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NYC’s tech chiefs discuss how to build a smart city

Chief Digital Officer Sree Sreenivasan and Chief Technology Officer Miguel Gamiño Jr. spoke to the second cohort of Urban-X, A/D/O's resident accelerator for connected-city startups. It got philosophical.

As we’ve noted before, Brooklyn — and New York at large — now has an abundance of “smart cities” programs, all focused on supporting tech companies that address thorny issues, from energy to transportation, related to urban living. But on the policy level, what is New York itself doing to make itself a smart city?

On Thursday at A/D/O, the recently opened makerspace in Greenpoint, the city’s chief digital officer, Sree Sreenivasan, and chief technology officer, Miguel Gamiño Jr., addressed that question. The two opened an event dedicated to giving attendees a sneak peek at the work of the second cohort of Urban-X, A/D/O’s resident accelerator for “smart cities” startups. (More to come on that in another post.) It was also an opportunity for attendees to become acquainted with Gamiño, who was previously the chief information officer of San Francisco and was appointed to his current position in October.

“I get to put in my new guy card here,” he joked at one point, in response to an audience member’s question about the city’s energy-related projects.

Throughout the discussion, Sreenivasan and Gamiño stressed the importance of “breakthrough technology” improving quality of life for all residents, not just a select few. It’s an ever-pressing concern for the tech industry at large, especially in San Francisco, where many longtime residents have protested rising rents and what they perceive as lack of concern for the working class. NYC’s two chief officers are striving to avoid giving off a similar impression here. Sreenivasan (formerly of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and the Metropolitan Museum of Art), in particular, noted one of the city’s advantages: here, innovation is less about disrupting industries and more about collaborating with them.

“Often, you hear about disruption for disruption’s sake,” he said. “But here, the industry that you’re trying to disrupt wants to work with you.”

That’s not to say that the tech industry in New York — and Brooklyn in particular — hasn’t faced its own share of criticism.

Last fall’s Make It in Brooklyn pitch contest, for instance, drew a group of protesters who decried gentrification’s displacement of longtime residents. According to Gamiño, the government can play a critical role in bridging the gap between the industry and tech outsiders. For starters, he said, it needs to ensure that tech is a “positive contributor” to issues such as job opportunity and economic mobility.

“The question is always, ‘How does this move the needle on issues everybody, not just technical people, are interested in?'” Gamiño said.

Sreenivasan acknowledged that businesses, too, have their own gripes about local policy: namely the layers of red tape they have to work their way through, particularly if they’re developing a novel service or product in a highly regulated industry. (Cue 1776, which considers that particular challenge its bread and butter.) Indeed, some regulations devised in previous decades may no longer be suitable for today’s business environment. Sreenivasan offered an interesting piece of advice for entrepreneurs seeking to address that disconnect: having a strong business model goes a long way in the discussion.

“Being a sustainable business is important in order to make it worthwhile for the city to change these regulations,” he said.

The city’s initiative to increase access to broadband — a topic we’ve previously covered here at — also figured heavily in the discussion. Perhaps the most visible piece of this initiative is the city’s public wifi programs, such as LinkNYC and Transit Wireless WiFi, but bolstering high-speed internet access in private residences is also a big goal of the city’s, Gamiño said. (Indeed, it’s a topic Joshua Breitbart, the mayor’s senior broadband adviser, has also addressed.)

Gamiño recounted a story from his time in San Francisco of a woman who thanked him for leaving on a wifi hotspot in a public library after closing — something done completely by accident. As it turned out, her son used the hotspot to complete his homework, since his household didn’t have internet access.

“I was proud and ashamed in the very same moment,” Gamiño said. “If we’re not equally concerned with the tech environment at home, we are widening the digital gap, not narrowing it.”

Aside from the issue of tech access, Gamiño and Sreenivasan also discussed how tech is enhancing innovation in government. Though government still has a rep for moving much more slowly than industry, it has one advantage over the private sector, Gamiño pointed out: there’s no need to see other cities as competitive threats. Indeed, with the rise of the open data movement — Sreenivasan pointed out that the city of New York has released more than 1,600 data sets to date — local governments have begun to share best practices and even source code with each other. Gamiño pointed to San Francisco’s business portal, whose source code the city shared with Los Angeles. When the city of Los Angeles later made improvements to that code, it shared those iterations with San Francisco.

Sreenivasan said he envisions a similar approach for New York City. For starters, in May, the Brooklyn Navy Yard will host the global Smart Cities conference, whose agenda currently includes speakers from Atlanta and even Amsterdam.

“The way we’re going to do this,” he said, “is to partner with great cities in the U.S. and overseas.”

Companies: City of New York
Series: Brooklyn

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