The blog of the Urban Institute
July 24, 2019

Tech Needs Public Policy to Drive Lasting Social Change

July 24, 2019

Technology giants like Google and Facebook have pledged billions toward addressing a severe shortage of affordable housing. Mayor of San Jose Sam Liccardo praised these efforts to help communities like his, but remarked that “one-off deals really are only one-off.” He added, “We really need to bend the cost curve, and this is where we need to work collaboratively with tech.”

Liccardo and other leaders discussed the intersection of technology and local economies at the recent Building Opportunity for All event in San Francisco. The event was hosted by The Atlantic and the Shared Prosperity Partnership, which unites the efforts of the Urban Institute, the Kresge Foundation, the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, and Living Cities in helping local leaders drive equitable growth.

The discussion highlighted the technology sector’s power to address society’s most pressing challenges. But to generate meaningful solutions, tech must involve policymakers and community members. As Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell asked in her opening remarks, “To what extent is rapid technological change hardening inequality—and to what extent can it be harnessed instead to provide solutions that could accelerate inclusion?”

Cecilia Muñoz, vice president for public interest technology and local initiatives at New America, said she feels some localities don’t want to become “the next Bay Area” because they sense disconnectedness between technology’s potential for good and its role in exacerbating inequality.

But Muñoz acknowledged that tech is still a powerful tool. “I think it’s important that we think about tech not just as an industry, but a set of skills that can and should be deployed anywhere in the country,” she said. “We need to make sure we are collectively using the best tools to solve our public problems.”

Menka Sethi, Facebook’s director of location strategy and site optimization, said her company is aware of its unique responsibility in the housing crisis—but also of the problem’s scope. “We own that we contribute to the problem,” she said. “But this [crisis] is 40 years in the making.”

Where policymakers enter the picture

Our society is increasingly shaped by the technology we use. As Michael Chui, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute, put it, “Code is law, and [tech] engineers are writing the code.”

But Chui pointed out that some in the tech industry may not understand the historical background and societal implications of their work. Policymakers can provide the vision needed to ensure technology helps everyone, and doesn’t reinforce or worsen society’s existing inequities.

“I think policymaking is where we’re going to have the biggest impact, and be able to leverage resources for the most good,” said Molly Turner of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “For-profit tech companies can certainly play a role in augmenting the implementation of these policies.”

In the context of the housing crisis, Mayor Liccardo described innovative home building practices, including modular homes, as a potential technological solution to barriers raised by restrictive zoning. Mayor of Berkeley Jesse Arreguin proposed a regional tax regime to generate vital revenue for addressing housing gaps, and so no single jurisdiction must face the problem alone.

Tech leaders and policymakers should also engage the communities that lie on the forefront of change.

“We know from the data that people who are likely to be disproportionately affected by automation are women, people of color, clerical workers, back office workers, retail workers” said Muñoz. “We shouldn’t have conversations about those people but with those people.”

Thumbtack, an online service that matches customers with local professionals, offers one example of how to connect with these communities. The company partnered with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to create a benefits access tool for domestic workers. Kellyn Blossom, head of public policy for Thumbtack, said the company asks of partners and customers, “How can we use technology to introduce you to new circles, to new clients that will allow you to economically thrive?”

Social change driven by technology can’t happen in a vacuum. As Facebook’s Sethi put it, “Tech has a lot of resources, and it’s incumbent that we listen to and honor our local community partners and enable them to implement their own solutions.”

Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell kicks off the Building Opportunity for All event in San Francisco last week. Photo by DeNoise Studios.

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