Issues

City Permitting Is Complicated. Technology Can Make It Easier.

When big companies build new office or commercial spaces, they have teams of lawyers and consultants who help them navigate the permitting process.

Small-business owners don’t have that same luxury, and city hall can often be a confusing place.

That’s where OpenCounter comes in. The tech company works with cities to make the permitting process easier and more tech friendly. They take the many rules and regulations a new business owner might need to understand and present them in an intuitive way through their online portal.

It’s an idea that more cities could use to help spur new business. In a conversation with CALinnovates Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan, OpenCounter co-founder Peter Koht pointed out that America is 49th in the world for ease of starting a businesses and 33rd for ease of construction permitting. These complications create real problems for new business owners.

“This is not a problem unique to California,” said Koht. “We need citizen-focused permitting.”

Koht and his co-founder, Joel Mahoney, approached the problem from a design point of view. The information that new businesses need is mostly already on a city’s website. OpenCounter uses algorithms and natural language to present that information in a way that more people can easily use.

Listen to the full interview below:

Like what you hear? Subscribe to A Step Ahead on iTunes.

Graham Richard Is Bringing Business And Government Together To Encourage Clean Energy

There’s enormous potential in clean energy. Not only will it finally wean us off of harmful fossil fuels, but it will create an entire new industry with lots of new jobs.

But in order to make this vision of the future a reality, businesses and government need to work together. That’s where Graham Richard comes in.

The former mayor of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Richard is now chief executive of Advanced Energy Economy, a San Francisco-based advocacy firm that is working to bring about a “prosperous economy based on secure, clean, affordable energy.” Richard works with companies such as Apple and Facebook that want to purchase more clean energy. He also works with federal and local governments to put policies in place that encourage the growth of the clean-energy sector.

“I’m more optimistic today than I have ever been,” Richard told CALInnovates Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan during an interview for the podcast “A Step Ahead.” “Because of innovative forces, the job-generating and economic impacts are becoming more effectively understood.”

Richard understands that in order to bring about a truly robust renewable economy, we need more than clever entrepreneurs coming up with great ideas like Nest and Tesla. We need the government to make fundamental changes in the way utilities are built and regulated. Instead of siloed regulations that look at things like the energy grid and renewables as different beasts, we need system-wide regulation that can bring lots of different players to the same table.

“Innovation in environmental technology is creating a $200 billion market,” says Richard. “That could climb to a $1 trillion market by 2030 and create new jobs all across the country.” If everyone comes together to make it happen.

Listen to the full interview below:

Like what you hear? Subscribe to A Step Ahead on iTunes.

Kyra Worthy Is Helping The City Of Richmond Help Itself

As the executive director at For Richmond, Kyra Worthy is a tireless advocate for the people of Richmond, a working-class community located north of Berkeley and just across the San Francisco Bay from tony Mill Valley.

Worthy’s job is to help the people of Richmond live up to their full potential through better education and better jobs. She helps students and parents navigate the tricky waters of education beyond high school by working with historically black colleges to send promising students to college summer programs and then to four-year programs. She makes sure that when companies promise jobs for the community, they deliver, and that residents are prepared to fill those jobs.

For Richmond helps lots of people, but Worthy says there is still more work to be done.

“To have this negative cloud over the city as if folks aren’t ready [to work] is really doing an injustice for folks who just sort of skip over Richmond,” says Worthy. “People try to make the answers for the community instead of engaging the community.” She’s working to turn that around.

Listen to “A Step Ahead”‘s full interview with Worthy below:

Like what you hear? Subscribe to A Step Ahead on iTunes.

Technology Can Help Heal This Divided Country

By Mike Montgomery

On Tuesday night, America was hit with an earthquake. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. What Tuesday showed is that we are a country that is even more deeply divided than many of us thought.

At the heart of that division is a schism between the haves and the have nots. People who feel they have been left behind by the government and the economy may not have been heard by pollsters but they made themselves heard loud and clear Tuesday when they voted for radical change at the top level of government.

While it may be an uncomfortable situation, those of us in the tech space need to talk about the role technology played in that divide.

Those of us living in the iPhone bubble may believe that things like online banking, video calls and streaming music are part of the everyday life of all Americans but that’s not true. We still live in a country that has a very real digital divide.

Studies from the Pew Research Center show that people who earn less money and are less educated also have less access to the internet. While 88% of adults earning more than $150,000 per year have broadband at home, only 45% of those earning under $30,000 a year have the same access. Ninety percent of people at the top income level have smartphones compared to 53% of those at the bottom.

As more and more of the services that people rely on move online, those at the bottom are truly being left behind. They have less access to things like employment websites, online education and new banking options. Without fast access to the internet they are increasingly isolated.

Then there’s the very real problem of job displacement. While technology has made many things easier in our lives, it’s also made a lot of jobs redundant. By 2020 robots will have replaced an estimated 5 million jobs, according to the World Economic Forum. Those people who feel that the jobs they once relied on are deserting their communities — they’re right.

But here’s the thing. I also believe that technology can help solve these problems. Knowing the benefits that come from more people having access to the internet we can put policies in place to close the digital divide. We need policies that encourage states to upgrade their infrastructures to bring broadband to everyone.

We need to accept the reality that the economy, and with it the future of work, is changing fundamentally and it’s not changing back. We can’t pretend that we’re headed for a resurgence of reliable factory jobs.

Instead, let’s enact policies that train people for the jobs of the future. Let’s have a minimum wage so that those in the growing service industry earn enough to take care of their families. And let’s seriously consider things like wage insurance so that when people move into jobs that have less consistent income, they can still count on steady earnings.

But let’s also make sure that at a state level, we don’t overcorrect and put so many regulations in place that we chill new businesses. If the economy is going to grow, we need to encourage our tech entrepreneurs to continue to come up with new ideas that are going to drive the economy of the future.

These ideas are not liberal or conservative, they’re common sense. They are ideas that people on both sides of the aisle can, and should, come together to support.

With the election behind us, it’s time for both sides to work together to heal the problems we saw so nakedly exposed on Tuesday night. Our future depends on it.

The 3 Words Shaking The Tech Sector: President Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency was a political earthquake that leaves the structural integrity of Silicon Valley’s economy in question.

“It’s the dawn of America that I think everyone is trying to put their finger on,” CALinnovates Executive Director Mike Montgomery told Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan on a special post-election episode of their podcast, “A Step Ahead.”

Right now, it’s hard to say what a Trump presidency portends for innovation, technology and public policy. Whereas Clinton had a detailed section in her policy platform dedicated to technology and innovation policy, Trump’s campaign hasn’t offered such guidance.

One thing we have some insight into, however, is Trump’s stance on immigration, which Montgomery says could have grave implications for talent acquisition, entrepreneurism and economic growth in California. For example, the H-1B visa program brings in a large portion of the talented coders who keep Silicon Valley humming. If he restricts skilled visas to make jobs available to Americans, that could hinder growth at high-tech companies. And the lack of a robust talent pipeline, already a concern for the tech sector, could become even more dire if the state’s top universities no longer matriculate STEM students from foreign countries.

If the new administration doesn’t show a commitment to creating conditions that appeal to businesses here in the U.S., might we see a tech drain out of the U.S.? “I certainly hope not,” says Rajan. “But I think it’s something that we have to think about.”

Listen to the full interview below:

Like what you hear? Subscribe to A Step Ahead on iTunes.

The Cautionary Tale Of George Hotz And The Self-Driving Car

by Mike Montgomery

George Hotz is one of the best-known hackers in America. At just 17 years old, he was the first person to unlock an iPhone so it could be used by multiple carriers. He cracked the security on the PS3 and was sued by Sony. The two settled out of court with Hotz promising he would never again tinker with Sony security.

After years of angering corporations, Hotz decided to go legit, trading in his black hat for a white one, signifying his status as a newly minted good guy. He worked for both Facebook and Google before starting his own company Comma.ai, last year. At this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, he unveiled the company’s first product — the Comma One, a $999 box that could help make Honda Civics and some Acuras almost self-driving cars.

But then, last week, any excitement Hotz’s announcement had created disappeared because of some regulatory intervention. All it took was one sharply worded letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for Hotz to pack up his toys and go home. The letter, which Hotz posted here, said that the NHTSA needed to ensure that the device didn’t have a “safety-related defect” that might put drivers in danger.

In a series of tweets, Hotz said: “Would much rather spend my life building amazing technology than dealing with regulators and lawyers. It isn’t worth it. The comma one [sic] is canceled. Comma.ai will be exploring other markets and products. Hello from Shenzhen, China.”

But Hotz’s story isn’t about a new product being regulated to death; it’s about entrepreneurs who fail to take the realities of our government into account when they start to build their companies. Certainly, the NHTSA was simply doing its job ensuring public safety, and perhaps the agency could have communicated its concerns in gentler way rather than Napstering the potentially revolutionary device. But had Hotz gone into this with a team that understood the regulatory environment, this axle-breaking speed bump could have been avoided.

Read the full article here.

Why Election Technology Is Stuck In The Stone Age

by Mike Montgomery

In the past, technology firm Democracy Live has used a cloud-based platform to send ballots to U.S. military and overseas citizens around the world. Submariners, ambassadors in Paris and scientists working in an Antarctic lab are among those who have cast their votes using this electronic ballot.

But they are the outliers. We can buy movie tickets, order cars and even pay our taxes online, but for most of us, voting is a distinctly analog experience. We walk into a polling place and have our names penciled off by hand in a giant ledger before entering a booth with our paper ballot and pen or ink blotter.

So when will we see the era of online voting? The short and quick answer: no time soon.

“Voters are satisfied in the way they cast their ballots,” says Eric Jaye of consulting firm Storefront Political Media. “They prefer the security of a paper ballot and have worked to ensure even when the vote is cast technologically, there is a paper record.”

Democracy Live President Bryan Finney points out that most stateside voters (eight out of 10) this election will be marking their choices on paper or using an electric machine that creates a paper trail, even though that can actually cost more than if the states were to upgrade their voting to an online system.

That’s because security is still paramount. As we saw with the recent hack that took out Twitter, Netflix and other sites by exploiting the Internet of Things, there are real issues around online security, and until they are addressed, government officials are understandably wary of trusting something as important as an election to the internet.

Read the full article here.

Anti-Airbnb law will line the pockets of big hotel owners

by Mike Montgomery

Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a huge mistake Oct. 21 when he signed into law a bill that restricts home sharing in New York. The new law will hurt homeowners and visitors and only help a group that doesn’t need any: the hotel industry.

The law allows for fines of up to $7,500 on anyone advertising a home rental available for fewer than 30 nights when the owner is not present. Thousands of people in New York who have been making extra money by renting out rooms (or their entire home) will suddenly be denied an important source of income.

The governor and his cronies claim that the law is being imposed to protect affordable housing, but this argument is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Everyone loves affordable housing, and who wouldn’t want to protect it? But the real aim of this bill is to give a big, sloppy kiss to the hotel industry.

And the industry’s delight was palpable. Hotel owners could barely contain their glee when they heard the news. Mike Barnello, the CEO of LaSalle Hotel Properties, which owns (among others) the Park Central, the Roger and Gild Hall near Wall Street, openly admitted that the bill will help him raise room prices.

On a recent earnings call he told investors that the new law should be a “big boost in the arm for the business … certainly in terms of the pricing.”

Helping hotel owners raise room rates while cutting off home sharing options to all socioeconomic classes will have a negative ripple effect on local economies. Our research has found that for every dollar spent at a hotel, 60% leaves the state and goes to corporate headquarters, many of which reside outside of the United States. But for every dollar spent on a home share, 87% stays in the community.

That means that New York is taking money out of neighborhoods and sending it to multibillion-dollar, multinational corporations with little incentive to reinvest in the communities in which they operate. It’s also going to force visitors to spend more on their hotel rooms, which means they’ll have less money to spend on things like shopping, shows and dining.

And let’s remember New York is more than just New York City. The new law means that a couple in upstate New York counting on home sharing to earn some extra money from tourists coming to see the fall foliage, suddenly face a massive fine just for listing their home. New York City might not be in desperate need of revenue that stays in the community, but other cities and towns are. They shouldn’t be penalized in this egregious way.

Read the full article here.

Smart Companies Like Disney Show Why the FCC Is Wrong on Set-Top Boxes

by Mike Montgomery

t’s hard to see what’s missing at Disney. The giant entertainment company (one of the biggest companies in the world with a $147 billion market cap) already has Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar, ABC, ESPN, theme parks, hotels and TV channels galore.

But even Disney, as big and powerful as it is, must make deals with distribution partners such as Comcast, Netflix and Apple to get its movies and TV shows delivered to consumers in the manner they desire. So it wasn’t a huge surprise to many media watchers when Disney CEO Bob Iger announced earlier this month that the company was considering buying Netflix or Twitter in order to have its own distribution platform.

“The biggest thing we’re trying to do now is figure out what technology’s role is in distributing the great content that we have,” Iger told the crowd at the Boston College Chief Executives Club. “It’s one thing to be as fortunate as we are to have [our content] but in today’s world, it’s almost not enough … unless you have access to your consumers.”

Now, Disney may never actually buy either Netflix or Twitter, but the point is that when smart people in the media world are thinking about how to get close to the consumer, they are coming up with creative, market-driven solutions – not by asking the government for favors.

Over the past few years the way we consume entertainment has changed in unimaginable ways. People can watch what they want where they want when they want. Children coming of age today have no concept of a linear TV schedule where you have to be in your living room at a certain time to watch your favorite show. To them the world of TV and movies is just an endless giant living library that can be accessed from almost anywhere.

This kind of creative disruption is healthy for an industry and it’s exciting to see creators and innovators rising to the challenge.

And it’s crucial that this movement not be stopped by the FCC.

Read the full article here.

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