I recall the advice from a VP of Product a years ago: “Don’t become a lawyer. Make things.” Nearby, the head of Policy responded, “But what technology could you make without the rule of law?” He elaborated: apps have half-lives, but policies usually don’t. Good policy can inform technology’s impact, whether it be a burden or a blessing. Now more than ever, he closed, the relationship between technology and policy is vital.
That exchange was ten years ago, but ever since then I have made that intersection my home. I ended up turning down a full-time role at Google, instead joining a new non-profit that recruited technologists into public service for cities. Soon, I realized that buildings new apps was easy; harder was ensuring sustainability, that the cities could really put that tech to work. That required policy. Soon our “coding farm” was just as much as a policy shop.
This kind of policy reform is not easy. “Open data policies” and “agile decision-making” are unfamiliar phrases for most, let alone City Councils. This area requires as much education as persuasion, and the policies were sometimes as novel as the technology. Fortunately, such policies can often be visualized before they are enacted. For instance, a team once developed a new, fairer algorithm for school placement, but a phrase like “algorithm” is as scary as it is unknown. Accordingly, they built a model illustrating the shorter commutes and safer walkways — using real examples for really concerned parents. The policy passed with great support. As have dozens of similar policies around the country, on issues ranging from education and entrepreneurship to homelessness and healthcare.
These kinds of opportunities for local tech policy are emergent and countless, and will not be restricted to any one issue or one country. Cities are everywhere, and everywhere they face common problems. The challenge in the 21st century will not be finding the intersection between technology and urban policy, but finding which intersections can have the greatest global impact.