, they can — if the right federal and regional policies are put in place.

Recently proposed legislation by Senators Dick Durbin and Christopher Coons would fund federal investment for research innovation centers in ten midsize areas, a small but important step towards spreading tech sector growth. It's not a guarantee, as most of the cities around the world that have attempted to mirror Silicon Valley's magnetism have been unsuccessful.

In fact, the 1990's saw a similar model proposed by Harvard economist Michael Porter for regional innovation hubs and research parks combined with venture capital that were pursued fruitlessly. One of the missing elements was an investment in people and in developing ecosystems that could further the technology transfer of research into business applications. After all, how else will new discoveries be applied in the real world as a product or service?

Investing in regions with existing universities, capital, and young workers provides the minimum necessary conditions for the agglomeration of an innovation cluster. But the human component of the equation requires cultivating young and educated workers while developing the skills of other workers coming from other industries. This also calls for developing linkages between people and institutions, encouraging communities of risk-taking entrepreneurs, and establishing places for ideas and startup culture to develop.

The strategic approach to developing these tech hubs must also be changed to be regionally specific. The tech sector generally has fifty sub-sector industries that include, using the North American Industry Classification System, information technology, telecommunications, research and development, internet services, and software. But it is also embedded within every legacy industry including advertising, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing and more.

This tech-sector tethering to existing industry clusters is what can allow midsize cities to develop their competitive advantage in the tech economy. Detroit has a better chance at succeeding if it focuses on developing automotive technologies than on cybersecurity technologies.

Omaha, Nebraska shouldn't emphasize building startups in the consumer space, but instead in the agriculture technology space. The shortcomings of previous efforts to re-create Silicon Valley tried to mimic it, rather than nurturing the unique identity of a region.

Tactically, what comes next are the policy tools for place-based economic development that can activate growth. Creating special zones, or federally-supported innovation districts, with economic benefits for firms who train or hire locally could further advance these non-coastal growth centers.

These zones could provide infrastructure investments in land reuse than can retrofit unused manufacturing hubs as tech offices and mixed work-live buildings with community spaces. Establishing government-backed revolving funds that continually reinvest returns and proof-of-concept venture funds could open up access to capital to riskier tech projects. However, most effective may be the expansion of tech transfer programs beyond universities that could bring innovations with commercial interest to market faster.

No better time has arrived at rethinking economic growth in the US. As the election looms, a new promise to Americans can be made, one that can restore America's heartland regions and promote tech growth as a national strategy to address regional divergences.

Economists today worry that America's innovation edge is dulling, despite growth in science doctorates and research spending. Some point to a widening chasm between research and business application – to which the solution then includes the cross-pollinating concentrations of tech communities that can adapt science and apply it as innovations in the market.

Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris, who previously introduced the 21st Century SKILLS Act, can reinvigorate the American potential and double down on the innovation sector when so many Americans continue to be unemployed. They can expand the pool of the tech workforce beyond urban coastal regions while augmenting the development of innovation-based regional economies.

Promoting a robust tech-oriented economic agenda by advancing regional growth hubs will reorient the country's path towards the tech sector's many opportunities. It's a vision for shared growth that leans into a technology-dominated future.

Urban Policy2020.07.31 This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Daily News

Let Revels ride again soon

After two years and more than three million safe rides on Revels — New York’s only rideshare electric mopeds — two riders were victims of tragically fatal accidents in the span of a few days. The scooter company has agreed to turn off the ignition and cease operations indefinitely.

The shutdown, encouraged by the city, isn’t just a speed bump for the future Revel, but an unwanted off-ramp for new alternative transportation modes, including mopeds, e-scooters and biking.

Revel debuted quietly two years ago in Astoria and Williamsburg, turning a trip that would normally take one hour via three trains into a 15-minute trip between the two neighborhoods. As the pandemic unfolded, New Yorkers avoided the subway and buses, wary of COVID-19. They took to the streets on bikes and mopeds — Revels.

The company aimed to solve a “last mile problem,” but in reality they have become all-mile solutions as first-, middle- and last-mile transportation alternatives. They expanded rapidly to meet demand, increasing their fleet to 3,000 mopeds and broadening their service area to Manhattan, the Bronx and deeper pockets of Brooklyn and Queens to enable hospital and frontline employees to get to work.

More than 55,000 New Yorkers have depended on the service, with the average user taking 22 trips over seven months. But as moped usage increases, safety — both for riders and others — is a chief concern.

The data so far reassures us of how safe Revel actually is. According to a recently released report by the company, the average speed on a Revel is 12.3 mph — far below the max speed of 30 mph. Only 155 incidents were reported from July to December 2019, mostly a result of the rider learning curve. Compare that to the same nine-month period within Revel’s service area, where 23,913 vehicular incidents involved 40,752 cars or trucks according to NYC Open Data Motor Vehicle Collision.

While Revels are Class B motorized vehicles, classified as mopeds that don’t require a specialized motorcycle license, Revel must require video-based or in-person training to educate riders. Just as multi-hour driver safety courses are offered online for drivers, education can be combined with exams.

The company should ensure helmets are being worn through sensors. It can also create reporting tools to allow others to report reckless riders and make the mopeds brightly colored to increase visibility.

Yet ultimately making roads safer will require asking more of automobile drivers. Drivers and car culture haven’t adapted to Vespas or mopeds sharing the road, resulting in a streetscape where all vehicles compete for space. A city such as Milan, known for its buzzing Vespas, has produced a car culture where drivers and two-wheeled vehicles share the road. It’s this driver awareness that needs to be encouraged in New York City. Nearly half of all reported Revel incidents are the fault of third-parties on the road.

The real threat to operators, after all, are the cars that tailgate, the minivans that overtake their lane, and the trucks that endanger bike, scooter and moped operators in intersections. The hazards of reckless cars have existed for pedestrians, cyclists, and mopeds alike. One clear step that would protect the lives of those using micromobility options would be requiring the state to recertify driver licenses every five years and provide updated online education to ensure drivers are aware that they share the road with motorcycles, bikes, scooters and mopeds.

Micromobility is the future of transportation in urban areas. Getting mopeds moving again should be prioritized and addressed expeditiously to restore a transportation option that residents have come to depend on.

New Yorkers are far from rebels on Revels; they are mostly looking to get around safely and conveniently. But right now, they have had their brakes put on as cars and trucks whiz by.

Urban Policy2020.07.13 This op-ed originally appeared in Crain's New York Business

New York's desirability may be dropping—if only temporarily

With hurricane-like force, the pandemic arrived in the city in March, shuttering schools, businesses and offices. For the first time in living memory, the city came to an abrupt halt.

Many residents––nearly 420,000 of them––fled, hoping to avoid the worst of epidemiological forecasts.

Whether the city is in the eye of the storm––a temporary calm––or past the worst of the pandemic, the weather vanes are pointing to what could be headed in the city's direction in the next couple of years.

The flight of the urban masses may have been triggered by the coronavirus, but the flexibility of remote work enabled it. The pandemic has impelled information workers to perform their jobs in the confines of their homes. So in their fight-or-flight response, they chose temporary homes in suburbia, on farms or in less affected cities. They have retreated from superstar cities, such as New York and San Francisco.

A decade ago, the urbanist Richard Florida wrote about the “flight of the creative class” in a highly globalized world that is competing for this class of workers––from marketers to financiers. Now, these workers are globally unpinned and location agnostic, and they are fanning out across the United States.

Typically there is a stickiness to urban economies when it comes to the mobility of workers and which cities they move to. Remote work has unstuck well-paid working professionals of all industries––not just tech. Major tech companies have defaulted to remote work in the short term, and many, such as Twitter, have pledged permanent policies. The tech industry made cubicles old-fashioned remnants of the office, and its culture will push offices to become optional. If small firms compete with larger ones for talent with perks, surely other industries, including finance, will contend with the tech industry for skilled workers.

Eventually remote work will pay off for firms. Four months into this national experiment, more than half the entire American workforce is working remotely, according to a recent study by professor Erik Brynjolfsson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It may only be a matter of time until cost savings and productivity are realized, a process Brynjolfsson identifies as the “productivity J-curve.” Financial firms already are requesting that employees track their time out of state to reduce tax burdens.

For the companies that choose to continue to have physical workspaces in the future, perhaps in corporate coworking and “flex” spaces, their workweek will likely be split––two days in and three days out––allowing employees to live farther from the office.

But if any permanent relocation occurs, it will be a result of remote work and a calculated decision based on two main factors: costs of living and quality of life. Why continue paying for a cramped two-bedroom apartment at $4,000 a month in New York when you can rent a home in the suburbs of a second-tier city, such as Nashville, with a backyard for your kids to play? Why continue to live where transit options are limited, biking is dangerous and trains runs less frequently? Why live and work in the United States when you could live and work abroad and build up your savings?

The same reasons for why retirees choose to live outside of New York may encourage millennials and Generation Z to do the same, especially if job opportunities, for now, are limited in the five boroughs.

Historically the young and the educated flock to big cities, but the appeal for the generation that idealized the freedom-of-travel lifestyles may be compounded by the lack of opportunity. New York’s unemployment rate stands at 18.3%, well above the national rate of 11.1% and behind only two other states as the highest in the nation. While New York’s economy boasts industries, such as finance, fashion, media and tech, an exodus of educated workers from the city could be a leading indicator that an economic reshuffling of these economies is possible.

Even before the pandemic, the population of New York had begun to stall, and a small trickle of residents had begun leaving the city. The convergence of a number of unfavorable considerations––able to multiply in effect––impugns those who point to just one factor in the decision to depart. This mass departure has happened before, but it stretched out from 1970 to 1980, when the city lost more than 820,000 residents. Nearly 1 in 8 residents fled the city. It was New York City's lost decade.

A budget shortfall in the billions that is expected to last two years will likely mean fewer government services, decreased attention to quality-of- life issues and an unforgiving snowball effect that reinforces this negative cycle. Residents who relocate may take with them an essential tax base––personal income taxes, which account for 13% of the city’s revenue––while negatively affecting other tax categories from general sales, real estate transactions and business income.

Most critically a budget crisis could be just the tip of the iceberg in a prolonged economic crisis, one that will affect the indigent, jobless and underemployed the most as essential government and community services are reduced.

Our present reckoning should acknowledge New York’s desirability may be dropping––if only temporarily. The city’s appeal has always been the drive and diversity of everyone who sets foot here––the intangible and irreplaceable features of New York.

That which makes this city exceptional, though, may not be enough to safeguard it against setbacks. The long-term trajectory will continue to be growth, but for now we are faced with an unforeseen pullback.

These unprecedented headwinds––a budget and economic crisis, high unemployment, the flight of high-skilled remote workers and a decreased quality of life––can be navigated. Robust economies within strong communities are what stabilizes urban areas. Job opportunities and culture lure people to the city, and social bonds keep them there.

Cities such as New York will need to double down on providing an economic future for all their residents while prioritizing livability and preserving neighborhoods. New York will need to be more than a postcard––it will need to be a place where people can continue to imagine opportunity.

Technology Policy 2020.05.28 This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Daily News.

New York and America need more mobile voting now

It’s a constellation of bad events occurring at the same time that could disrupt upcoming elections through to November. It reads like a dystopian thriller novel where everything that can potentially go wrong, does.

A pandemic hits the U.S. during one of the most important elections in history, and reactively, much of the electorate remains at home in sweeping voter self-suppression. Those who aren’t afraid of the virus go out and cast ballots en masse, mostly for one candidate.

This is a dismal narrative, not necessarily for its plausible end result, but because even in this new century, American democracy has yet to figure out how to increase ballot access and make voting easier for every eligible voter.

While many states may resist adopting balloting methods other than in-person at a poll site, New York will adopt mail-in voting as the default. And although voting by mail is a long-overdue upgrade to the ballot box — a democratizing move that will increase ballot access — it is far from a foolproof solution.

It’s imperfect not because of risk of fraud or electoral malfeasance, but on account of the fact that there’s no absentee ballot for an absentee ballot. If a voter can’t go to a poll site or mail in a timely ballot, what’s the back-up plan?

The obvious answer is mobile voting and the need for it couldn’t be any more compelling.

We need to assume ballots will get lost or absentee applications won’t arrive on time, as one city councilman has pointed out. Communities with poor mail service may be disproportionately affected more than others, according to reporting by the Brennan Center. The hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who left the city may not have requested mailing forward and consequently will have ballot applications sent to their homes in the boroughs soaking up the summer heat as they remain untouched in mailboxes — or their mail forwarding address may not work.

Then consider that the margin for error widens every time the mail system is used––from requesting a ballot application, sending it out, receiving a ballot, and sending the ballot out four times — and through every administrative step, or four back-and-forths. The timeline becomes tighter as well depending on which state or country the ballot application or ballot is being sent to.

To make matters even worse, the New York City Board of Elections has stated that there is a national envelope shortage. New Yorkers could end up waiting at home for a ballot that never arrives.

Time is running out and NYC has a small window to have a contingency plan in place for all of these situations: Mobile emergency ballots for “absentee” mail-in ballots.

In January, Seattle opted to provide 1.2 million eligible voters with mobile voting and mail-in ballot options. Residents had more than two weeks to submit ballots, and over 94% chose electronic submission over printing and mailing out their ballots. Seattle, which joins other cities like Denver and states like West Virginia, has validated that voting by mobile device is no longer a proof of concept, but a desire of the electorate.

Turnout nearly doubled in Seattle’s local election. Now three states — West Virginia, Delaware, and neighboring New Jersey — are allowing small segments of the electorate such as voters with disabilities and service members to cast ballots online.

New York doesn’t need to open up mobile voting to everyone, nor should it right now. But it can provide an additional balloting method as an option to safeguard against the likely shortcomings of mail-in voting. Disability rights advocates have filed a federal complaint urging the courts to require a digital option for the visually and physically impaired in New York. The state can provide an alternate safe and secure way — much safer than e-mailing ballots — to vote digitally through strict protocols with verified voter identification and through blockchain technology. If Estonia, which implemented online voting over 14 years ago without any security incident since, can provide electronic ballots for its citizens, then surely New York State can offer mobile voting as an emergency ballot option to a subset of New Yorkers.

If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that black swan events do happen, and a series of unfortunate occurrences can lead to even more adverse outcomes. Allowing for multiple balloting methods and limited mobile voting reduces the risks of elections going awry that could result in distrust in our democratic system.

In the span of a few weeks, we’ve become a nearly entirely digital society. It’s time that our democracy become a little bit more digital, too.

Government Innovation 2020.05.25 This op-ed originally appeared in City & State NY.

NYC requires a leaner, tech-driven government

The budget shortfall makes efficiency essential.

Last summer when this year’s budget was passed, the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal monitor, pushed City Hall to prepare for a downturn by provisioning funds for a fiscal storm. They estimated a recession would reduce revenues by $20 billion over three years, much more than the city’s reserves.

Now, a recession is here and both corporations and the government will have to pare back costs and budgets. New York City finds itself in a precarious position where a budget that has doubled in under 15 years now has little cushion for a fall, with a more than a $9.7 billion shortfall expected over the next 18 months.

In order to maintain city services, the government will have to move beyond cuts: It will have to become more efficient and innovate. We can use this opportunity to herald an era of “lean government” in New York City.

Ineluctably, expenditures – education and CUNY, health and social services and uniformed services – will be reduced. Yet, while municipal austerity will shrink the operations, they don’t need to reduce the services provided. Budget tightening can economize government and make it adapt to demands through innovative thinking and technology.

The concept of lean thinking was first studied by the researchers James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones, who defined the paradigm that had been systematized by Toyota to produce vehicles beginning in the 1930s. Lean manufacturing in Japan reworked factory processes through incremental innovation. Iterative processes allowed for smaller-batched deliveries and swifter responsiveness from product changes as a result of customer feedback.

Government typifies a methodology to solving problems that’s described as “waterfall.” But why build 1,000 cars of the same model and style if you’re unsure it will sell and you can build and test with 10 cars, then improve and build 100 more, making changes based on your experience with the first group, and then repeat that process? In practice, this means focusing on the end consumer to test variety and consumer preferences before and after scaling. Whereas Ford’s assembly line could produce only one model for a given period, the Model T, the Toyota Production System could verify or invalidate the assumption that consumers wanted an attribute – more cargo space, for example – and then test the change in a small batch of cars and scale it into production.

Pursuing a lean government is one of the ways in which to balance the budget. At its philosophical core, it’s about doing as much as possible with as little as is available. This is the ethos that has fueled startup growth in Silicon Valley and in New York: Maximize results with fewer people and less time and resources. The value that is produced isn’t defined by what’s saved, it is still defined in terms of quality and informed by the customer – or in this case the citizen – and it’s often realized with the help of technology.

In a $89 billion budget, pension benefits which make up 18% are fixed costs and debt service, which is 7% of the budget, can only be restructured so much. But for the other large city expenses – 28% for education, 18% of social services, 10% for uniformed personnel such as cops and firefighters, and 9% for general services – reductions in staff and resources are fiscally inevitable. Understanding how the government operates and delivers its services allows for inefficiencies to come to light.

Waste and efficiency in government are a consequence of defective data, excess or delayed processing, underutilized employees, overproduction of inventory and travel. The commonality is that they are misallocations of time.

Consider how tech can solve these issues in obvious ways: Excess email and underutilization of employees can be reduced through digital project management tools that make work easier. Data management time and burdensome inventory can be resolved through machine learning platforms. Responsible AI can help identify which areas are of highest risk for traffic, crime, fires, and sanitation if personnel is cut. Travel time can be reduced by defaulting to videoconferences. Paper waste can be eliminated through better digital document management and data collection through online forms. The solutions are limitless and don’t require expensive procurement projects for custom software. They require secure, turnkey software that lives in the “cloud.” These solutions are available as software-as-a-service platforms that are built to solve the same problems hundreds of governments across the U.S. are solving at the same time.

Where technology advances efficiency, lean thinking is the convergence of efficacy. This means creating better processes for decision-making at government agencies and programs. By operating in small-batches, the government can disentangle unnecessary management oversight and complexity – processes that require approval and signatures and involve management employees at every step. That, in turn, motivates government workers and frees up time for higher-value activities. Likewise, setting metric-driven goals will align priorities and forces government workers to ask, “is this the best way to do this and is this working?” Just as a car company wouldn’t build 1,000 new cars for an untested market, the government shouldn't bulk hire employees or allocate considerable resources to an untested program.

New York state’s Department of Motor Vehicles is a good example of lean thinking. A priority on customer service has moved operations online, while an emphasis on key performance metrics – wait times and citizens served – has produced visible whiteboards for all visitors to see as they wait. It represents the core philosophy of lean, that is, focusing on the end user––the citizen.

Being lean as a business requires a single-minded focus on the customer – a zeal that is the hallmark of today’s leading companies, from Amazon to Apple. Lean government demands a citizen-centric, systems-wide approach to taking up the most intractable problems and budget deficits like the one the city is facing now – one that it hasn’t faced since the 1970s. Cities and states around the country have set up “lean offices” over the past decade. These include Iowa's Office of Management which has a division that trains all agencies on lean management processes and Wisconsin's Department of Administration which works with all state agencies to find lean solutions to issues while tracking efficiency metrics in the process.

A budget crisis shouldn’t result in the elimination of essential services for New Yorkers. The old way of doing things has passed, and getting out of this hole will require a leap towards leaner, technology-driven government.

Government Innovation 2020.02.12 This op-ed originally appeared in Crain's New York Business in print and digital.

New York's trash troubles need tech solutions

The budget shortfall makes efficiency essential.

New York City’s trash problems across the city are mounting. Black bags piled higher than most pedestrians line sidewalks daily, occasionally overflowing onto streets or sidewalks for passersby to hurdle. Leaking waste permeates the air with putrid smells, welcoming tourists with a distinctly New York pungency.

This has been the city experience for generations of New Yorkers as far back into its history as a colony without paved roads and well into the era of tenements on the Lower East Side. It has affected the quality of life, health, livability, and mobility. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

There are smart solutions for the city’s trash problems that cities around the world have adopted that innovate on design, urban planning, and technology. These cities have optimized trash collection and hidden waste discretely in tech-tethered containers underground and in beaconing bins on streets.

From Buenos Aires to Barcelona, trash is collected in large color-coded bins on streets where trash can be sorted and where collection can be automated and made easier. The Catalan coastal city has pioneered the smart city model, an approach to urban planning where technology and embedded hardware in the environment can provide precise data and automate services like trash pick-up. Combine this with their ambitious zero waste strategy which provides incentives for individuals and businesses to separate trash and makes it easier by design, and Barcelona’s urban innovation becomes a model for how New York can address waste issues.

In Milan, underground bins free up sidewalks for pedestrians. This, too, has also made it another one of the highest-ranking cities in the world for its recycling––nearly 54% of all waste collected. Add to the list other European cities that offer underground dumpsters like Zagreb and Belgrade, and it’s clear there are solutions out there that are breaking new ground. Even India, which has faced waste challenges from its explosive population and economic growth, has laid the under-groundwork for a cleaner, trash-free future. Stroll along sidewalks in Surat and you’ll see smart subterranean bins that ping trash collectors to let them know the containers are full.

Underground waste management, though, isn’t new to New York. Roosevelt Island’s 40-year-old automated vacuum waste collection system, runs a network of pneumatic tubes that suck trash and the stink out of urban living and into a centralized collection facility. However, while the trash technology on the island is said to be the largest in the U.S., the serpentine underground pipes may be too much for New York’s infrastructure, and as a result, its planning and construction processes.

So how can New York implement a smart trash solution?

Underground dumpsters can be placed within designated sidewalks or on streets. These underground wastebins can be custom-built––as one Swiss company is already doing––for the infrastructure of New York’s streets and underground. The containers can sit at street level, allowing normal traffic flow or for pedestrians to walk over them, barely perceptible among passersby. When bins are full, sensors will alert trash collectors. Elevator lifts will then allow the platforms or individual bins to rise and to be collected by trash collectors or trucks fitted with automated cranes.

One immediate step that elected officials can take is to plan and pilot smart underground bins in the next major street redesign such as the 14th street redesign. From there, a citywide, multi-borough study to assess pedestrian traffic and waste should be conducted to identify and prioritize areas of highest need where trash obstructs and offends.

Our current ways of handling waste are nothing less than an unsanitary medieval practice. The city has allowed entire sidewalks to be overtaken by refuse that consumes a precious, limited public resource: shared urban space on valuable New York real estate. We have lived as denizens among detritus for too long, and now it’s time for us to take back our streets and get the stains off of our sidewalks.

Technology Policy 2019.12.31 This op-ed originally appeared in BuzzFeed.

It's 2020 And Electric Bikes And Scooters Are Still Illegal In New York. How?

The Segway should have revolutionized personal transportation. The device supposedly destined to reshape the urban landscape was unveiled to a bemused audience on Good Morning America in December 2001. “Alright, there it is. Now what does it do?” asked a skeptical Charles Gibson. “It’s sort of like putting on a pair of magic sneakers,” its inventor, Dean Kamen, said. “You think forward, and you go forward.”

The revolution from Segway never arrived. But nearly two decades later, electric scooters have emerged in cities around the world as a much more popular — and far less clumsy or costly — way of moving around. They have arrived at a precarious time as our congested and polluted big cities look to move past cars as their primary means of transportation.

But first, it needs to be legal to actually ride an electric scooter, which it still isn’t here in New York. Legislation to legalize electric bikes and scooters passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses — but it was then stalled, eventually being vetoed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the day after Christmas. For New York residents, and particularly for its tens of thousands of delivery workers, the veto was like finding a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking — except the consequences will be much worse. Not only will delivery workers continue to be criminalized, but New York City has missed the most immediate action we could take to prepare for congestion pricing.

But the most compelling argument for legalizing electric bikes and scooters is the impact they will have on local communities. This transformation in transportation will not only provide economic justice for workers but help local communities thrive with the vibrancy that once defined our city streets.

We know that micromobility — lightweight, electric vehicles including scooters and bikes — encourages small business activity and foot traffic. Urban areas flourish when communities have small businesses behind storefronts and when residents, pedestrians, and the wider community interact on sidewalks. It strengthens neighborhoods economically and cultivates community relationships. In studies of Toronto and Oregon, nondrivers — pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders — spent more money at every type of business except for grocery stores. It’s this approach to economic development, influenced by Jane Jacobs, an urban activist from the 1960s, that has renewed downtowns across the US.

Making cities walkable, bikeable, and “scooterable” invites residents to do their shopping or errands closer to home and without getting into a car, significantly reducing congestion and pollution. Nearly 80% of all trips in the US are for distances less than 12 miles — and New York City, like many other cities, has struggled with “last mile” transportation in areas not well served by public transit. These are the transit deserts of where subway stops are too far away to walk, or where commuters have to pay twice, riding two different services, just to get where they need to be. People forced out of city centers by high housing costs shouldn’t need to be driven to the nearest subway station, and they shouldn’t need to own a car to be able to access job opportunities.

While the public has embraced on-demand delivery startups and the restaurant delivery business is booming, we’ve made this transition for delivery workers anything but seamless. In many urban areas, the Domino’s Pizza delivery car has been replaced by the person on a bicycle or e-bike who endures the rain, sleet, and snow to deliver your dinner. These delivery workers have taken on the challenging task of peddling a bike for at least seven hours daily, which many of us would find physically impossible. It’s also the reason why so many delivery workers favor electric bikes. Legalizing e-bikes provides economic justice for workers who are the backbone of a thriving delivery economy.

So why was this legalization attempt vetoed? The governor cited safety concerns, including a helmet requirement, but such a demand displays a troublesome lapse in judgment. Not only would requiring helmets suppress ridership among the people who need it most, but helmets are proven to do little to prevent most bicycle-related deaths. Requiring a helmet would become a considerable barrier to providing safe transportation alternatives, even as a commercial bicycling law from 2009 mandates all delivery workers wear helmets already. Stand-up electric scooters often do not have the capabilities of traveling more than 10 mph, and concerns about helmets are a weak justification for preventing legalization.

Even worse is that such preconditions place the onus of safety on the people riding scooters and bikes, rather than the drivers in cars or trucks who could kill them. When bicyclists and scooterists are hit by drivers of multiton trucks and reckless drivers — as they have been at record highs in New York City this year — helmets are an easy way to hypothesize: What if they had been wearing a helmet?

But the question ought to be: What if we required safer driving? What if our road laws protected members of the public who are choosing better ways to get around?

The bill legalizing e-scooters and e-bikes leaned into this vision and offered the first step toward making this future a reality. We were so close to reimagining a city and state that fosters economic growth, sustainability, accommodated density, and liveability through access to mobility. Instead, we’re thinking backward and going backward. If we want to move into the future, we need to jump onto the next available scooter heading there.

Technology Policy 2019.12.05 This op-ed originally appeared in Crain's New York Business.

Turn Rikers Island into a laboratory for city planning

Rarely does a swath of land half the size of Central Park become available as a blank canvas on which to add a section to New York’s skyline, but the closure of the jails at Rikers Island by 2026 presents exactly that.

Rikers Island should be boldly redeveloped as a smart city––a new intelligent island built to promote urban innovation and the delivery of government services and, in turn, improve the quality of life for all New Yorkers for decades to come.

A smart city built on Rikers Island would provide the testing grounds for pioneering new urban planning and technology more efficiently and within an environment engineered for experimentation. New housing for 30,000 to 65,000 residents—nearly 80 city blocks—could be built using leading-edge technologies that integrate architecture, design and software.

Streets could be reconfigured for alternative modes of transportation, and smart-city infrastructure could be embedded into the built environment for waste, energy, buildings and transportation. Trash would be hidden underground in smart containers; streets would be divided for light rail, scooters and pedestrians, and reconfigured according to time of day and foot traffic.

Data would be safely collected from the built environment and would be predictive and responsive to weather changes, emergencies and traffic. Residents would live with the expectation of change as urban evangelists.

Think the city-as-a-startup. Here the city could develop the processes and feedback mechanisms to quickly test pilot programs and deploy at scale to the public at large.

Agencies and policymakers would leapfrog regulatory or deployment hurdles. ​​​​​​​Toronto’s recently greenlighted Quayside community, a smart city to be engineered on 12 acres led by Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, serves as an example for how cities of the future might develop laboratories of urban innovation within special districts designed for it. The yet-to-be-built ​​​​​​​waterfront neighborhood offers a master plan and new approach to how digital, physical, social and policy innovations can address affordability, sustainability and mobility.

No matter what is developed on Rikers Island, soil remediation and land treatment will be required for ​​​​​​​nearly three-quarters of the island that was built on unstable landfill. Note the ​​​​​​​crumbling prison buildings and trace measurements of methane.

If we are to build from the ground up, there is no reason to make any proposal mutually exclusive. A smart city could, in fact, include a renewable energy plant or even city facilities on parts of the island closer to the airport with building height limitations or where the sound from planes wouldn’t impact residents. The capital costs could be offset using tax increment financing, an urban planning tool to capture future tax revenue for infrastructure and renewal improvements.

With so much of the city’s quality of life in degradation—traffic and trash as omnipresent as ever—and with the mounting demands of future population growth on the city’s resources, the need for efficient and effective responses to urban issues to safeguard New Yorkers’ welfare grows precariously higher.

It won’t be this mayor or governor—and perhaps not even the next—who determines what’s to be done with this ill-famed island, but it is, undoubtedly, a consequential opportunity to consider the smartest solution which, in this case, isn’t just one but many that can be incubated on an East River island.

Technology Policy 2019.10.16 This op-ed originally appeared in City & State NY.

How New York City taxis can get ahead of Uber and Lyft

When New York City’s first app-hailed ride took place in May 2011 in Manhattan, the U.S economy and New York were recovering from the Great Recession. Venture capital was beginning to pour into the on-demand digital economy. A San Francisco startup had effortlessly raised a funding round for an app-based service to let any person with a car and smartphone be a chauffeur. Its expansion was now focused on the megamarket of New York City, where their rollout would feature the iconic “I Love New York” brandmark adapted with an Uber logo.

New York’s taxi industry was just nearing its high-water mark with daily passenger pick-ups at an all-time record. A medallion later that year would be sold for the first time for $1 million. Medallion values increased nearly 2,000% in the three decades ending in 2014. Hailing a cab hadn’t changed in a century – an arm raised or two-fingered whistle still drew yellow cabs to the curb.

This passiveness to changing market conditions and technology is one of the reasons the taxi industry and local government now face off against the impregnable competition of tech behemoths. Even under the tech and business-minded mayoralty of Mike Bloomberg administration, New York City found itself playing catch-up to the tech upstarts – Uber, Lyft, Via – allowing outside players to upend the rules of the road for a once tightly-regulated industry.

And although the bubble that affected medallion prices popped and saw their market value drop by 80%, in part a result of brokers and private lenders operating with faint regulations when it came to lending practices, the Uber effect can’t be understated. It has weighed in heavily on yellow cab drivers and medallion owners and halved the number of traditional taxi pick-ups in the city. Ride hailing apps have had the same impact on U.S cities from San Francisco to Philadelphia.

Yet, New York City’s chance to compete with startups is far from over: The city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission should be looking to build or support better infrastructure for app-based dispatches and pick-ups. To do that, it should learn from its past failures.

Consider when, in 2013, the much anticipated startup, Hailo, entered the market to pilot e-hailing for yellow cabs, the TLC was slow to approve the service – Uber was the only greenlighted taxi app. Shortly after, Hailo’s entry into the market, supported by tens of millions in venture capital funding, turned to a retreat, as the London-based company cited “astronomical” marketing costs to match the strength of its competitors.

The second attempt at “appifying” yellow cabs came in 2015 when Arro, another privately held company released its app which combined two payment systems approved by the TLC. The app was plagued with problems from the start with a glitchy and inconsistent experience. One reporter at the time documented attempting to hail a yellow cab several times with great frustration. The following year, UberT experimented with yellow cab e-hails, which failed as result of surcharges and the requirement for cash payments.

Fast-forward to today and the competitive landscape has only worsened. Arro is still one of the apps, along with Curb, that enable yellow cab e-hails, but both fall short in functionality, usability and use.

Government shouldn’t play the role of kingmaker, where it picks market winners and casts competitors aside. The TLC, after all, operates as a regulatory agency intended to administer and oversee medallions as well as the vehicles and their drivers. It is not a fleet owner managing the business of operating cabs or providing personal transportation as a service.

However, the future of transportation will encompass more than micro-mobility, bicycles, and buses. It will continue to include personal and group transport – and one day, self-driving vehicles that will make human-driven vehicles cost-prohibitive.

If New York City doesn’t want it’s hallmark yellow cab to slowly disappear over the next decade, it will need to step in to refocus the TLC on a digital strategy and develop a roadmap for shielding the yellow cab industry from app attrition. Saving the industry, as some advocates argue, first requires rescuing underwater medallion owners. But a bailout would likely amount to one Band-Aid for an industry with many wounds.

A smarter, long-term strategy would be to invest in the already-existing infrastructure and the 13,500 brightly-colored yellow cabs on the road in order to increase ridership and continuously develop e-dispatch and digital solutions to stay ahead of the competition. Why shouldn’t a visitor share a yellow cab and split the costs with a stranger from JFK to Manhattan? Why can’t there be price estimate as soon as you take a backseat without the need for opening an app? Why not encourage loyalty and offer promotions for riding in a New York City taxi?

At the very least, as Mayor Bill de Blasio attempts to find a replacement head for the TLC, he can make a strategic hire that can allow New York City’s taxis to compete on the same level as Uber and Lyft: The next TLC commissioner should be a technologist – an entrepreneurial executive who can capitalize on the advantages that the yellow cab industry has and help it regain its footing. Increasing ridership through better ride experiences along with competitive costs is the only way for yellow cabs to survive. Barring the ability to build a TLC-based app service adopted by all medallion and fleet owners, at the very least this will need to be accomplished through much deeper partnerships with private e-hailing companies.

Short of this, we can expect yellow cabs to go the way of horse-driven carriage. New York City’s iconic yellow cab may become an experience for the sole enjoyment of tourists taking photos from the backseat of a cab.

Technology Policy 2019.09.12 This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Daily News

An app to stop placard abuse: How about using technology to rein in rampant misuse of official parking privileges?

Outside of the luxurious Skyview Parc residences in Flushing, Queens, residents are often greeted with a black minivan mere feet from the foyer’s entrance. The vehicle is frequently parked in a no standing and no parking zone overnight. As ticketing officers pass by, a large dashboard placard makes it invisible to the early morning street patrol.

The owner of this vehicle is a Queens assemblyman, who as reported by the Queens Eagle, is remorseful for his prolonged placard misuse. "I feel horrible that some people feel that I’ve been abusing my placard,” he said.

The story of placard abuse in New York City is a tired one, and few elected or government officials are as remorseful or introspective when exposed for parking misdeeds.

We’ve seen the story dozens of times: An official is caught misusing their placard privileges, and a hard-nosed reporter or resident must continue to monitor the wrongdoing to catch the official in the act. The official obfuscates the extent of misuse, apologizes and then continues to wield the entitlements of placard ownership, likely to mishandle traffic ticket immunity again.

You may think placard abuse is an innocuous offense, but New York’s history of traffic corruption dates back to the 1980s, when a widespread ticketing jobbery led to the suicide of a Queens borough president suspected of orchestrating it all — a story that became a pilot episode for “Law & Order.” Blocking sidewalks may be obnoxious, but blocking bike lanes is dangerous and puts cyclists at risk. And getting free parking when you’re not on official business is categorically wrong.

The crux of the problem is the lack of transparency and accountability, and the solution is a simple tech-based one: Track all placard use via QR code or an app and make all the data open to the public.

Similar to how digitally progressive cities around the world have implemented smart meter parking applications, placards should come with QR codes that could be scanned by ticketing officers or any passersby and residents. Owners of placards would be required to log into an app every time a city-issued parking permit is used.

A compulsory description of the need for use would be mandatory, accessible on an open portal to the public. If a police officer or ticketing officer doesn’t scan the QR code or license plate or enforce the infraction, a member of the public can at the very least report the infraction more easily. In this way, traffic enforcement becomes crowdsourced.

Since 2018, 7,409 placard complaints have been logged to the city’s 311 hotline according open data provided by the city. Of these reported incidents, only 703 resulted in tickets or summons for parking infractions — an under-enforced 9.48%. The issue with this data is that it is anonymized and the most deceitful, repeat abusers can continue their misapplication of license namelessly. Moreover, the data is based on infractions that are reported, not the likely tens of thousands that go unreported among the 124,000 placards that have been issued.

As recently as February, the Department of Transportation began trialing new placards with its own agency — with barcodes to confirm validity and thwart counterfeiting. This concept is not new. It was introduced as a bill in 2011 by a council member, only to be opposed by Mayor Bloomberg and ranking officials in the New York Police Department. But the growing use of QR codes recently and the trends towards open data offers an opportunity to reinvent the system and digitize placards to be publicly scannable and trackable, while providing enforcement and accountability.

There may be an argument for the legitimate official use for placards — for government officials on duty who are conducting official and timely business. After all, who would want a city official being paid for a half-hour or an hour to search for parking, that could cost the city millions in compensation? And given the political obstinacy, it also would be a fight to eliminate placards entirely, and this transparent tech-based reform is the next best fix.

Corruption begins with those with authority who undercut the public’s trust even in the smallest of ways, a perversion of power that permits and leads to cultures of corruption within agencies and institutions. We can force those with placard privileges to be kept honest and create more transparency around a system of privilege that has largely operated in the dark but visible day-to-day on our streets.

Technology Policy 2019.08.07 This op-ed originally appeared in City & State NY

Why New York City needs universal internet access

If you were forced to live without internet access, how long could you go?

For many, this isn’t a thought experiment. Instead, it’s a daily reality. As ubiquitous as internet access has become since the days of dial-up service – available at high-speeds in homes, Starbucks and even sometimes subways – it still remains largely inaccessible to swaths of the population. The great digital divide is real across the U.S. and even in New York.

A recent report by New York City Comptroller Stringer highlights the problem’s severity. Distressingly, 29 percent of households in the New York City – or 2.2 million New Yorkers – are without a broadband connection. In communities of color and disadvantaged populations, this disparity is much more profound. Nearly half of New Yorkers older than 65 live without home internet connections, as do a similar share of all residents in the city's more impoverished neighborhoods such as Tremont in the Bronx and Jamaica, Queens. Broadband, it turns out, isn’t so broadly available.

The internet entered middle-class homes in the mid-1990’s in the form of a CD-ROM with AOL printed across it and with the sound of a hissing modem, opening up an entirely new digital world. Today, bringing others online can ensure they all benefit from the opportunities it creates.

Although 80 percent of adults in New York City have smartphones, you can only spend so many hours, at certain times of day, in a cafe or library while building a business, applying for jobs or watching hours of curriculum. How does a student who needs to access a portal daily basis or complete their homework do so without a strong internet connection at home?

The most technologically and economically progressive policy in New York City would be to provide universal internet freely.

Poverty may not just be a correlated factor of the lack of internet access, but a contributing cause of it. Forty-four percent of New Yorkers living above the poverty line lack home networks, as do 41 percent of those without a high school degree. In the modern economy, the web enables access to information, economic opportunities, education platforms and means of communication. The web is a world flattener that elevates people economically and allows them to participate in the knowledge economy. Digital inclusion shifts the labor force towards high-skills, boosts employment, reduces extreme poverty, and increases productivity and economic growth.

Countries and cities internationally have already taken the lead. In 2016, the United Nations declared internet access a human right, recognizing the internet should be seen as a public utility. Countries like Estonia, France, Finland, and Spain have codified internet access, promising to connect all citizens. These countries acknowledge that, though the arc of adoption with regards to the internet has been on an exponential growth curve, we have reached a saturation point in advanced economies where the impediment for those without access is that the poorest simply cannot pay for it.

The goal of subsidizing universal internet access or making it more affordable for those in need would be to equip New Yorkers with opportunities in our digital era. From hiring websites and on-demand gigs to self-learning platforms like Lynda, Kahn Academy and MIT Online, internet access empowers individuals. The underemployed college graduate who teaches herself to code online, the mother who studies online to complete her GED and the self-starting entrepreneur who learns to sell goods online part-time to start a business can only arise if they can get online from home.

A limited program for connecting New Yorkers at home digitally could start by offering a pilot initiative for voucher-based internet access on a sliding scale of $15-$30 monthly for New Yorkers in select neighborhoods where the digital divide runs deepest. Residents of designated low-income neighborhoods whose ratio of internet costs to after-tax monthly income exceeds 2% – as identified by the U.N. as the global affordable target for internet service – would be eligible. No criteria or evaluation beyond income should be considered.

While the current costs of high-speed internet connectivity in New York City currently range from $25 to $65 per month, low-income New Yorkers could potentially be offered reduced rates by internet service providers. Negotiating directly with the internet service providers in New York City may provide bulk volume pricing that could offset an umbrella discount in exchange for a not-so-insignificant number of new customers that could expand gradually – it would provide the leverage to offer vouchers for existing internet users who qualify. Alternatively, as groups like NYC Mesh develop a model for a community-based internet networks, a municipally-owned broadband network, would be an ambitious back-up option to compete with providers and lower the costs for internet.

Educational resources and a self-service portal could be provided at the onset for free online college courses, learning platforms, business resources, and career platforms. A division under the New York City Department of Small Business Services, in collaboration with the city’s Office of Economic Opportunity, could create an Office of Digital Opportunity to oversee the program and track success metrics. The costs for this initiative would likely begin at $100 million annually, but would pale in comparison to hundreds of millions spent on income support, employment services, rental supplements, health services, education programs and similar initiatives. In a $92.8 billion annual budget, this digital investment would likely lead to self-education, a rise in employment, business creation, and income growth that would potentially reduce costs elsewhere in the budget. It would expand and complement the delivery of health care, education, social and other governmental services to at-risk groups.

New York City elected officials should continue to advocate for expanded access to social services and housing, but the cheapest and most cost-effective solution to helping disadvantaged New Yorkers is by offering the internet universally. It will not be a panacea to all of New York City’s job or education problems, but it will offer the greatest chance for improving the economic fortunes of those who need it the most.

Economic Development 2019.07.16 This op-ed originally appeared in Crain's New York Business

Healing the scars of Amazon

The old Bulova watch factory sits on the edge of the Grand Central Parkway in Astoria. Its granite facade still carries the iconic corporate sign for passing drivers making their way to Long Island City. In 1971, my mother came to Queens from the former Yugoslavia and worked within its Art Deco walls, assembling watches. She, like so many immigrants who arrived over countless generations, labored tirelessly to provide for our family.

Our borough is also known for the two worst airports in the country, Archie Bunker, Bernie Madoff and a perennially losing baseball team. And now, fittingly, it has become the borough of broken promises.

The saga of Amazon HQ2 is about the hopes and aspirations of working-class Queens dashed by a deal gone awry. Even now, five months after the deal’s collapse, opponents such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and state Sen. Michael Gianaris continue to inveigh against corporations. They do so at great cost to the economic future of the people they represent.

The saga of Amazon HQ2 is about the hopes and aspirations of working-class Queens dashed by a deal gone awry. Even now, five months after the deal’s collapse, opponents such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and state Sen. Michael Gianaris continue to inveigh against corporations. They do so at great cost to the economic future of the people they represent.

What Amazon symbolized for Queens residents, immigrants, and the children of immigrants was opportunity––the chance to benefit from the economic spillover of a tech company through the restaurants, construction, suppliers, small businesses, indirect and direct jobs that would have resulted from a major tech company locating here.

Tech is an industry like no other. Mere proximity to tech firms raises the wages of a neighborhood's high-school grads by 7%, and 10% for college grads. In the context of modern economic growth theory, a tech company creates knowledge spillovers, reinforces positive outcomes in communities and generates up to five non-tech jobs for every tech job created. This is the math that made elected officials’ opposition to Amazon so economically irresponsible.

In the days that followed Amazon’s withdrawal, one Nobel laureate argued that tens of thousands of future jobs weren’t needed. “Queens has historically low unemployment,” he wrote. Yet he failed to note Queens’ historical underemployment. A Robin Hood Foundation Poverty Tracker report recently found that underemployment in the borough is over 40%. Our people are working, but their jobs aren't getting them very far.

Another commentator remarked that New York City did the nation a favor by rejecting Amazon because it will send a message to corporations that tax incentives won’t be tolerated. Of course, this was laid out without any mention of the cost to Queens or that in our globally competitive world, U.S. cities and states don’t just compete with each other, but with regions and cities around the world.

Herein lies the problem. The debate featured so many more opinions from nonresidents whose views failed to take into account the economic considerations of the people who would take in Amazon as their neighbor. The nonresidents spoke of a lack of affordable housing and the destruction of Long Island City’s character that would occur. This false narrative proliferated despite studies showing Amazon’s second headquarters would have virtually no affect on housing costs, and even though the area is mostly parking lots, warehouses and stray towers.

Yes, some Queens residents were opposed. But were they the overwhelming majority? Not by a mile.

Poll after poll showed how much we supported HQ2. Communities of color were among the highest supporters, with approval at 70% to 80%. Board of Elections data also showed that others within the fierce anti-corporate faction that fueled and influenced local politicians are new residents of Queens, who are likely unfamiliar with the challenges of the borough’s diverse working class and its need for better-paying jobs.

The irony was thick as the economically advantaged gentrifiers railed against potential gentrification. Puzzlingly, as critics continue to claim that Amazon is expanding its footprint in the city anyway, they fail to accept that these jobs will be a small fraction of what HQ2 would have yielded and will be entirely in Manhattan, not Queens.

If history is any lesson, the opportunity squandered likely won’t be the last for Queens. However, there is the prospect of hope. Long Island City’s growing tech community, which I and so many others helped advocate for well before Amazon considered it, still has the potential to be realized without Amazon. The rawness of the area mixed with the infrastructure and transportation options make it attractive for the next tech company or startup. The existing cultural institutions and diversity of the borough is what drew Amazon in the first place and what makes it livable and unpretentious. Yet, since Amazon’s exit, all talk of “tech” in LIC has been third-railed.

There is a way the elected officials opposed to the project can make amends to the borough of broken promises. They can work to foster this tech hub once more, entice the most promising tech companies, provide pathways to high-tech employment by supporting workforce upskilling, and ensure the appetite for the American dream that begins right here in this borough is satiated.

Urban Technology and Planning 2019.05.29 This op-ed originally appeared in Crain's New York Business

New York's future as a smart city

There are clear, critical opportunities for smart city technology in urban areas of all sizes.

If you can imagine New York City in 25 years, what would it look like?

Start by envisioning a super- connected and efficient metropolis. Your morning commute begins by walking to your curb where an underground waste disposal is hidden by manicured grass. Sensors trigger a notification that your bin is full and needs to be picked up.

As you walk to the corner, a self-driving electric bus shuttle promptly arrives; it knows your stop from the smartphone app you wave as you enter. Streetlights will blaze green to prioritize the public bus you're on.

The building you arrive at for work is connected to a smart grid where sensors pass along data on energy, heat and water use. The street below is embedded with sensors to monitor traffic flow and parking. Autonomous vehicles are guided around heavy foot traffic during peak hours with temporary street closures; avenues are repurposed into daytime public spaces.

This is the imaginable future for New York and cities around the world.

The smart city is a tech- and data- driven environment with an operating system, data infrastructure and embedded hardware. In the next decade it will transform how New Yorkers live, work and commute, augmenting an already thriving tech economy.

A smart city's goal is to allocate assets and resources efficiently. The city becomes a connected platform for the precise operation and distribution of services.

It is predicated on the idea that energy, mobility, infrastructure and buildings will be predictive and responsive through the data collected from sensors, connected hardware and the internet of things. This new model of city building is about using intelligent design and technology to improve the user experience for a city's denizens.

The smart-city movement has spurred an economy that is expected to reach $400 billion globally by 2020.

New York sits on the edge of this urban frontier. As the smart economy intersects the industries that it aims to retool—real estate, government, transportation and utilities—it represents an economic confluence.

Stakeholders include the futurists and the long-established players who align to cut costs and save resources for cities while improving quality of life.

New York's share of the urban technology economy is estimated at more than 10% of the worldwide venture capital investment. Examples of the expanding urban innovation ecosystem include the recent creation of the Economic Development Corp.'s The Grid, an extension of the Urban Tech NYC initiative; the Urban-X accelerator led by BMW's Mini; and last month's smart-city gathering at Cornell-Tech.

The use of intelligent urban technology in New York spans more than a decade. In 2008 the Department of Environmental Protection implemented automated meter reading, which provides data on water consumption, increased billing accuracy and tools for consumers to monitor water usage. BigBelly trash cans with compactors are saving bags and reducing pickups. LinkNYC kiosks with Wi-Fi have replaced telephone booths, and subway arrivals are displayed on touchscreens, easing frustrations for riders.

These emergent apparatuses for the built environment will only become smarter.

Even with the promise of fierce efficiency and sustainability, the smart-city revolution faces challenges. Consider the backlash over privacy prompted by Toronto's pilot with Google's Sidewalk Labs for a new neighborhood named Quayside. The project could be a model for the urban ingenuity built into futuristic facades or it may extract fear and Orwellian comparisons.

While responsible data collection to protect privacy is necessary, the need for intelligent cities is undeniable. Urban populations are swelling, and the pressure grows on cities like New York to serve more with limited spatial and fiscal resources.

The obligation to innovate and raise the quality of life is at the core of the smart-city movement. Raising standards for living in New York shouldn't just be imagined—it should be boldly and relentlessly pursued.

Urban Technology and Planning 2019.05.20 This op-ed originally appeared in the Observer

American Cities Can Be Smarter—Here’s Why They Need to Be

There are clear, critical opportunities for smart city technology in urban areas of all sizes.

Over the past decade, the digital world has rapidly become connected with the physical and corporeal. Our smart watches can tell us things about our bodies or our surroundings. WiFi-connected doorbells with sensors can determine when visitors are approaching and then alert us wherever we are in the world. Our connected homes—coffee makers, sprinklers and Alexas—now automate convenience.

Though we are all too habituated in this world of IoT—the Internet of Things—it is a technological trend that is still in its early stages within other industries beyond consumer products. Connected devices work by extracting data from the physical world or in the reverse—taking data and applying it to material objects. When this concept is applied to the public realm, it becomes known as a smart city—where streets, buildings and infrastructure are integrated with sensors and the internet-enabled. As cities around the world add a layer of data and connectivity to their infrastructure, are American cities doing enough to make their metropolises smart?

Intelligent cities move beyond automating convenience to automate the government’s delivery of services. Cities that have embraced this modernization in the U.S. include the most tech-centric: New York, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. These are some of the major global hubs that are establishing predictive analytics, monitoring air quality in congested areas, and embedding sensor nodes into light poles to create “FitBits” for the urban environment. While San Francisco pioneered a smart parking system that led the way for drivers to find parking among the 8,200 parking spots installed with sensors, Chicago’s “Array of Things“, or AoT, can record and respond to floods, traffic or safety incidents.

U.S. cities, like New York, have, indeed, been leaders in terms of using smart city technology, but global urban avant-gardes have included the cities of London, Singapore, Barcelona and Amsterdam. Of 57 mid-sized cities that the U.S. Conference of Mayors surveyed last year, only 14 percent had reported smart city projects, while for small cities that number drops to under four percent. America’s second- and third-tier cities—urban areas under one million residents—require investments as well, and what it will take may require a national urban smart plan. The last federal effort to support smart cities was in 2015 during the Obama administration, when $160 million was committed to initiatives. Among mayors, the largest complaint was securing funding for long-term projects

Amsterdam’s aggressive smart city planning was built as a result of ecosystem and platform planning: The Netherlands’ countrywide planning strategy has shifted dozens of medieval-era cities into the digital era. Each of the cities serve as “Living Labs” focused on specific urban issues like health and mobility where ideas can be tested limitedly and the replicated with success across the country. The case studies are then organized by a region’s issues into an online database where city managers can understand how they can implement a solution in their own cities. These urban test beds are effective in that best practices and solutions aren’t exchanged through a conference, whitepaper or academic research, but under the auspices of a government facilitator.

This countrywide, collaborative approach is detached in experimentation but unified in shared discovery. It could help avoid the pitfalls of cities like Boulder, Colorado, where an expensive pilot in 2008 for an energy saving smart grid ballooned in costs and resulted in three times the utility costs—from $15 million to $45.5 million. Scaling solutions for complex implementation within larger cities can be implemented in smaller urban areas where the stakes are lower.

There are clear, critical opportunities for smart city technology in urban areas of all sizes. This includes the application of smart technology to be inclusive and responsive to communities of need. Take, as an example, public housing agencies with limited personnel. Case workers must respond to heat complaints that could be monitored by smart sensors for temperature and water. High-crime streets can be made more secure through non-facial recognition technology that detects early warning signs of dangerous behavior or illegal activity. Areas with high populations of homeless individuals equipped with sensors can trigger sanitation, mobile showers and emergency services.

A unique partnership between Google and the University of Michigan help create AI-based technology to identify 55,000 homes with potential water contamination and saved an estimated $10 million in the process. What if Flint, Michigan, had installed smart monitoring technology before its water crisis?

What’s at stake for the urban areas left behind during the next wave of city innovation is the cost of being reactive as opposed to responsive. The city that can sense and respond to changes or exigencies is a city that will protect and offer the most for its citizens. At a national level, investments and commitments are needed to form a smart city agenda for the 240 million Americans living in urban areas. A smart country may very well start with our smart cities.

The internet has come to display the perks and rewards of economic status. With inequality now staring us in the face via our phone screens, this transparency materializes as social uprising, often precipitated through hashtags and social media groups. It has helped spark revolutions like the Arab Spring, movements like Occupy Wall Street, and more recently the yellow vest protests in France.

Whether we approve or not, the internet is also globalizing populism. The web emboldens left- and right-wing leaders as they play emotions “like a violin,” as Vike-Freiberga noted at Baku. India’s Narendra Modi, for instance, used Twitter to galvanize supporters and sidestep his own party, and the recent president-elect of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is a comedian-turned-politician whose YouTube videos numbered more than his appearances at rallies.

The right-wing populists are playing the same notes as the liberal uprisers—anti-elitist, anti-corporate—but they differ in their normative perspective of the world. The populists yearn for the past, while those on the left compare their current state to what they ought to have in the future. The performance that plays out is local, but with global consequences; the marionetting spreads on stages and then online.

Consider the exasperation of middle-class America. The deal that many Americans presumed to have secured in the post-WWII era—of good paying jobs, a house with a white picket fence, a disposable income—was dissolved in the era of globalization. “They took that deal. Then their jobs moved overseas or the coal mine shut down,” Kerry Kennedy of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation said at the Global Baku Forum. When running for US president, Donald Trump used this long-forgone ideal as his running platform, “Make America Great Again.”

Today’s generations face equally menacing economic challenges as their grandparents, in the forms of education, housing, health-care, and the attrition of labor wages. What’s more, these economic retrogressions are consolidated as distinct messages by political figures on both ends of the political spectrum. Attitudes that have laid dormant are triggered by political pugilists who bend narratives of the root causes of economic injustices. They turn to Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube and reinforce populist messages.

Inequality therefore now exists in the form of a stark notification every time we scroll through our news feed. In this great reveal, it has both democratized power and enabled groups of people to organize movements around messages. It may very well continue to embolden populists globally—or we can take back the original promises of the web and use it as an opportunity to solve some of the greatest crises of our time.

Technology and Geopolitics2019.05.20 This op-ed originally appeared in Quartz and Yahoo.

Inequality is a notification we see every time we scroll through our news feed

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of globalization has made promises of prosperity, and the advent of the internet has provided hope for democratization.

But while globalization has made the world wealthier and decreased poverty, it has also left many behind. Likewise, while the web has made societies more open, it has also increased instability. This openness has benefited many communities, but it has also keyed up growing tensions between elites and populists. If this discord continues, it could pave the way for more equitable economic systems—or tailspin into more unrest and global instability.

At no other point in history have the underclasses of society better understood how the wealthy live. The chimera of life’s material desires is everywhere thanks to the prismatic filters of Instagram and Snapchat. They range from the infinitely absurd—stacks of cash on yachts moored in Monaco—to the mundane made exotic, like lattes sprinkled with gold flakes. This is the currency of social media: the privilege of enviable experience hoarded by the already rich and influential.

Take, for example, the civil war raging in Syria. In 2013, while the country was torn apart by bombshells and marauding factions in pick-up trucks, wealthy teenagers partied to house music not far from Damascus in the beach town of Latakia, swimming and taking selfies.

Their images became digitally imprinted as the “Rich Kids of The Internet.” While they were posting images of themselves frolicking in sun-streaked opulence, grainy YouTube videos of people finding shelter in the barrage of shellings were making headlines in a different corner of the web. It’s an unalloyed contrast between privilege and survival.

“Any person can see how the other side lives,” said the former president of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, at the Global Baku Forum in March. “For a long time, the stability of the societies was due to the fact that there was a public face of power—a public face of wealth.” What is concerning, according to her, isn’t just the “level of glitziness, of glamor, of power, and wealth that others are often displaying in a rather tasteless and ostentatious way,” but the degree to which disparities are externalized and made worse by a connected world. Globalization was supposed to level the playing field, not make superstars out of some players.

In this ever-more interconnected society, the internet has made the world flat, thereby exposing the inequality in wealth and human experience. It was economist Thomas Friedman who first described this flattened world in the early aughts, saying it was a result of innovation “without emigration,” as well as the potency of the internet and technology. The tools for creative destruction were now in everyone’s hands—opportunity was everywhere.

In 2005, venture capitalist and internet entrepreneur Marc Andreessen chimed in, reaffirming that “today, the most profound thing to me is the fact that a 14-year-old in Romania or Bangalore or the Soviet Union or Vietnam has all the information, all the tools, all the software easily available to apply knowledge however they want.” Nearly 15 years later, that same inequality-unmasking technology has lifted the lid on an old political movement: populism.

Exposure to the internet has given rise to a world interpreted through filters, where the lenses are distorted and often exaggerated. For the less fortunate, the social media display of neighbors vacationing in exotic locations gives rise to envy and resentment; images of parades of private jets in Davos this past year take this natural response to whole new heights.

The internet has come to display the perks and rewards of economic status. With inequality now staring us in the face via our phone screens, this transparency materializes as social uprising, often precipitated through hashtags and social media groups. It has helped spark revolutions like the Arab Spring, movements like Occupy Wall Street, and more recently the yellow vest protests in France.

Whether we approve or not, the internet is also globalizing populism. The web emboldens left- and right-wing leaders as they play emotions “like a violin,” as Vike-Freiberga noted at Baku. India’s Narendra Modi, for instance, used Twitter to galvanize supporters and sidestep his own party, and the recent president-elect of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is a comedian-turned-politician whose YouTube videos numbered more than his appearances at rallies.

The right-wing populists are playing the same notes as the liberal uprisers—anti-elitist, anti-corporate—but they differ in their normative perspective of the world. The populists yearn for the past, while those on the left compare their current state to what they ought to have in the future. The performance that plays out is local, but with global consequences; the marionetting spreads on stages and then online.

Consider the exasperation of middle-class America. The deal that many Americans presumed to have secured in the post-WWII era—of good paying jobs, a house with a white picket fence, a disposable income—was dissolved in the era of globalization. “They took that deal. Then their jobs moved overseas or the coal mine shut down,” Kerry Kennedy of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation said at the Global Baku Forum. When running for US president, Donald Trump used this long-forgone ideal as his running platform, “Make America Great Again.”

Today’s generations face equally menacing economic challenges as their grandparents, in the forms of education, housing, health-care, and the attrition of labor wages. What’s more, these economic retrogressions are consolidated as distinct messages by political figures on both ends of the political spectrum. Attitudes that have laid dormant are triggered by political pugilists who bend narratives of the root causes of economic injustices. They turn to Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube and reinforce populist messages.

Inequality therefore now exists in the form of a stark notification every time we scroll through our news feed. In this great reveal, it has both democratized power and enabled groups of people to organize movements around messages. It may very well continue to embolden populists globally—or we can take back the original promises of the web and use it as an opportunity to solve some of the greatest crises of our time.

Technology policy 2019.03.22 This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Daily News.

A tech hub in every borough

The heart of New York’s Silicon Alley won itself another tenant this week, but this one was not Google, Facebook or Amazon. New York landed a deal to construct a 21-story high-rise for what will become the NYC Tech Hub, an imaginative hybrid space — part incubator, part skills training center and part office for technology startups.

The approval process was marked by local and vocal community backlash, but the project represents a vision for innovative office space and for this city’s future. While the city’s initiative to expand tech training should be recognized, New York City should take it one step further and begin to develop a comprehensive tech strategy and tech hubs in each of the borough to support skills training.

The NYC Tech Hub will soon be the second vertical mixed incubator and office space catering to the emerging technology ecosystem that is beginning to define this city’s economy. Only months ago Company, formerly Grand Central Tech, announced its ambitious plan to bring corporate clients closer to the startups they were incubating, in a 1.1-million square-foot building. Both symbolize the evolution in office space in the age of coworking and in the urban ubiquity that is WeWork.

Across the city, coworking is tearing down office cubicles and replacing them with benches, long tables and glass offices named after TV sitcom characters. The rise of coworking has taken the real estate world by storm, growing at unprecedented clip as the tech ecosystem expands and as companies reform their office space culture. Though Manhattan alone has over 245 coworking spaces and Brooklyn has less than 30, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx each have three.

Technology clusters have been forming in what’s marketed as Brooklyn’s Tech Triangle, and along the Long Island City waterfront — a location with the raw potential that will attract impressive tenants in the future. But city economic development planning in fostering tech’s dynamism has overwhelmingly concentrated on Manhattan.

It is no hidden secret that the jobs of the future will be based on the innovation economy. But less known is how severe underemployment is in the outer boroughs. According to research by the Robinhood Foundation, 1.6 million New Yorkers are underemployed. In the Bronx it is as high as 58%, and in Queens this rate is nearly 46%, while another 6% are unemployed.

In an era that may be defined by looming automation, job uncertainty and a gig economy, we should be empowering each of the borough’s residents to become invested and reskilled in this digital age — not just Manhattan’s.

While ambitious nonprofits like Per Scholas and Pursuit have admirably worked to increase the tech skills gap, these programs graduate dozens to hundreds of students; they are a far cry from achieving scale. New York City, in its own efforts, should develop large-scale tech-training programs and collaborative spaces for the continuously underemployed residents of Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

Providing pathways to tech for the middle class — jobs that do not require university degrees or software engineering but instead persistence and technical training — will be critical for the next opportunity when the next high-growth tech company looks to expand to the outer boroughs.

What is needed is an audacious plan to rethink New York’s technology ecosystem planning to provide evenhanded outer-borough growth. As so much of the strategy has occurred in piecemeal fashion — both Brooklyn and Queens have separate plans not spearheaded by the city — it has led to fragmented and often unattainable goals, and through default, Manhattan-centric planning.

A holistic approach to this city’s tech strategy could include well-defined and integrated action plans for office allocation, cultural institutional support, capital projects, community development, broadband access, coworking and incubator creation, higher-education, and much-needed skills training. It would provide vision, guidance and a blueprint for this city’s economy.

Beginning with the massive workforce redevelopment effort that’s needed to reorient the workforce towards tech, the newly appointed Deputy Mayor Vicki Been can work with the Department of Small Business Services to undertake efforts to overhaul and reprogram the city’s outdating and nonperforming workforce training centers — Workforce1.

Nonprofits that have achieved proof-of-concept in tech training should be supported and scaled so that tens of thousands who don’t have access to expensive code schools are trained annually. We should, at the very least, be investing significantly into this city’s human infrastructure.

We can decide to make our economy equitable by providing opportunities for the lower and working classes to be a part of the economy of tomorrow. Why shouldn’t there be a 21-story tech hub in every borough?

Technology policy 2019.03.22 This op-ed originally appeared in Inc.

What Amazon's Break-Up With New York Will Do to the Tech Scene

New York City's tech ecosystem has flourished like no other outside of Silicon Valley. Amazon's HQ2 would have given it a boost for generations to come.

Like a bad breakup, Amazon ended its relationship with New York City on Valentine's Day. This was a short-lived relationship, an engagement that was called off before the ring was purchased--before the house, cars, and kids came along.

But Amazon failed to court all New Yorkers. It wasn't the public that wanted this premature separation--residents of the city overwhelmingly supported the project by a margin of two to one--it was the elected officials. For the next generation of New Yorkers--the millennials, the college graduate who will have six-figure debt, and the underprivileged young professionals of the outer boroughs diving into the world of technology--this will mean 25,000 to 40,000 fewer jobs.

The elected officials opposed to Amazon worked directly against the economic interests of all New Yorkers. They took for granted the technology sector's growth that had been fostered directly through smart economic development planning focused on the industries of the future.

New Yorkers will never know if a union with Amazon would have led New York City to become the global capital for technology. This has, after all, been the unabashed goal of city planners and economic development professionals since Mayor Bloomberg's administration. In the years since, New York's tech scene has flourished as the second global technology capital, becoming the fastest-growing industry in the city.

It wasn't always this way and Silicon Alley's rise isn't a revival, it's a stunning achievement: Of all the cities around the world that have tried to recreate the magic of Silicon Valley, none have come as close as New York City. Boston's Technology Corridor, Route 128, or Skolkovo's Innovation Center in Moscow never quite managed to grow as quickly.

What made New York's approach to attempting to build its own technology hub effective wasn't that it just focused on education, culture, community. New York City--the town where Starbucks are located on every corner--recognized tech here would be served up differently. Where Silicon Valley had Red Rock Cafe--the legendary Mountain View cafe where deals like the WhatsApp acquisition have been made--New York City had the Ace Hotel Lobby or Union Square Cafe. The coffee might be similiar, but the conversations would be different. Coders in New York City wouldn't just talk about technology, but also finance, media, fashion, real estate, and healthcare.

New York doubled down on its legacy industries. It didn't focus provincially on Silicon Alley as it had during the dot-com era when media companies reigned supreme near the Flatiron building with flashy billboards; it ensured tech would be tethered to all of its thriving industries. New York's aims became as ambitious as the immigrants that have settled here for generations.

If Mayor Bloomberg's Applied Sciences NYC initiative--the competition which comparatively drew proposals from universities all over the world to create a technology campus and which led to Cornell-Technion's arrival here--was New York's Erie Canal moment, Amazon's arrival would have been its crowning glory--the point at which New York overtaking Silicon Valley would have been economically inevitable.

Long Island City, the location that I correctly predicted Amazon would select last year, had been prepped for a tech company of Amazon's size to call it home. The elected officials who for years were most opposed to Amazon now swore to support to the tech ecosystem that had been budding in Queens. I sat down with those very same officials eight years ago while working in economic development and read their names on a support letter for Amazon last year. Their immediate volte-face wasn't driven by the public, but by politics and fear of powerful progressives.

The lesson to take away from Amazon's decision is that the political landscape is shifting sharply against Big Tech. Unfavorable media is negatively affecting tech companies, even when their impact is beneficial and the public broadly supports it. When the returns on subsidies overwhelmingly justify their economic impact, and the subsidy is essentially a bulk discount on a post-performance basis, how else do you describe the backlash other than political opportunism of newly empowered opposition? In the age of echo chambers, what else can drive aggressive naysayers more than misinformation and saying the city was putting billions into an already-rich man's pockets?

Amazon was wholly unprepared for the political landscape in New York. It was ready to commit, but these nuptials came with problems--no neutrality on organized labor and no reneging on the agreement. Relationships don't end because of one or two issues; they end due to the culmination of many problems--and this short-lived affair had too many.

The question now is will New York's leaders learn to love tech or will Big Tech become persona non grata? When an industry that's responsible for this country's economic growth over the last decade--and the growth of jobs in the future--is demonized, where should we look to for the next generation of jobs as more become automated and replaced by robots and artificial intelligence?

The future will not be forgiving if we turn away from it.

Tech Economic Development 2019.02.21 This op-ed originally appeared in City & State NY.

In Amazon's wake, New York should double down on tech

The city and state can’t ignore the fast-growing economic sector.

The love that consumers have for Amazon did not translate into support for bringing half the company’s HQ2 to Long Island City among many New Yorkers – including some elected officials representing Western Queens and the newly charged progressive left. While there’s a likelihood that Amazon’s footprint in New York City will still grow, the lost promise of 25,000 jobs is a setback to the city’s hopes of capitalizing on the growth of the tech sector. But the city’s strategy of building a major tech industry was the right one and it should work even harder at it going forward.

Understanding the tech sector in New York requires going back to the mid-1990s dot-com boom. Across the country, towns and cities developed strategies to lure high-tech companies. In Kingston, New York, IBM had settled in, injecting an annual $2.5 billion into the economy of the region only to leave a few years later. Other cities relied too much on internet startups that were doomed by the internet bust in 2001.

New York City suffered a similar fate, due to a different dependency. Silicon Alley, clustered along Broadway in Flatiron and in close proximity to Madison Avenue, relied heavily on media and advertising technology. In 1999, over 500 startups were founded, and by the next year only a few dozen survived in the crash.

The dot-com bust epitomized the early years of the new tech economy. But where Kingston struggled to regain its footing, New York flourished in its revival. In the years following Sept. 11, 2001 – and with then-Mayor Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff fearing a recession – New York City planners prudently sought to bulwark the economy from external forces. A blue-ribbon panel of business, labor, academic and political leaders organized by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer had released a report focused on addressing the economic needs of the city and its shortage of office space. It would set the groundwork for the city’s efforts to transition New York from its “FIRE” – finance, insurance, real estate – economy to a focus on “ICE” – innovation, culture and education.

Over the next decade as tech in the city grew to become home to the second offices of Silicon Valley’s tech behemoths, and as companies headquartered in New York City like Gilt, Tumblr and AppNexus emerged, it also grew around its strengths in fashion, media and advertising. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, city officials once again sought diversification for a city dependent on Wall Street and doubled down on using the “ICE” economic model.

New York City’s Economic Development Corporation, or NYCEDC, identified the biggest challenge for tech’s growth and for tech companies: finding brilliant engineers. Rather than filling office space with growing startups, it beckoned these companies and then ensured they would stay by supplying them with talent. The city would make a massive investment into its human capital by attempting to attract a top-tier tech university through a global competition, Applied Sciences NYC. It established a new university, Cornell-Technion, as well as New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress and Columbia University’s Institute for Data Science and Engineering. The colleges would join other existing programs to ensure a robust pipeline of engineers.

Today, tech in New York state has expanded faster than any other sector since the Great Depression, comprising 326,000 jobs at over 9,300 tech companies. This is the third largest number of tech workers in any state, behind only Texas and the lead, California, at 880,000 jobs. The growth rate, at 25.5 percent between 2010 and 2016, is impressive enough, but the average tech salary has grown at three times the rate of any other industry in the city. Salaries in New York City’s tech sector average a cool $147,000 annually.

These numbers speak to one thing: The technology sector cannot be ignored. It has played a key role in New York City’s recovery since 2008 as well as its explosive growth. Nationally, the digital economy has been growing at triple the pace – 5.6 percent – of U.S. GDP over the past 10 years compared with 1.5 percent of the economy at large. It is a crucial part of what has driven the stock market to all-time highs and the economy to full employment.

But in the past 100 years, New York City and New York state have never birthed a major tech company on the level of Facebook or Google, and so it has remained second to Silicon Valley. Besides IBM, which was founded in upstate New York in 1911 and is currently headquartered in Armonk, New York, with only a fraction of its workforce there, it doesn’t have the sheer number of these massive world-changing companies as California does.

New York state’s efforts to foster the tech sector has focused on New York City, “Tech Valley,” Buffalo and, recently, Syracuse. “Tech Valley,” an out-of-date marketing name to describe the high-tech corridor encompassing the Capital District and Hudson Valley, boasts a world-competitive semiconductor industry and is the second great example of planning that has worked – though it came at a cost. In 2009, GlobalFoundries’ $4.2 billion chip plant opened in Malta. At the time, it included the largest cash grant incentive package in the history of New York and the United States. Close to $1.4 billion in a mixture of cash and tax incentives were provided to produce 1,400 jobs. Those jobs later quadrupled directly and indirectly and the investment by into the fabrication plant doubled to $15 billion over the years. In that case, New York state didn’t even compete only with other American states and cities, but with China, Singapore, Russia and Brazil, all of which offered comparable incentives. Even Israel has doled out incentives for Intel, underscoring that, in a highly globalized world, any region is a competitor.

Many regions seeking to advance their own tech clusters may falter or fail – Syracuse’s Surge could – but the economic underpinnings of local and regional systems will be bound to tech as the diffusion of technology enterprises and startups move into second-tier regions and cities. Tech-based economic development strategies should be incorporated into the toolkit of city officials and urban planners throughout the state. Developing a culture of entrepreneurship and risk, as well as networks of mentors and investors, is often realized through accelerators, incubators and coworking spaces.

But other strategies are integral to the development of innovation economies: Focusing on ensuring there is ample tech talent – and not just through universities, but also through “code schools”; ensuring that research and development occurs and that there is tech transfer, where new technology can go to market; defining regional strengths and existing industries as competitive advantages, where opportunities for tech-tethering can be advanced; investing in early-stage and maturing companies through “evergreen” funds supported by government that continually reinvest; and incentivizing large-scale technology projects where the measurable economic impact will be compelling. Incentives, though not ideal, are an unavoidable reality, but when approached correctly within tech-based planning, can be immensely positive for a region’s economy and provide win-win scenarios for the public and private sectors.

New York City, though booming by all metrics, shouldn’t ease up on the gas pedal when it comes to tech. If Amazon is gone, it should find a better partner to grow high-paying jobs and transition New Yorkers into the innovation economy.

Technology policy 2019.02.16 This op-ed originally appeared in Observer

How Amazon opponents failed to win public opinion––but won anyway

Some 300 years ago, the Irish statesman Edmund Burke opined that a legislator’s role was not to represent their community’s interest, but the interests of the electorate at large. “You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament,” he trumpeted.

That following election, his constituents repaid him by replacing him.

Thursday’s decision by Amazon to not build its next headquarters in Long Island City, New York, begs this timeless question once more: Is the trustee model of representation—a guiding principle that legislators are entrusted with the autonomy to act in the greater good of the population—an appropriate stance for elected officials to take on the issue of their constituents’ economic future? And even if it is, given the nature of running for office, holding office and the people who attempt both, is it realistic to ever expect them to put the good of the electorate as a whole ahead of the people who can grant or deny them another term?

Amazon’s pull-out curiously followed the release of the second major poll by an independent polling outfit on Amazon’s second headquarters that showed across-the-board support for the project that should have put opponents’ criticisms to rest. After all, an overwhelming majority––56 percent or 23 points more than objectors––approved of the e-commerce giant’s arrival and believed that the performance-based incentive package was justified. A December poll by Quinnipiac University yielded nearly indistinguishable results of approval.

The unspoken lead opponent to Amazon’s second headquarters was none other than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While she held no direct authority over the project, her district neighbors Long Island City, and her looming presence altered the discourse, as well as the decisions of local elected to oppose. From elected officials who copied her logo to the politicians who borrowed her rallying cries, it was all too apparent: They were afraid of being primaried by an empowered progressive fringe player.

Yet, diving deeper into what New York City residents wanted––constituents of hers and opponents––the opposition is perplexing and troubling. Among African-Americans, 70 percent of New Yorkers supported the HQ2, and among Latinos, the support was nearly monolithic––four out of five welcomed the company. Following Amazon’s withdrawal announcement, leaders of the public housing association put out blunt calls of condemnation.

For the handful of local Queens politicians opposing the deal, what people in Manhattan or the Bronx or Staten Island thought didn’t matter. What people across Queens thought about the deal didn’t matter. What voters broadly in their districts thought of the deal didn’t matter. All that did matter were the views of the relatively few people who reliably vote in every Democratic primary. That 10-15 percent of the party calls the shots because they’re the only ones with real world impact over the next election. The political risk wasn’t alienating residents in the center who supported the deal. Those people don’t actually vote. The risk came from the left—and the only way to eliminate the risk was to oppose the project. Everyone and everything else is white noise.

In contrast, guided by the delegate model, an elected official would be mandated to act according to the popular opinions of their constituency. Even then, there are incontrovertible circumstances of race, social justice or moral issues where an elected official should remain disaffected and independent from the worst inclinations and urges of an electorate. And governing and legislating may be a delicate balance of both––understanding what constituencies want and what is in their interests, and what is best for all of society.

However, no elected official should betray their electorate by working against their long-term economic interests. The economic considerations of Amazon’s second headquarters should make it difficult for any New York officeholder to have been unequivocally against the project. In this case, Ocasio-Cortez and opponents didn’t consider that balance and weighed only their own faction’s goals. That may be good politics, but it’s far from good governance.

The long-term perspective of our representatives should recognize the dynamics of a changing workforce and the need to continue developing New York’s innovation ecosystem––what economic development planners and city officials have fruitfully fostered over the last decade. New York comes close to rivaling Silicon Valley, with its own character and presence, because of the investments and initiatives in opportunities like Amazon’s HQ2. Its success story offers a case study for other cities around the world.

The message from these elected officials opposed to Amazon: the public’s opinion doesn’t matter until it does for their politics. They may attempt to believe they are agents of their constituents, but they will continue to act as all-knowing custodians of decision-making, subverting those who elected them in the process.

Technology policy 2019.01.14 This op-ed originally appeared in amNewYork.

Let conversation over Amazon HQ2 take off

Labeling the entire project a corporate windfall is misguided.

In the aftermath of the debate about Amazon HQ2’s arrival and economic subsidies, the notorious helipad the company requested has led many residents and elected officials to rip into the company, labeling the entire project a corporate windfall.

The antagonism, however, is shortsighted. In fact, much of the opposition may be hyperbole and political posturing from elected officials even though many New Yorkers, including Queens residents, support the project. There are authentic concerns, and Amazon critics can more effectively promote the community’s interests. Here’s how:

Change the messaging from “No” to “Yes, with reservations” : Simply saying “No” is an obstinate response to a company that would help cement NYC’s position as a global capital for technology. However, too much of the misguided debate is discouraging dialogue. Instead, promoting discussion would encourage Amazon to consider what it means to be a good corporate citizen and neighbor.

Draft realistic solutions : Amazon detractors have raised transportation, housing, and local employment diversity as critical issues. Although concerns may be valid, critics lack data or credible solutions to resolve them. For example, a diversity proposal with potential partners such as universities and workforce development groups can provide pipelines for local talent. Queens College graduates more engineering students than NYU, Columbia, and Fordham combined while nearly 40 percent of its students are of lower income backgrounds. A partnership with CUNY would provide opportunities for students.

Participate in the Community Advisory Council : Shouting from a podium may capture headlines, but does little to offer solutions. Elected officials opposed to the project would do more for their community and be more effective if they came to the table with their concerns. And if this is truly about Amazon’s impact on NYC, then their participation is necessary.

While Amazon would be lucky to call NYC home, critics of HQ2 should not act hastily and should focus on communicating how the company can help build an equitable, diverse and prosperous New York.

Technology policy 2019.01.06 This op-ed originally appeared in City & State NY.

Why we need more technologists in politics

Tech literacy in government needs to be improved.

When Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before Congress in December, Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, asked why negative stories about him appeared on his granddaughter’s iPhone. “Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company,” Pichai replied politely. Just months earlier, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg fielded similarly ill-informed questions, amusing and bewildering much of the public.

Few in Congress come from a background in science or technology. The consequent technological illiteracy has had far-reaching and negative consequences. Yet, as technology pervades every aspect of our lives, a greater understanding of the policy implications of new technology is clearly needed in order to formulate the right policies for an age of innovation and an emerging digital economy.

Technologists and scientists are just as scarce among New York’s elected officials. In the Assembly and state Senate, there are only a handful legislators with formal training in the sciences: one geologist, a technology executive, a nuclear engineer, a civil engineer, an electrical engineer and a chemist. The absence is more extreme in the New York City Council, as there are currently no members with any science background. Also, not a single web developer, software engineer or programmer is represented in any of those three main legislative bodies.

Compare this to the overwhelming number of legislators whose sole careers have existed within politics, or the many lawyers who occupy the state Capitol and City Hall. Legislators may be well-trained at winning arguments, but poorly equipped to understand the growing industries they must regulate. The city and state are wrestling with how to manage the growth of vacation rental websites like Airbnb and ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft. There are major implications for housing and hotels, cab drivers and mass transit. To enjoy the benefits of disruptive technological innovations while minimizing the negative unintended consequences requires delicately threading a needle. To properly devise or revise regulations for challenges unanticipated by laws passed decades ago, policymakers must understand how these technologies work and how they interact with consumers, employees and the rest of society.

So far, New York City and state have largely been caught flat-footed. The rise of ride-hailing apps has contributed to worsening traffic congestion and has sent the value of tax medallions plummeting, leading to a spate of taxi driver suicides. The New York City Council’s solution is an inefficient and ineffectual cap on the number of ride-hailing vehicles, rather than a reimagining of an evolving traffic and transportation landscape. Imagine what might have been if an enterprising legislator had championed efforts to build an app sponsored by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission to compete with Uber and Lyft years ago, before the companies had already become dominant players in the market.

As technology becomes more intertwined in society, culture and politics, shouldn’t the same happen in government? With so much industry transformation as a result of fast-growing technology startups, policy often lags behind and has to react.

Consider blockchain technology, a software protocol that establishes a decentralized public ledger for transactions and which powers digital currencies like bitcoin. Blockchain could one day be used to administer government services like food stamps, track procurement for public works or even voting, decreasing fraud and abuse while increasing transparency and boosting efficiency. Fortune 500 companies like IBM and Google and organizations like the United Nations and the World Economic Forum recognize this potential and are investing heavily into the promise of blockchain. While Bitcoin uses blockchain, some legislators might think the two are synonymous, though one is a highly speculative cryptocurrency and the other is a promising emerging technology. Still, blockchain products, including cryptocurrency, raise new cybersecurity questions that will create another emerging area of complex potential government regulation.

Then there are issues on the horizon that will be raised by products with even more potential to alter society, the economy and everything from the environment to housing segregation. How will autonomous vehicles impact the insurance industry, traffic congestion, mass transit ridership and carbon emissions? Will the privacy of user data be protected by social media companies? Can artificial intelligence be used to remove racism from the mortgage approval process?

While nearly all other major industries or occupations, from educators to small business owners, are represented in state and local legislative bodies, the tech industry has few legislators with the expertise to lead on their issues. There is a dearth of proponents for tech-based solutions to improved governance, how startups can work with government rather than against it, and how the tech sector will undergird or upend New York’s future economy.

The lack of leadership on technology issues has led to a deep misunderstanding that has bred a distrust of technology and of the broader tech sector. Nothing may characterize this more clearly than the recent opposition to Amazon’s second headquarters in Long Island City. The industries of tomorrow will certainly be inextricably tethered to the tech sector. Likewise, advances in automation may arrive sooner than we expect. With automation will come a need to shift labor pools towards technology while retooling the workforce. This will require vision and forethought from government to work with labor unions, the private sector and educational institutions.

In fact, it may not just be knowledge of the tech sector that is missing in New York’s governing bodies, but also the culture, philosophy and enterprising spirit that comes with it. In the world of technology and startups, “lean” or “agile” processes dominate the way of thinking. Government functions using a waterfall approach, in which projects and policies are implemented at scale, leaving them to crash and burn if left untested, while the tech sector applies a scientific method to business, customers, and architecting technical solutions. Using the tech approach within government would mean deploying more lean and limited policies and programs as test cases, which can provide iterative loops by which improvements in services and policies can be made incrementally based on citizen feedback.

Government policy innovation happens only by taking risks. Yet, the bigger risk is when government operations are outdated, policies are maladapted, or modern technology is overlooked. More technologists in government and politics – elected entrepreneurs who do not have an aversion to failure and are risk-tolerant by character and training – could improve policy outcomes while increased tech literacy among legislators may ensure that no tech issue is only cryptically understood.

With the ever-increasing role of technology on politics and policy, scientists, engineers and programmers should begin to view government as the next industry ripe for disruption. They may be surprised to find that running for elected office isn’t so different than running a startup and that citizens are customers who deserve good service. The next great innovation, in fact, may not originate in a garage as code, but rather in the halls of the state Capitol as legislation.

Tech Economic Development 2018.12.12 This op-ed originally appeared Crain's New York Business.

What critics get wrong about Amazon's HQ2

Opposition to the project sets a dangerous precedent for New York

In the runup to 2000’s internet boom, New York’s technology ecosystem—embedded within the media industry—began to flourish. The dot com era of the late 1990s led to Silicon Alley’s first red-hot startups including BuddyMedia and DoubleClick. Following the city’s first major initial public offering for a tech startup, New Yorkers were greeted by a large billboard paces away from the Flatiron Building that read “DoubleClick welcomes you to Silicon Alley."

Today, New York’s tech ecosystem is no longer limited by a geographic moniker and it’s Amazon that will be placing its billboard on the shores of the city. And while opposition to Amazon’s second headquarters remains virulent, it’s important to remember how the city became an enviable technology hub—and the dangerous precedent it sets when elected officials oppose future technology-based economic development.

The arrival of Amazon in New York will likely signify the second inflection point in its storied history—the point at which New York’s Silicon-everything overtakes Silicon Valley. This trend, no doubt, began a decade ago following the recovery of the dot-com collapse and was set in motion by a previous well-publicized competition, the Applied Sciences NYC initiative spearheaded by former Mayor Bloomberg.

Critics continue to clamor that economic incongruencies exist in the Amazon deal and now the New York City Council has called for hearings. How can a company so wealthy be offered a transaction that many have described as corporate welfare by a city with such great income inequality, infrastructure issues and a housing deficit?

In the immediate wake of Amazon’s announcement, the topic instantly went from an arcane policy issue to an overtly political controversy. Nearly all of the elected officials who represent Long Island City or adjacent areas voiced opposition to the project. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will represent nearby neighborhoods in Congress starting next month, led the ideological march against the project in near perfect anti-corporatist lockstep. Opponents continue to argue that this is about ensuring that a wealthy man and a corporate giant are not beneficiaries of subsidies.

For one, even though there are write-offs for individuals and businesses, these opponents miss the big picture. Amazon isn’t a manufacturer or a casino receiving a subsidy. It’s a technology enterprise being given a tax incentive—typical state subsidies afforded to any corporation doing business in New York—to significantly contribute to the city’s tech sector and economy. Yes, the subsidies to be offered are a considerable sum, but it is a figure that in relative terms is fractionally insignificant and reflects a modest discount in what Amazon will pay in taxes on a post-performance basis. The subsidized amount is representative of the scale and enormity of Amazon’s expected job creation.

The debate over Amazon’s second headquarters typifies an ideological clash between pragmatism and principles. Even if the payoff ensures positive and exponential economic outcomes for Queens residents, small business owners, and local CUNY graduates, and even as the expanded tax base will offset the increased social costs of additional workers to the area, the deal is, in the eyes of anti-Amazonians, a violation of a community’s self-determination and goes against economic justice. But how can those who argue for a community’s political interests neglect the long-term economic interests of that same community—a community where 60% of residents approve of Amazon HQ2 in Queens according to a Quinnipiac University poll?

The uproar also reflects misplaced objections to economic development planning. Take into consideration previous subsidies and how much was paid by New York in capital costs for Yankee Stadium, Citi Field and recent casino developments: a cool $2.5 billion. Never has the same degree of media or political attention been drawn to the unsatisfactory subsidization of entertainment projects and jobs that are low-wage. No political finger and no banner has ever been lifted against these projects even though the development of casinos, according to research and economic development experts, is categorically among the least effective of strategies for local economic development, bleeding communities of economic resources while generating a population of addicts. Can we expect Ocasio-Cortez to also come out against future subsidies for her backyard's Yankee Stadium or Empire Casino?

Amazon HQ2 has become an important discussion about how we plan our city economies and what, and if anything at all, should be subsidized. Subsidies are not sacrosanct, but neglecting the arc of economic history—understanding that the industries of tomorrow will be reliant on the tech sector—places politics above pragmatism. The most devastating impact of the Amazon criticism, however, is the precedent it sets for the public outlook on the tech sector: We will go from believing and investing in innovation-based economic efforts to believing Big Tech is led by robber barons.

Of the dozens of cities around the world that have attempted to recreate the prodigious marvel of Silicon Valley, nearly all have failed, save for one: New York City. Its ascendance is not a mere turn of good fortune, but a direct result of strategic economic development planning advanced through policies and projects stewarded by city planners to foster an innovation ecosystem. For elected officials opposing Amazon: Know that absolute and blind opposition to a tech company like Amazon—without alternatives or reasonable deal making—can become a barrier to our city and state’s economic progress. Be opposed to projects because they are economically bad but support the good technology projects, intelligently and within reason, when they provide anchors to legacy industries or provide a path to a tech-driven future.

The cities of the future will require deep tethering to the technology industry in order to remain competitive. In truth, Amazon HQ2 was never about the subsidies. It has always been about securing New York’s economy and formalizing the city’s position as the global capital for innovation and technology.

Technology policy 2018.09.14 This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Daily News.

A very good deal for New York City: Don't look the Amazon gift horse in the mouth

After 14 months of national pageantry and two weeks of speculation, it turns out Amazon’s second headquarters will be in not one, but two cities­­, Crystal City and Long Island City. Despite dim views of New York’s chances, last year I argued that New York’s outlook was in fact good, and should New York become host to Amazon, Long Island City would surely have the commanding advantage of becoming that site.

Among the 238 competing cities and states, Amazon bargained with each, maximized its own benefits and breaks, and saw no reason to limit its growth to one geographic area. Critics say it is also a classic example of what many have called an unmanageable prisoner’s dilemma: If all of the participants compete amongst each other, even the inevitable winners lose.

Now that the details of the handshake have emerged, what exactly has New York City given away, and will its bargain pay off?

New York announced the largest economic development deal in its history, providing up to $2.98 billion in tax breaks or grants based on the expected creation of 40,000 jobs. Compare this nationally to what Amazon has received since 2000, $1.1 billion in subsidies for dozens of its facilities and distribution centers.

While progressive opposition has been vocal over the past few days — echoing sentiments that trillion-dollar companies don’t need greenback handouts — we know the economic incentives offered to Amazon are standard financial vehicles that are available any corporation relocating to New York. On the state side, the Excelsior tax credit provided per employee and the sheer scale of the number of employees accounts for most of this package: $1.2 billion if 25,000 jobs are produced. (If fewer are produced, that number will shrink.) The New York State Empire State Development corporation is also offering $505 million in capital grants.

The city, for its part, offered $897 million through a standard incentive called the Relocation and Employment Assistance Program over 12 years. It also passed on $386 million as a tax abatement for the modernization of the industrial buildings that it will settle in in Long Island City. All of this, as Mayor de Blasio as noted, is subject to clawback provisions if Amazon reneges on its side of the deal.

In turn, Amazon promises a $2.5 billion investment, $15 million invested alongside the city and state in workforce job retraining, community engagement and support for local housing, an incubator for tech and the arts.

The result will pay enormous dividends: Over 25 years, Amazon is expected to provide a 9 to 1 return on investment, generating $27.5 billion in taxes and providing economic spillover in the form of non-tech jobs.

The sizeable sum offered to Amazon is only a fraction of the expected economic return to the city. Every tech role created results in four new nontech jobs. No matter how you do the math, Amazon will produce unprecedented economic impact.

In truth, Amazon’s deal is not a sui generis corporate subsidy package; it did not receive that much more than what any other corporation would have received. And contrary to claims that Amazon is being given billions, this money doesn’t exist yet and will only exist as a result of the economic output Amazon produces. Critics who make these claims that this money can be spent elsewhere — such as the subway or tuition — fundamentally do not understand how economic development subsidies work.

The deal should be viewed through the lens of a positive sum scenario in that a new tax base will be generated. For every $9 the city will collect in taxes, only $1 is not being collected.

It’s not hard to argue that it was exceedingly likely that it would have expanded its existing office regardless and without the need for excessive trade-offs. But the risks for this type of economic upside would have been too great. Stanford University backed out of talks during the Applied Sciences NYC competition after aggressive negotiations by the city. This competition could have ended on a much more sobering note.

Amazon’s new headquarters will cement New York’s position as the global tech capital; for that, we should welcome its arrival. It will need to be a good corporate citizen and contribute to our city — not just take from it. This means economic reciprocity, community partnerships and job creation.

Technology policy 2018.08.14 This op-ed originally appeared in City & State NY.

To increase voter turnout, bring elections online

E-voting could be more accessible and secure.

New York City and New York state from very low voter turnout rates. New York’s congressional primary this year saw just 11 percent of eligible primary voters participating.

The lack of civic participation, a consequence of antiquated election laws that purposefully lead to voter suppression, has prompted countless calls to action from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and The New York Times editorial board.

Recent news that de Blasio has filled the role of the city’s first chief democracy officer, charged with overseeing civic engagement through voter registration drives, demonstrates both the need for innovation in solving New York’s crisis of democracy – and the lack thereof in the solutions currently being pursued, or even discussed.

Appointing a cheerleader for voting misjudges the root cause of the problem. Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, the newly appointed chief democracy officer, who has been tasked with increasing voter turnout by 1.5 million votes, will be committed to organizing civic lessons and citywide voter registration drives, a Band-Aid offering a temporary fix. At best, this will only move the needle incrementally.

The problem isn’t voter apathy. New Yorkers are some of the most politically engaged and educated American citizens. The problem rests with the inaccessible ballot, not with the voter.

Good government reforms that are promoted by activists and influential voices such as the Times' editorial board, like early voting and automatic registration, recognize that reality and correctly seek to improve ballot access.

But these proposals fail to address the crux of the problem, which Fonseca-Sabune noted when characterizing herself as a busy working parent who missed several elections trying to fit voting her schedule: Many New Yorkers are simply too inundated with their personal and work lives to find the time to vote in person.

In light of that, a simpler and more forward-thinking solution to voter engagement is to invest in election technology and allow for mobile voting. E-voting would provide busy New Yorkers who can’t afford the time to visit a polling site an opportunity to cast a ballot.

Already, over 86.4 percent of adults in New York state have smart mobile devices or access to the internet at home – not including at work – and can pay credit card bills, trade stocks and purchase insurance on phones, tablets or their computers. Why can’t another important decision be available at everyone’s fingertips? This would, like voting by mail, also be fully accessible to people with disabilities. And it would eliminate the arbitrary factors that often shape voter turnout, such as whether it’s raining or long lines at polling places. For voters without internet access, votes could be cast by mail, which is a system that has boosted turnout in states that have adopted it, such as Washington, Oregon and Colorado.

Security is nearly always the counterargument. But the question is: secure relative to what? The current system of hanging chads, lost ballots, voter registrations? Purged voter registrations led to thousands of New Yorkers being told they were not on the voter rolls during the September statewide primary. Consider the mishandled paper trails, mistakes made by election officials, such as the infamous Palm Beach County “butterfly ballot” that may have cost Al Gore Florida in 2000, and the security risks and routine malfunctions of the electronic and mechanical machines that we currently use to count votes. Most alarmingly, the lever machines, which New York used for decades, have an error rate of 3 to 4 percent, while the optical scanners that replaced them still have a 1 to 2 percent error rate, according to a Rice University Study.

Conversely, as Estonia enters its 14th year of online voting, not a single major security incident has been recorded. It is not without its threats, as the Baltic country has had to contend with Russian aggression. But it has demonstrated that internet voting can be secure, accurately counted and private.

Here in the United States, many states have served as laboratories for democracy, entrusting digital means of civic engagement. Thirty-two states offer a voting by email, electronic fax, or an internet browser for absentee ballots cast from overseas. This past primary saw the first application of blockchain voting – technology that creates a public ledger – in a federal election as West Virginians abroad used facial recognition and scanned ID images to submit digital ballots through a mobile app. New York state already allows for voter registration online and much of the election process requires electronic systems, so why not move a step further?

What’s more, the success of online voting for participatory budgeting provides a proof of concept for New York City. This past year, New Yorkers in council districts that opted to democratize budgeting decisions were able to do so not only at a polling place, but online.

This method can and should extend to elections. An option to modernize and improve the citizen user experience by offering online registration and voting, ballot information, and schedules with reminders and alerts is possible if we plan for it. We should begin to imagine a balloting process where a voter can use voice or facial recognition to verify themselves, submit an encrypted ballot on a mobile app, and request a paper ballot or a receipt of their vote – a voter-verified paper or digital trail accessible by only them, the voter.

This is not a call to election officials to rush or act reckless, but instead it is a reminder to invest in the future of democratic processes. Election security and upgrades need to go hand in hand. We can be investing in securing newer technology rather than outdated technology, which is the current plan. The technology for online voting exists and will continue to improve to offer even greater security, anonymity and verifiability. After all, if we can build secure financial systems to protect trillions of dollars, we can engineer secure voting systems to protect millions of votes.

It is very likely that in the near future New Yorkers will be casting ballots online or via mobile devices. So why not begin discussing, investing in, phasing in, implementing and securing an e-voting solution­­ on a limited scale?

The biggest impediment to internet voting isn’t technological, but rather political. And the bigger threat to our democracy in New York isn’t a Russian hacker, it’s voting accessibility.

Technology Economic Development2018.06.15 This op-ed originally appeared in Crain's New York Business.

NYC poised to become the capital of blockchain and other emerging tech industries

For the first time ever, New York City sponsored the launch of Blockchain Week, which joined Fashion Week and Internet Week as one of the city’s trumpeted industry week-long gatherings. It accompanied the announcement of a blockchain resource center, a venue for events and businesses, as well as a public blockchain competition. It not only signals mainstream interest of the underlying technology that powers cryptocurrencies, but more importantly, it hints at the emerging industries of the future as the economic waves begin to ripple.

The tech sector in New York City has become its tower of strength. New York’s tech sector is still ascendant, locking in its place as the second largest tech hub behind Silicon Valley. Its core economic engines—its legacy industries—have not been so much replaced by tech as they have been tethered to it. The tech industry has added more jobs than any other in the city: 47,000 in the last decade.

But what's on the economic horizon isn’t just nondescriptly “tech”—it’s biotech, real estate tech, and now, like wildfire, emerging technology such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, and augmented and virtual reality.

Similar to how software and big data technology has nested itself within legacy industries reinventing them in the process, blockchain and emerging technologies are the next wave of new technologies likely to append or upend industries.

While the application of blockchain technology to solve critical business problems has been led by cryptocurrencies and startups—New York-based companies have received over $200 million this year alone in funding—it’s also for established companies. Global industry leaders made blockchain the highlight of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Blockchain products are being pursued by companies like IBM, Walmart, and MasterCard with solutions for bank-to-bank transfers, smart contracts, distributed storage, and authenticity verification. Even Pfizer has invested heavily to reinvent supply chain management in the pharmaceutical industry.

The impact of this subsidiary tech industry will soon reverberate. According to estimates, blockchain-related job openings have increased by 800% over the last two years. The demand continues to soar as estimates cited by Deloitte suggested blockchain’s global business value by 2025 to be $176 billion. It’s no surprise, then, that senior blockchain developers can command as much as $450 an hour.

This points to the inevitable: Blockchain and other emerging technologies are not trends but will grow by an order of magnitude. And New York City’s prominence as the second global capital of technology offers it the unfair advantage to reel in more blockchain ventures like Brooklyn-based Consensys and establish itself as the blockchain capital.

How can the city help foster this emerging industry—one that can create thousands of new jobs and a new sub-sector to potentially replace many that will be absorbed by automation over the next decade?

For one, the city’s limited investment, or $100,000, in the blockchain center is only a timid start. What's required now is a comprehensive economic development strategy that allows these emerging industries to anchor themselves here and accelerate the industry’s growth.

First, the city can focus on the highly technical workforce that drives businesses to the city in the first place. By partnering with universities and code schools to ensure curriculums related to emerging technologies are taught, it can lay the groundwork for human infrastructure as it has recently by offsetting the costs for a master’s in cybersecurity. Second, it can support research and development within the private sector and institutions, by deploying a significant research and venture capital funding dedicated singularly to emerging technologies like it has offered for life sciences and other industries. The riskiest business pursuit is startup, and a startup founded on new technology eo ipso increases the odds of failure and requires deep financial resources.

Finally, city leaders can help establish the business environment for emerging technologies and advocate for regulations. While financial securities are state and federally regulated, the imprimatur of the city to support BitLicenses or autonomous vehicles in the city are integral to government support and eliminating the perception of impasse.

Not all emerging technology that has drawn feverish excitement will go from backwater to ubiquity overnight. In truth, new tech like blockchain technology may provide use cases to entirely different problems than what we have imagined it for. This is the unpredictable and mutable nature of innovation.

As technology reworks economies, global competitiveness will grow and automation will reduce some industries to shadows of their former selves, putting pressure on urban areas and cities with one-horse economies. The city’s traditional industries may not be supplanted if they evolve and adapt. It will be our investment in creating an ecosystem of innovation that will begin to define the industries of New York City’s future.

Technology policy 2017.09.19 This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Daily News.

Long Island City and Amazon: A match made in tech heaven

Fifty-three years ago, New York City played host to the world as it showcased American culture and technology on the grounds of the World's Fair to over 51 million visitors in Queens. The 1964 World's Fair was conceived with futurism in mind, featuring Jetsons-like Googie architecture on a sprawling, leafy campus.

Today, as cities across the country submit their proposals for Amazon's second global headquarters, New York City finds itself bidding to be another host — this time to one of the world's biggest and fastest growing companies — and Queens as the most promising location for what could become a fairground for innovation for over 50,000 Amazon employees.

No fewer than 50 cities have since expressed interest, and with the rising prominence of New York City as the global economic capital, it's unmistakable — as a recent Moody's analysis has noted — that the city is not just an aspirant but one of the leading contenders in this interurban competition.

New York has been vocal about this opportunity — going so far as to illuminate all of the city's skyscrapers and LinkNYC kiosks orange. In revealing the city's bid in his announcement, the mayor endorsed four locations but cited small business owners affected by the online retailer in later remarks at a town hall.

If the city's chances remain unaffected by the mayor's comments, the question may soon become not which city but which neighborhood within New York offers the most promising new home for Amazon.

Amazon's request for proposals in September highlighted several key decision drivers: The suitability of buildings, capital costs, the labor force, transportation, the business and political climates, and the community and quality of life. With sites in Brooklyn and Manhattan as competing options, Long Island City's suitability is writ large.

The commercial real estate economics play out to Long Island City's advantage: At an average of $38 per square foot, it is significantly less compared with Midtown's $82 per square foot and Brooklyn's $52 per square foot. And with an astounding 8 million square feet being sought — nearly as much as the World Trade Center — both costs and availability of real estate become factors.

Long Island City offers Amazon the opportunity not only for expansion and growth, but for the chance to envisage and develop a state-of-the-art campus more impressive than Apple's Cupertino headquarters or Google's in Mountain View. LIC's rawness — its unique blend of industrial warehouses interspersed with community and culture — gives it a potential yet to be unlocked and without the cost-intensity of Manhattan.

The Queens waterfront offers other benefits. Its accessibility to two major airports, the Long Island Rail Road, eight subway lines, greater New York City including Brooklyn and suburban Long Island by means of the LIE and BQE makes it one of the more transportation friendly neighborhoods. The mental hurdle of traveling to midtown is leaped once one realizes it is a 17-minute train ride while the BQX light rail will one day bind the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn.

However, while the Mayor revealed four promising locations in its bid, including Downtown Manhattan, Midtown Manhattan, the Brooklyn Tech Triangle, and Long Island City, New York City's biggest real estate developers have given Long Island City their imprimatur after conducting studies and acknowledging its strengths. This governmental and community support, as Amazon has sought in its request for proposals, is directed towards Long Island City.

Yet the most paramount of decisions for Amazon will be its proximity to a skilled and technical workforce-its growth will depend on human capital. New York City's tech ecosystem will outgrow Silicon Valley in decades to come, and Amazon's growing need for software developers and technical talent will be satisfied by the city's top engineering universities including Roosevelt Island's Cornell Tech campus. The immediate potential and synergy between Cornell Tech and Amazon can become realized not only through the close proximity, but through institutional collaboration from Cornell Tech's president, Dan Huttenlocher — a member of Amazon's board.

The 1964 World's Fair was dedicated to "Man's Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe." It's fitting then that the world's largest retailer share the vision with a borough and a neighborhood with this rare aspiration.

Technology policy 2017.09.22 This op-ed originally appeared in Crain's New York Business.

How New York became Silicon City

New York has officially marked an inflection point in its history.

In what has been six short years in the making, Cornell Tech unveiled its leading edge campus on the once little known and thin strip of land in the East River, Roosevelt Island. It lays the foundation as a lodestone for the next wave of engineers and entrepreneurs seeking to transform and redefine global industries.

But Cornell Tech isn't just another state-of-the art university campus; it is the physical realization of a grand vision for the future of New York—one set in motion by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg with his Applied Sciences Initiative—that will reshape our city. Though New Yorkers have long anticipated the oversized impact on the city’s tech economy, we have yet to grasp how transformative it will be for our city and for cities around the globe.

Cornell Tech has become a turning point in New York's history for drawing interest among policymakers, educational institutions and the private sector. Up until 2010, the city’s tech economy grew steadily after the undoing of its media-focused tech sector in the 2000s. Applied Sciences garnered attention and excitement for its grandiosity and inclusion—in its ability to incorporate all areas of society, from local community groups to massive tech companies, to dream up and plan its potential. What’s more, it has put tech on the policy agenda of nearly every elected official in New York.

Around the city, developers such as Two Trees in Dumbo and Plaxall in Long Island City have aligned goals with the community. Institutions such as Queens College have launched incubators while dozens of code schools have emerged throughout New York. Local elected officials and the mayor have steadfastly promoted the tech sector’s potential to strengthen the middle class and provide jobs, offering a refreshing alternative to big-box retail development or disinvestment like casinos.

This broad, mutual alignment has catalyzed deep, collaborative partnerships that are a hallmark in a new approach to economic development guided by innovation economics. Cornell Tech teaches us that public-private partnerships and investing in human infrastructure are the sine qua non to replicating the magic of Silicon Valley. Where dozens of cities from Skolkovo to London have tried and failed at adding the Silicon moniker, New York is one of the few that has succeeded in fostering a Silicon Valley-comparable tech economy, thanks to local innovation-based policies.

The expansion of the technology sector in New York is now immutable. Since 2010, it has grown by 25.5%—three times faster than any other industry—and now accounts for more than 280,000 jobs. Technology is irreversibly tethered to every industry, including media, fashion, finance, manufacturing and government, which will catapult New York into the tech capital of the world, surpassing Silicon Valley in the years to come. New York’s tech economy was fostered by government and City Hall, and its continued rise will necessitate even more planning, policy and partnership.

The future will not be kind. As local economies, including ours, wrestle with automation, outsourcing, and growing income inequality, more cities will require innovation strategies to compete in a globalized economy. A paradigm shift in the way we approach economic development will be needed and New York will become our case study.

Technology policy 2014.05.05 This op-ed originally appeared in Crain's New York Business.

Mayor must expand city's tech initiatives

In the 12 Years that New York was led by a tech businessman, it reawakened as a global tech capital. A digital city has been born, catalyzing an innovation economy to the tune of $125 billion a year.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio must make a deeper commitment to tech and leading-edge initiatives to ensure that growth continues. As he introduces his tech agenda this month at Internet Week New York, he can turn to his predecessor and to other cities for replicable strategies.

They include:

Investing in management. To see an aggressive digital agenda through, City Hall will need a disciplined focus. It can look to San Francisco's chief innovation officer and Los Angeles' deputy mayor for budget and innovation, both of whom have laid the groundwork for institutional innovation.

Mr. de Blasio should appoint a deputy mayor for innovation and technology to replace the departed chief digital officer. Elevating this position and hiring another chief analytics officer would embed innovation within government and bring together open data, e-government and economic-development initiatives. These two positions would establish ambassadors and ombudsmen to the tech and business communities, and make technology an administration priority.

Developing tech corridors. New York is no longer limited by a geographic "Silicon" moniker—Silicon Alley, Square or City. While there is a tech cluster in the Flatiron district, there are also ones in Brooklyn and Queens. By designating corridors in each borough, Mr. de Blasio would tap into the city's native diversity. Similar to Boston's Innovation District, it would grow awareness for New York's emergent tech hubs.

The economic spillover would be enormous: For every tech job, four nontech ones are created. Mixed-use live-work spaces would trigger economic activity across industries—construction, services and entertainment—while location-based tax incentives for startups would ensure this growth stays local. Washington, D.C.'s High Technology Development Zone offers five-year tax exemptions to startups.

Leveraging key industries. While Silicon Valley has tech, New York has tech, finance, fashion, media, manufacturing and more. As tech becomes tethered to these legacy industries, fostering its disruptive potential becomes all the more important.

The key will be to establish industry-based partnerships. Cultivating talent within the City University of New York with established companies would provide tech transfer and a pipeline of homegrown engineers. It would create internship and job-placement programs, and build up CUNY's prestige. For instance, Mr. de Blasio can turn to Baton Rouge, La.'s partnership with the IBM Technology Center, which will enable millions of dollars to flow into tech education in Louisiana.

The rise of tech in New York City is no miracle: Its genesis is a direct result of economic-development policies pioneered by cities around the globe and driven largely by innovation economics. Mr. de Blasio's task is to maintain New York's economic transformation and sustain innovation. In turn, all New Yorkers will gain from the unimaginable benefits of technology.

Opinions + Op-eds

Nothing has influenced or transformed our world and economy as much as technology. These op-eds highlight the burgeoning tech economy, propose policies to help foster these ecosystems, and expound on the policy implications of technology on society, politics, government, and business.

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News Highlights

A selection of recent awards and honors, press clippings, interviews, and more.

Honors & Awards 2030.09.01 Recognized by City & State NY

NYC 40 under 40 Rising Stars

Skandul, a Queens native, had been working on economic development in the Rockaways with Sanders and helped to launch Coalition for Queens, a nonprofit advocating to make Queens a tech hub. “I was just so driven to advocate for Queens that I was like, ‘To hell with it, I’m going to get this published and draw attention to this opportunity, and I’ll deal with the consequences afterward,’” Skandul recalls. “(Sanders) was really upset, but I think he realized in the end that I was fighting for the same things that he was fighting for.”

Since then, Skandul hasn’t stopped advocating for Queens and the city. In 2012, Skandul started his own firm, Capitol Foundry, which builds applications and other digital products for startups and large companies.

But Skandul’s finger is still on the pulse of New York politics and the tech ecosystem. As an example, he correctly predicted in 2017 that Amazon would choose Long Island City as its second headquarters. Skandul continues to advocate for government’s embrace of technology, and for the tech sector as a driver of economic development. “I think the root cause of many of society’s issues – whether it’s housing, crime, poverty – those are economic problems,” he says. “And we can address those issues by providing economic opportunity for people.”

Read the entire article here
Technology Project 2020.03.26 This article originally appeared in Government Technology Magazine online and was reported by Zack Quaintance.

NYC Developers launch Covid19.NYC

A group of technologists in New York City have now launched COVID19.NYC, which is a website offering public health info to New Yorkers during the novel coronavirus crisis.

The site is informational and data-based, aimed at aggregating info from a range of medical authorities, including the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the local government in New York City, and more. What the site does, essentially, is take a set of disparate information related to the coronavirus and centralize it in one place.

Visiting the site, users can view how many New Yorkers have died from the virus, how many have tested positive for it, and what the change has been compared to the previous day. There’s more information, and users can also toggle between New York City, New York state, the United States and the entire world.

In a press release announcing the website, developers noted that “the team behind COVID19.NYC quickly realized that everyday New Yorkers had no centralized place to turn to find simple, clear, fact-based information and instructions from authorities. COVID19.NYC provides non-editorialized resources and updates from public health experts and government officials in a plain online dashboard.”

The information goes beyond simple numbers, also offering lists of symptoms, precautions, frequently asked questions and other actionable knowledge for both residents and health-care workers. Developers noted that the site itself is not creating any wholly new information, nor is it purporting to be a news organization.

Read the entire article here
Government Innovaton 2020.06.20 This article originally appeared in City & State NY and was reported by Rebecca Lewis.

The coronavirus crisis is pushing government into the 21st century

Another part of the problem is the procurement process for new technologies and services that are required to bring systems into the 21st century. Emil Skandul, founder of the tech firm Capitol Foundry, said that while he doesn’t expect the immediate budgetary problems to be reflected in tech projects, he pointed out that those projects generally take years to complete, at which point a new technology could be outdated. “We have a procurement model where specs are drawn up a year before the project initiates,” Skandul said. “And then it takes one year to determine who’s going to get that contract, and then it takes another two years to complete the contract.”

Skandul used the state Department of Motor Vehicles as an example. The DMV is the quintessential example of bureaucratic tedium that eats up entire days of waiting in long lines for simple matters. And its offices had been closed since the state shut down in late March. Certain services returned June 1 through mail or secure drop box locations. Right now, the DMV says more than 60 simple transactions can be done online, including license renewal and paying fines. Skandul said it’s evidence that services that people traditionally believed could only be done in person can be done online. “Truthfully I see a future where the DMV barely exists,” Skandul said. “That portal needs to be redesigned to think of, what does a digital DMV look like?”

Ideally, Skandul said the state could one day look like Estonia, a country that Pardo mentioned as well. “I can be a citizen of Estonia and never go to Estonia,” Pardo said. The country has a single integrated governmental web portal that saves a person’s information and shares it across every agency so someone can access all services easily in one spot. “It allows them to do everything from voting to their taxes,” Skandul said.

Read the entire article here
Technology Policy 2020.02.06 This article originally appeared in City & State NY and was reported by Annie McDonough.

Will the taxi task force’s report do anything to help medallion owners?

How do you solve a problem like the taxi medallion loan crisis? Many taxicab owner-operators – those who both own a medallion and drive their own cab – have been struggling over the past few years, as medallion values plummeted alongside the ascent of ride-hail services like Uber and Lyft in New York. But last year, an investigation by The New York Times revealed the depths of that crisis, highlighting the predatory lending practices that contributed to the rise and precipitous fall of medallion values. In the immediate aftermath of that reporting last May, city and state lawmakers called for reforms to help medallion owners out of debt and prevent something similar from happening in the future.

Now, a Taxi Medallion Task Force led by City Council members Ydanis Rodríguez and Steven Levin has a slate of recommendations that aims to achieve just that. The group – which also consists of academics, taxi medallion owners and driver advocates – issued a report last week with proposals including a loan buyback and partial forgiveness program funded by “mission-driven” investors, a universal smartphone app to help taxis compete with Ubers and Lyfts, and an evaluation of fares, with the possibility of adopting surge pricing.

What’s your response to the recommendations made in the task force’s report?

I was happy to see that many of the recommendations I put forth in a City & State op-ed were included in that report. In October, I had argued that the only way for the taxi industry to be saved, and not go the way of the horse-driven carriage, was to reinvent itself, starting with its digital approach and app experience. The committee recommended many of those ideas, including building a unified taxi app, ride-sharing, rewards and loyalties, and better data and app integrations. What's missing in this report is the execution strategy and a vision beyond just building an app. It requires understanding how the industry is changing, and restructuring the TLC to be more responsive, innovative and agile.

Is a “universal taxi app” the right way to help taxis compete with ride-hail services like Uber and Lyft?

A TLC-backed app should have been launched during the Bloomberg administration, not a decade later. But now it's not just about creating a consistent digital experience – this is about improving the overall customer experience when so many riders prefer Uber and Lyft. It will require improving the condition of vehicles and even retraining drivers. Disruptive changes are needed at the TLC to implement the type of product and business model innovations that will improve the digital and customer experience to get people riding in cabs and make the yellow cab business model more sustainable.

What, if anything, should the city do to deal with the taxi medallion crisis that isn’t addressed in the report?

What the TLC needs to do is to act like a startup itself. Creating an app to compete isn't a one-and-done initiative – it will require a team of entrepreneurs that continue to act like startups do, and test, iterate and improve the taxi experience. The real, long-term solution is to hire and build a team of talented entrepreneurs, designers and developers who have experience working at these startups and who can continue to deliver improvements to the business model for years to come. The taxi industry's business innovation may not even be surge pricing that it is now looking at, but perhaps an app like Kayak for comparing Uber, Lyft or yellow cab prices, or even allowing cab drivers to set their own fares.

Read the entire article here

Economic Development 2019.08.21 This article originally appeared in the Commercial Observer and was reported by Nicholas Rizzi.

Hubba Hubba: Zero Irving and the City’s Growing Number of Tech Hubs

The following is excerpted from the article.

Emil Skandul, the founder of digital innovation firm Capitol Foundry, wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News after the news of Zero Irving’s deal-closing calling for similar campuses to be built in Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx, which would make it easier for residents of those boroughs to benefit from them.

“I don’t want it to just be Manhattan,” Skandul told CO. “I think as time progresses we’re going to start to realize as automation takes its toll on the city’s workforce we need to upskill and retool the workforce.”

“Queens resembles the diversity of Silicon Valley,” Skandul added. “Queens can be this next tech hub.”

Read the entire article here
Technology policy 2019.12.22 This write-up originally appeared in City & State and was collected by Ben Adler.

City & State’s best op-eds in 2019

New York City's tech ecosystem has flourished like no other outside of Silicon Valley. Amazon's HQ2 would have given it a boost for generations to come.

City & State’s op-eds in 2019 offered original angles on a wide range of issues that New Yorkers care about, including housing, transportation and even how to combat sexual harassment. Choosing only five as the best is hard, as it inevitably leaves out some richly deserving articles. Among the strongest that we couldn’t include were Jesse Singal’s myth-busting op-ed about the exaggerated dangers of marijuana legalization and Lindsay Beyerstein’s fascinating dive into the New York history of presidential candidate Marianne Williamson’s quirky philosophy.

But, if the metric we are using to judge them is telling you something important you didn’t know or offering an insightful perspective about New York politics or policy, these five op-eds are among our best:

Why we need more technologists in politics, by Emil Skandul. Rapidly evolving technology and the new regulatory challenges it creates is at the center of many political battles, and few policymakers have any experience working in the tech sector. That should change, argues technologist and former New York City Council staffer Skandul. Noting the vast discrepancy between technical or scientific backgrounds and overrepresented ones such as law and political advocacy, he writes, “Legislators may be well-trained at winning arguments, but poorly equipped to understand the growing industries they must regulate. … it may not just be knowledge of the tech sector that is missing in New York’s governing bodies, but also the culture, philosophy and enterprising spirit that comes with it.” Diversity among elected representatives can take many forms, and this is a new one to consider.

Read the entire article here

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