This was a big week for tech and policy in the region. In most communities around the U.S., tech innovation and policy formulation are happening independently of one another. Of course, these two things eventually collide, as they did Tuesday at the Portland City Council work session on facial recognition technology.
The City of Portland is contemplating banning the use of facial recognition technology by city government out of concerns that the technology presents issues related to racial and gender bias and data privacy more generally. The City is also proposing adopting restrictions on the use of the technology in public places, including private establishments open to the public.
As was typical of most Council sessions (and as is typical in most communities), various interested groups presented testimony, one after the other. Rather than a discussion, it was a series of presentations, with remarks interspersed by members of Council. We were all talking at or past one another rather than with one another.
Neither my testimony nor that provided by the Portland Business Alliance swayed members of Council in reconsidering whether a ban of one specific type of technology would be effective in achieving the stated policy outcomes. However, another point I raised in my testimony is that the speed at which technology innovation is occuring requires a more nimble, agile and collaborative approach to policy making. One that involves getting community groups, the tech industry, and government at the same table. Talking with one another rather than at one another. This resonated with Mayor Wheeler.
As was reported by Kate Kaye of GeekWire, Mayor Wheeler stated on Tuesday that he saw an opportunity to find some common ground. First, though, we would need to get some of these groups together. On Tuesday, Commissioner Hardesty demanded that the tech industry take the lead in initiating a convening.
On Friday, March 13th, we will be doing exactly that. The City has agreed to host a tech innovation and policy summit. We are organizing this in collaboration with a variety of public, private, nonprofit and academic sector representatives, including the Portland IQ and Fresh Consulting (formerly Uncorked Studios). In Prosper Portland, we have one of the first economic development agencies in the country to go all-in on inclusive economic development. In Portland State University, we have the largest and most diverse student body of any higher ed institution in the state. These are important partners in this work.
Change is underway in Portland, and the pace is accelerating. Undoubtedly, the proliferation of technology is one factor among many in that equation. It is often said in the media and by business leaders that, to be successful in governing in this day and age, elected leaders must understand technology and also understand an increasingly diverse set of constituents. I would argue that success does not need to be that complicated. Effective governing requires one thing–leadership. In this case, that means bringing together some tech community thought-leaders with thought-leaders from other communities to identify concerns and move toward some common ground. The Mayor demonstrated that on Tuesday.
The City has a number of district-scale redevelopment opportunities on the horizon–the Broadway Corridor, ODOT Blocks, OMSI, South Waterfront, the Post Office site, etc. What if each of these were viewed as a potential “testbed” or “living laboratory” within which technologies could be deployed and tested alongside innovative policies that take into account the needs and concerns of local residents and businesses? Rather than a top-down, “waterfall” approach to the creation of policy, what if these sites were used to perfect an agile, community-centered, collaborative approach? This is human-centric “smart cities” innovation at a neighborhood scale.
The idea would be to learn and iterate, project by project. Interested community groups should be able to voice concerns and help frame the experiments. By publishing the results, we can make a meaningful contribution to communities around the country and world that are grappling with the same things. As the Mayor pointed out, such an approach would enable Portland to establish boundaries and conditions where appropriate, but it’s most definitely not “anti-tech”; it’s pro-innovation. To be sure, what startup or growth-stage tech company wouldn’t want to be based in a community that is willing to provide test environments, feedback and visibility for new, emerging technologies?
And this is Portland’s opportunity to shine. As individuals, our actions define us more than our words. This is also true of communities. In Portland, this is our chance to co-create “what’s next”.
While we cannot invite everyone to this event on March 13th due to space constraints, this is going to be the start of a series of on-going conversations, projects, and–hopefully–policies with multiple opportunities to engage and contribute. We will be providing regular updates here as this work progresses. If you are interested in getting involved, we want to HEAR FROM YOU.