Friday, March 16, 2018

Using technology to level the playing field in New York

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I had a great conversation with outgoing Chief Technology Officer of New York City Miguel Gamino earlier this month, when I moderated the fireside chat at the fireside chat at the Zahn Innovation Summit, held March 6 at the City College of New York. The full interview is up at U.S. News & World Report, but you can start reading excerpts from our Q&A right here:

Q: How do you see places like the Zahn Center and entrepreneurs in this city benefiting from being in New York rather than out West?

A: What I came and found (in New York) was this very rich and different ecosystem around tech, in large part because the people here are different and diverse, and I don't just mean that in terms of gender, color, ethnicity. I mean people's backgrounds, where they come from and where they're trying to go is much more diverse here than I've experienced on the West Coast.

And the industry (in New York) is diverse. If you're a tech person here, if you're an engineer, you're not just going and trying to get a job at Facebook and Google or the next startup. Here, software engineers are employed by JPMorgan Chase and food startups and biotech startups and light manufacturing ventures. So there are a lot of different angles.

If I were starting a startup again, I would do it here. Because of the people I can access to help me with that. … It's a richer talent pool and there's a lot of opportunity here because you've got so many different industries contributing to the growth of the tech industry.

Q: Your office's broadband initiative also really addresses equity and fairness. In the age of the internet of things, with access to information at our fingertips, it's easy to forget about the 30 percent of New Yorkers who don't have high-speed internet in their homes. How does that affect their daily lives?

A: For some people it might mean not getting to work because they way you go on transit is by buying a ticket on your iPhone. Or it might mean not being able to apply for a job. It's much more pervasive than my ability to stream Netflix or go on Facebook or chat with friends.

So, one (issue) is what it does to you, as a person, when you can't get online. But the deeper impact is the impact it has on the youth and people who don't have a choice.

In schools, for example, we're spending a lot of time and money and we're really proud of progress we're making in classrooms. We make a bunch of progress, a bunch of investments, to do things in our classrooms to modernize them. And we're proud of that, because it's our effort to keep up with the global competition. But what if your child goes home to an internet-connected home, and mine doesn't? And their homework has been assigned online, or they have to do research for their paper online. Your child, regardless of any other factor, has a significant advantage over mine – maybe one that can't be overcome. Because mine won't be able to do that homework nearly as well as yours will, or maybe at all. So, in some ways, if we're really focused on the equity piece in the U.S. or in New York City, those folks who do not have access at home would be better off if we stuck with stone tablets and paper books, because at least they'd have the ability to compete with the classmates they have in their classrooms. Of course, then the rest of the world would eat our lunch.

So that's a long way of getting you to think about the fact that this is not a luxury, it's not just about the talking points of inclusiveness and diversity. If we're really serious about making opportunity available to people in every corner of New York, and if we're really serious about New York competing with cities around the country, and if we're really serious about this city and this country competing with cities and countries around the world, it's no longer optional, when you break it down that way.

Q: I've been told that you hate the word "innovation." Why do you hate it, and what word or words would you prefer people use?

A: I wrote a little blog post about it some time ago. I think it's not only "innovation" but other terms that get thrown around, and they mean nothing because they mean anything or everything. It's all in the eye of the beholder. So, if you're an agency in government or a big company or whatever and you're still using typewriters, then implementing Microsoft Word is going to feel like an innovation, because you're equating the word "innovation" with progress. You think you're innovating, but you're just implementing – you're implementing something that has been there for a minute, you're just maybe late to the game.

And then you have what I call iteration, which is when you were at the implementation phase, but now you're thinking creatively about how to use it differently – and so you think you're innovating, but you're really not, you're iterating. You're taking something that's existing, tweaking it a little bit or changing your business processes to be improved by the use of technology. Again, in that moment, it feels like progress that we inappropriately call innovation.

And then there's the last category, which I think is the breakthrough, the disruptions – the stuff that really has the 10x kind of impact on things and people outside of your organization. They are are more than just business-process improvements, they are fundamental shifts in paradigm. In the current moment, that's things like blockchain, A.I. – not Bitcoin, Bitcoin is an iteration on the disruption. It's a function that has a really strong, obvious use-case, but the real disruption is the underlying technology.

And so the reason that I did that early on and I broke it down into those three buckets, the whole point was to set up that NYCx was intentionally going to be focused on that last one of the three. Because there's people truthfully everywhere in the organization that should be actively doing the other two. … If you're not careful, if you lump it all together, then every time you go into a conversation about innovation, the oxygen in the room gets sucked in that direction, to the things that are easier to understand, easier to measure, less risky. And I wanted to intentionally carve out this space where we could allow ourselves to engage with those high-impact, 10x potential disruptions to make sure that we didn't miss an opportunity to take advantage of that.

Read the rest at at U.S. News & World Report, and look for recaps from the summit on Twitter: #ZahnSummit.

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