Hawaii's Governor: Governments should be agile to tech disruptions
The dockless scooter craze is just the latest symbol of how governments have been grappling with how to both encourage new technology but also protect its citizens. It’s a difficult balance that cities, counties and states across the U.S. are struggling with.
Hawaii’s Governor David Ige — who is running for re-election later this year — says it’s important for governments to “embrace change,” maintain flexibility, and “support risk-taking.”
"If governments can’t be flexible, we can’t keep up with the pace of change in communities,” Ige said at the VERGE Hawaii conference in Honolulu on Tuesday afternoon.
Case in point is Hawaii’s own brush with dockless scooters. When Lime deployed 200 of the electric scooters around Honolulu last month, the city called legal foul and considered fines and other penalties. Officials liked the idea of battery-powered vehicles and reducing vehicle miles driven, but couldn’t allow rampant driving on sidewalks and blocking walkways with parked scooters.
“Folks really want this last-mile solution [dockless scooters] but it can’t cause pandemonium for everyone,” said Joshua Stanbro, Honolulu’s chief resilience officer and executive director of the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency. The government should act as a “protective hand,” he explained.
Of course, city and state governments can’t be as agile and quick to react to technology as the private sector. “Our whole point is to protect the general public,” Stanbro said.
But governments can create models and put down parameters to try to leverage the best benefits of these types of tech disruptions and protect citizens from the worst effects. The emergence of Airbnb, and the manner in which cities have introduced home-sharing regulations, has provided one template for how to set restrictions around a disruptive tech startup, but also continue to enable the positive results.
“If you look at Airbnb, and that has shook the market, but people demand it,” Stanbro said. “That [Airbnb task force] model would likely get adopted for the last mile transit piece. How do we set the ground rules. . . so it’s not the wild west, and everyone can agree to a baseline,” said Stanbro.
Much of the balancing act is about creating an environment where government can respond to these disruptions in a timely manner — instead of either completely blocking them, letting the upstarts run roughshod, or being frozen with bureaucracy.
On the flipside, sometimes when startups don’t push cities in these scenarios, the services can suffer. Scoot Networks, an electric scooter-sharing startup, saw its e-bike sharing plans hit a bureaucratic wall as it played by the rules and maintained a friendly relationship with the city of San Francisco.
Instead the scooter upstarts went rogue and pushed the city to make a move. Now San Francisco is contending with a wave of dockless scooter companies that are all scrambling for just 5 permits. Meanwhile, dockless e-scooters have been temporarily blocked in San Francisco until the permits are doled out.
It's not surprising that city and state governments are moving more slowly. While startups can fail quickly — and entrepreneurs can go on to do other things — governments can’t afford big failures. “We can’t have huge sunk costs,” Stanbro said. “I think it’s important for folks to fail in the swimming lanes that you’ve set up." Stanbro clarified this comment to explain: "I think it's important for us to set up swimming lanes that benefit the public, then let the private sector innovate and sink or swim within them."
But even responding to disruptions can have its own risks for governments. “I try to support directors so there is the risk-taking that needs to occur, and so that there are employees who feel empowered to try something different in order to see whether it would work,” Governor Ige said.
As governments work out the balancing act, responding to these tech disruptions will get easier, policymakers said. "These are atrophied muscles, and stuff that we haven’t encountered before. But we're developing these systems internally," Stanbro said.
Updated with clarifications from Joshua Stanbro, Honolulu’s chief resilience officer and executive director of the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency.