Cycle of Civic Innovation

1*lGHFflHc2sAQXQVlNaK68g.pngIf cities are to thrive, they cannot — and must not — hold back the rising tide of innovation, but when you consider that cities are also tasked with protecting their citizens from harm, finding the balance between protection and innovation is not easily achieved.

For Airbnb and Uber, their respective disruptions of the status quo were widely embraced by the public — just as their problems have been widely criticized. Both companies are part of the Sharing Economy, which came on the scene around the turn of the century and encompasses a wide variety of companies based on peer-to-peer sharing of access to goods and services.

By embracing the unique approach of the Sharing Economy, both companies enjoyed a meteoric rise to global adoption, but both companies have also been plagued with lawsuits and resistance from governments concerned over the lack of protection for citizens and the inability to regulate or collect conventional taxes from these innovative startups which often operate outside of current regulatory structures.

Airbnb

When Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia came up with the crazy idea of using a few air mattresses on the floor of their apartment to sell sleeping spaces to attendees of a sold-out tradeshow, both were unemployed and just looking to make a few bucks to pay their rent. Their impromptu “Air Bed and Breakfast”, complete with un-toasted Pop-Tarts, landed three paying guests — and the short-term rental platform, Airbnb, was born.

Despite early skepticism that people would not want to spend the night with complete strangers, Airbnb grew in popularity by building an online platform which, among other things, removed the barriers so that anyone with an extra room could easily earn extra income. In addition, the platform focused on delivering a unique experience by enabling travelers to live like locals and enjoy the conveniences of home at a fraction of the cost of staying in a hotel.

While a majority of visitors have had positive experiences using the platform’s services, an increase in reported mishaps, injuries and crimeshave lawmakers concerned. In fact, many cities are not making it easy to operate an Airbnb rental, including global tourist destinations like Paris, Amsterdam, London, San Francisco and New York City.

Taking it a step further, some city and state governments are pursuing legal action, with one New York City apartment owner now facing a $300,000 lawsuitfiled by the owners of her building in response to a city administrative law judge fining the landlord for their tenant’s “bad acts”.

And, of course, the short-lived Airbnb listing for a $200/night igloo which was hastily constructed after a blizzard in New York City, while humorous, highlights the inability of the company to fully control the quality or honesty of the listings on its platform.

Airbnb is making some effort to address mounting concerns by offering a compromise of sorts at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, promising the mayors in attendance that in exchange for their support, Airbnb would begin collecting upwards of $200 Million in new taxes within 50 of the largest cities in the U.S.

In addition, the company’s pledge of transparency and release of New York City data was lauded by many as a step in the right direction. But others, like Mark Headd, a longtime advocate for open data and government, pointed out that the release of data is only one small step in the right direction, especially since the data was never published in a digital format. In fact, anyone wanting to view the highly redacted data had to do so in person at Airbnb’s New York office.

Uber: Destined to Repeat the Past?

In 2013, four people filed a lawsuit against Uber claiming the company should classify drivers as employees instead of contractors and asking for reimbursement of such expenses as gas, insurance and car maintenance.

Today, that lawsuit has attained class-action status and mushroomed to encompass 160,000 individuals worldwide. It is but one of many lawsuits and complaints lodged against ride-hailing startups which are disrupting the taxi industry.

Eric Posner points out in his 2015 essay that something quite similar happened to the taxi industry in the 1920’s with the introduction of the mass-produced automobile. In New York City, riders hoping to avoid the higher cab fares would hail part-time drivers who were using their own personal vehicles.

As more independent drivers took advantage of this opportunity, the glut of unregulated drivers negatively impacted taxis to the extent that the government stepped in and began issuing medallions to registered taxis in an attempt to stabilize the industry and protect consumers.

Today’s taxi drivers often spend years paying off loans to afford their medallion, which until recently cost over $1 Million — and it is the cost of those medallions which many attribute as the catalyst for the success of today’s new ride-sharing companies like Uber.

And just to bring things full circle, in late 2015 cab drivers filed a lawsuit against New York City, claiming that the city misled cab drivers about the value of the required medallions and that the city has allowed companies like Uber to usurp the property rights of cab drivers through disparate regulation.

Disrupting the Cycle of Civic Innovation

It would be easy to blame the dysfunction within the cycle of civic innovation on the failure of lawmakers and regulations to keep pace with innovation, but, in a chicken-and-egg sort of quandary, the more difficult question is whether it is this perceived dysfunction, this lack of regulation, that makes it possible for innovation to even happen.

Neither Uber nor Airbnb were overnight successes; it took years of testing and pivots to achieve market adoption. By innovating outside of the system, the companies were able to disrupt established industries and deliver new options to consumers. And while the hour of reckoning with heavier government regulation appears to be nigh, innovation resulted from freedom of inventing outside of those regulations.

In today’s rapid pace of technology changes, cities have discovered they cannot innovate fast enough to keep pace with the constantly changing smart city and civic tech inventions which are already beginning to deliver more efficiency and easier access to city services and information.

Many government agencies are partnering with this new breed of tech startups despite the barriers of outdated 20th Century regulations by implementing new procedures to experiment or implement pilot programs. As more cities disrupt their own established procurement processes, the question is whether cities will become tomorrow’s disruptive innovators.

If cities can collaborate with private enterprise to keep pace with new technologies while simultaneously addressing needed changes to regulations — we might be witnessing the best disruptive innovation yet.

this article first appeared on inc.com

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Watch New Mexico Rise: A Conversation with Peter Ambs, CIO, Albuquerque

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Peter Ambs, CIO, City of Albuquerque, NM

How do you implement twenty years’ worth of innovative technology in record time?

Start with a Mayor that has the innovative vision and drive to upgrade years’ worth of obsolete, archaic business systems and processes while simultaneously creating an innovative, entrepreneurial ecosystem that spurs community economic development.

Shortly after taking office, Mayor Richard Berry of the City of Albuquerque, recognized the need to modernize and create efficiencies in how the city works internally and provides services to its citizens. Through his initiatives, Albuquerque became an early innovator of the smart city movement, establishing one of the world’s first open data policies and portals as well as promoting unique purchasing processes which spurred departmental adoption of new technologies and made it easier to collaborate with startups and innovators in civic technology.

I was thrilled when our Albuquerque-based startup, APPCityLife, was invited to collaborate with the city prior to the open data launch. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of seeing those efforts pay off with significant savings to the city, better processes for addressing the needs of citizens, and greater transparency. It has also generated broader community interaction and served as part of the catalyst of change for the city’s entrepreneurial community, resulting in commitments and collaboration with organizations like Living Cities, the Kauffman Foundation, Bloomberg Cities, and Code for America.

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I recently visited with Peter Ambs, the City of Albuquerque’s CIO. He is the visionary behind the overhaul of the city’s IT infrastructure as well as the implementation of innovative initiatives such as creating an open data portal and has been a significant driver in New Mexico’s rise. The challenge to innovate, he says, began from the top.

“In the very beginning of Mayor Berry’s tenure, he made it clear that we were to embark upon a mission of improving and optimizing the inefficient and obsolete business systems that were in place and creating a drag on the organization,” says Ambs.  “We were also to create an atmosphere and culture of innovation that would radically transform the government/citizen relationship – we needed to better connect our citizens to City government.”

Lofty goals are important places to start, but turning goals into completed milestones is no easy task. Ambs describes that process. “To do this, we have put digital processes at the core of how we do business and provide city services. By upgrading and implementing functionality within the City’s business systems, we have been able to digitally streamline the Financial, Human Resources, and Procurement process to fully achieve automated workflow processes,” says Ambs. He says those upgrades are already paying off. “Payroll process times have been cut in half, and the time to compile and publish financial reports has been reduced by months.”

But it wasn’t just about upgrading; it was also about bringing in innovation, says Ambs.

“We performed the process improvements while innovating at the same time.  We needed to radically innovate while optimizing operations.  Again, Mayor Berry was central to this as we stood up the transparency and open data portals to match his vison of openness and accountability in government.  By publishing ‘open data’, we spawned the dawning of ‘civic tech’.  We moved data that had traditionally been stored behind city firewalls and made it available to the public. By making this data available, citizens and civic tech developers can take this data and synthesize it into meaningful information which helps create a smarter and more livable city.”

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I also had the opportunity to hear Amb’s view of our own company’s role in the city’s adoption of civic tech. “APPCityLife was at the forefront of this movement, creating a portfolio of civic apps for Albuquerque.  A good example is ABQ RIDE, which provides real-time bus location and route schedule information and has transformed how our citizens receive information about our public transportation system.” The app also features route-specific filtered push notices for delays, emergencies or route changes and bike route mapping.

The city worked with several early civic tech startups as they explored new avenues of innovation, including See Click Fix, who collaborated with the city to deliver 311 services to citizens via a mobile app. “The ABQ311 app is another example of how we have digitally connected citizens to City services,” says Ambs. “Early on, Mayor Berry told me he wanted an app where he could take a picture of a situation that needed a City service  – like a pot hole or graffiti – and have that ticket entered and assigned to the City Department responsible for remediation.  We now have that app and many more that provide information and access to City services and amenities.”

Ambs’ long-term plan has allowed the city to move quickly.

Says Ambs, “We adopted the attitude of ‘two-speed’ IT, where one IT area focuses on the running of the business, keeping the lights on, and the other area focuses on innovation and disruptive technologies.  By bifurcating IT this way, we have the ability to go fast (innovative) while not jeopardizing the business of running the City.  We also tend to get the buy-in and sponsorship much better when the business owners (the Departments) own and sponsor their innovation projects; IT becomes more of a facilitator.  A good example of this is our Planning Department, running and owning the new application to allow for online permitting, licensing, and business registrations.”

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It was because of the city’s creative approach to innovation projects that our own company was able to build a globally-focused end-to-end mobile platform  for civic app development.  Through apps like ABQ BioPark, which features cool new tech like beacon integration and Roadrunner Food Bank‘s game-changing food finding app, we’ve continued to add civic-focused features. The platform’s rapid prototyping and open source templating features make it possible to quickly and easily integrate mobile and spur innovation to a wider network of cities and govtech companies.

What is most exciting is that Ambs says open data is just the beginning.”We are just now scratching the surface of what open data and innovation can do to create a smarter and more livable city,” he says. “We want to see Albuquerque and its citizens enabled with a raised digital quotient that will sustain innovation such that civic tech companies such as APPCityLife and others can flourish and provide economic mobility to our citizens.”

It’s been a privilege to have been even a small part of the changes happening in Albuquerque. Thanks to the committed efforts of many in our community like Peter Ambs, we’ve made the leap not just into the present but are moving full steam ahead into the future of civic tech. It’s exciting to watch New Mexico rise.

This post also published on What’s APPening® and Huffington Post.
Note: APPCityLife has worked with the City of Albuquerque since 2012.

Why Getting Rich Is A Bad Reason To Launch A Business

 

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Wealth shouldn’t be the goal; it’s a byproduct of getting other things right: innovation, tenacity, market savvy. Focus on those.

Several quotes have been floating around Twitter about startup and founder goals being focused on getting rich or creating massive wealth in order to not have to work hard in the future. Those have it all wrong. Ask a group of fifth graders whether they want to be rich and not work when they’re all grown up, and you’ll be lucky to find one among the group that doesn’t agree that being rich is “the goal”. Being rich looks like the easy way out, but if wealth made our problems go away, we wouldn’t see celebrities going off the rails or being self-destructive. Wealth should not be the goal for anything we do in life.

We forget that money is a tool. It is not happiness. It is not rest from difficult experiences. It is not love. It is not success. Wealth is a byproduct of getting a lot of other things right. It should not be a goal – it should be something nice that happens when we get all those other things right.

The desire to be rich so that we can cease from our labor will never carry us through the difficult experiences that are a part of every startup journey. It takes a fire burning within, a passion to see a vision through to its culmination. Nothing short of that will provide enough reservoir to carry us through the setbacks that come with creating something from nothing. It is far easier to show up and get a paycheck from someone else than it is to risk our financial security because we believe in our vision, and if our goal is simply to get rich, pick the first path, because the chances of building at least some wealth working for someone else is far better than becoming filthy rich from an exponential exit of your startup.

Don’t launch a business in hopes that it will mean you don’t have to work someday. I always tell people that when you own your own business, you get to choose the hours you want to work; it just happens that it becomes all the hours you possibly can work. Launch a company because you believe you have something new to offer that will change an industry or solve a real problem that needs solving. Launch a business because you believe so much in your idea that it eats at you day and night, and you simply must see if it is possible.

Don’t launch a business because you want to be rich enough someday to not work. Work is what makes us respect ourselves, like ourselves, believe in ourselves. The fruit of our labor is an accomplishment that builds character and gives us confidence to try more difficult challenges. Laboring towards a goal is what makes us wake up in the morning with purpose. Don’t wish away the results of work; in the end, it will be what makes us who we are.

Wealth is a byproduct of so many other things going right; focus on those things instead. And then, whether wealth comes or not, we’ll find we’re happier, more confident and more equipped to face our future than before.