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San Francisco Wants to Require Companies To Get Permits Before Rolling Out ‘Emerging Technology’

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Companies in San Francisco might soon to be required to get a permission slip from the city before rolling out their new innovations in public spaces.

On Tuesday, Norman Yee, president of the city’s Board of Supervisors, introduced a bill that would create the Office of Emerging Technology (OET). Entrepreneurs looking to deploy any emerging technology “upon, above, or below” city properties or public rights-of-way would need to first obtain a pilot permit from the OET’s director.

“As a city, we must ensure that such technologies ultimately result in a net common good and that we evaluate the costs and benefits so that our residents, workers and visitors are not unwittingly made guinea pigs of new tech,” said Yee in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Over the years San Francisco’s tech companies have deployed all kinds of inventions in public spaces, including package delivery robots and dockless electric scooters. But because these innovations were, well, innovative, no specific rules initially existed to govern their use.

That has irritated city residents and officials who’ve resented new vehicles popping up in public space without specific rules governing their operation.

Naturally, city officials have scrambled to create what they consider to be appropriate regulations, which has proved chaotic and heavy-handed. To smooth out this process, Yee has proposed the OET as a sort of regulatory catchall department that will tailor regulations for each new innovation before they hit city streets.

Under Yee’s bill, companies wanting to try out emergent technologies would have to secure a permit from OET. OET’s director would be empowered to reject permit applications or otherwise require applicants to abide by any conditions he or she deems necessary to protect “the public peace, safety, health, and welfare” of pedestrians and other users of public spaces.

Provided companies can convince OET their new technology is a net win for the public good, they would be given permission to run a pilot program. This permission would be in addition to any other permits or licenses required by San Francisco’s existing regulatory bodies.

Members of the public could also request a public hearing on any new emergent technology company seeking a permit.

OET-sanctioned pilot programs would last for up to a year, after which time the office would determine if the technology is safe, secure, and provides for the common good, says a spokesperson for Yee’s office. Provided it did, recommendations would be made to either extend the pilot or create a more permanent permit program.

Yee sees this more restrictive, precautionary approach as vindicated by history.

“When I tried to ban the delivery robots, I was seen as anti-tech,” he said at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “A few weeks later when hundreds of scooters were dumped on our sidewalks, everyone understood.”

Yee’s bill—which was developed with the input of tech companies and other city departments—is also intended to streamline things for businesses who are often unsure which city permissions they need to secure before rolling out their new idea.

But the trouble with trying to predict the problems of innovation is that innovation is inherently unpredictable, says Michael Munger, a political scientist at Duke University.

“Regulators cannot possibly foresee the consequences of most tech (and neither can I, or anyone else),” writes Munger in an email. That’s why, he says, governments should instead “lay out the principles of safety, health, and privacy, and have quick and substantial sanctions for violations of the principles.”

A system that requires companies to ask for permission before innovating, he says, could also easily be abused by competitors trying to stifle new rivals from entering the market.

There is also a concern that any OET director will be pressured to use the huge amount of discretion they have to require companies to bend over backward for entrenched interest groups.

That’s essentially what’s happened with dockless scooters. The vehicles emerged on city streets in early 2018 only to be declared a public nuisance and impounded en masse.

Come next week, four scooter companies will finally be allowed to operate under a new permanent permit program—which replaces a current pilot program—but only after they came up with detailed plans for boosting low-income ridership, furthering equity, adopting good labor practices, and conducting proper community engagement.

The city currently approves housing through a model similar to the one Yee is proposing. Developers have to meet a long list of requirements before being allowed to build, community groups have ample opportunities to provide input, and city officials often have the discretion to reject projects or heavily condition their approval.

This has proven pretty disastrous for the well-established development industry. It’s anyone’s guess what it will do to startups trying out new ideas to see what sticks.

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