Ethics, Virtues, and SmartCities Tech

Occasionally, at SmartAustin, we like to take a step back from the rapid pace of tech and startups, and to consider some of the ways in which tech is impacting our broader society. We've covered, for instance, the "Blockchain for Impact" and Estonia as a "Digital Republic". More recently, we've been thinking (as have many) a bit more about AI (top AI-focused book we've read is Kai-Fu Lee's AI Superpowers) and came across a quote from Shannon Vallor, a professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University and AI Ethicist/Visiting Researcher at Google. In Wired's 11/13/18 issue, Vallor is quoted as saying that "There are no independent machine values. Machine Values are human values."

After reading a bit more about Vallor's work, we were inspired to pick up her book, Technology and the Virtues and found it a delight. The book deserves a much more thorough treatment than what we'll give it here, but for the purposes of this blog, and thinking a bit about how startups launch themselves at technical problems, with maniacal focus, we'll call out a couple of quotes.

  • Quoting the philosopher Ortega y Gasset: "in the very root of his essence man finds himself call upon to be an engineer" but ". . . technology is . . . not the beginning of things. . . . it does not draw up [the human] project.

  • Vallor earlier quotes David Friedberg, "the CEO of a big data analytics firm . .  : 'What happens when every secret [is exposed] from who really did the work in the office, to sex, to who said what is that we get a more truthful society. . . . Technology is the empowerment of more truth and fewer things taken on faith.'" . . . "Implicit in this statement," Vallor comments, "is the unquestioned privilege of truth over other moral values, including trust, respect, compassion, humility, and flexibility. Better to always have the 'truth' about whom on the team 'really did the work' than to permit the guy who was up all night soothing a colicky child to quietly slack off at work one afternoon without risk of exposure. . . ."

You can definitely argue that all of these high sentiments and moral qualms have very little to do with startups, or that startups can't afford themselves the luxury of thinking too hard about these kinds of things. Founders need to make a living, get their businesses started, and solve problems that other people agree exist. Usually these have to do with efficiency, speed, and customer experience, and not with “drawing up the human project” or with the propagating "compassion, humility, and flexibility." Fair enough.

Fortunately, Vallor's work (and we're sure there are others like her) goes beyond her excellent book, and includes practical tools for helping businesses integrate ethics into their work. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, where she is on the Steering Committee, includes a list of Best Ethical Practices in Technology, which can guide tech companies looking to instill a culture of ethics (more detail is available at the site):

“1. Keep Ethics in the Spotlight—and Out of the Compliance Box

2. Highlight the Human Lives and Interests behind the Technology

3. Consider Downstream (and Upstream and Lateral) Risks for Technologies

4. Don’t Discount Non-Technical Actors, Interests, and Expectations

5. Envision the Technical Ecosystem

6. Mind the Gap between User Expectations and Reality

7. Avoid Hype and Myths around Technology

8. Establish Chains of Ethical Responsibility and Accountability

9. Treat Technology as a Conditional Good

10. Practice Disaster Planning and Crisis Response

11. Promote the Values of Autonomy, Transparency, and Trustworthiness

12. Consider Disparate Interests, Resources, and Impacts

13. Design for Privacy and Security

14. Invite Diverse Stakeholder Input

15. Make Ethical Reflection & Practice Standard, Pervasive, Iterative, and Rewarding

16. Model and Advocate for Ethical Tech Practice"

Finally, the site offers a series of tools and frameworks to support applying ethics in technology. We'll end with a schematic (source here, screenshot below) that grabbed our attention, provided here for your reference:


We believe that companies that adopt rules and practices around to support ethics in technology will be at an advantage when it comes to recruiting and retention. A systemic approach may be extremely difficult or impossible in the very early survival stages but is well-worth considering as your company gains traction and begins to mature. We'll all benefit.

Accelerating SmartCities Discussion with Jay Nath and City Innovate

Jay Nath is a key national leader in systematizing how tech startups and municipalities can work together. His work came to national attention when he served as one of the first Chief Innovation Officers in the US, under the late Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco. Nath's work with the city focused on connecting private sector expertise to the public sector, open data legislation, and supporting the creation of a Chief Data Officer in San Francisco. He's probably best known, however, for being a primary architect of the Startup in-Residence program. In February of 2018, Jay moved to serve as Co-Executive Director of City Innovate, for a full-time focus on the STIR program and associated efforts. Appropriately and amusingly, part of our recent interview with this urban warrior took place while he was commuting to work on his bike.


SA: Tell me about the last ten months, and about your decision to leave your position with the City of San Francisco?

JN: I had been serving in government for nearly 12 years and I asked myself, 'how can I accelerate and increase the impact we'd been having on city governments, especially working to expand the impact across the country. Generally, of course, I enjoy working with entrepreneurs and supporting their ability to make a positive impact in government. That mentorship and guidance process was personally and professionally satisfying to me, and I wanted to focus on it more.

All of this helped inform my decision to make this leap into City Innovate. Our mission is to support government in addressing challenges they face through emerging technologies. The Startup in Residence program has been around for five years and it's been great to see how much interest there's been across the US and in Canada. The tech and municipal worlds are very different and we see ourselves as part of the bridge between those worlds. We are now working with nearly 30 governments, from small cities to states. On the startup side, nearly 700 applied to participate in our last round. That's always inspiring. It's great to see so many talented people wanting to help government. Also, I'm inspired to see more governments willing to adapt to change. No one's telling them they have to do this, but they see a lot of opportunity and possibility and, believe it or not, they are very willing to have that conversation.

I also have to add that I'm seeing a lot more interest on the investor side, especially in the Bay Area. More capable talent coming in and there's specific interest in municipal IoT technologies and mobility solutions from those investors. That's not surprising, but the scale and level of interest has increased, and the skepticism around working with the public sector seems, to me at least, to be diminishing.

SA: Are you seeing any trends in terms of where startups are focusing their attention, domain-wise?

JN: Well, the truth is that our model is based on defining a municipal problem first and then letting startups respond. So, in that sense, we are helping to shape the focus of these startups and the startups that come to us are self-selected to focus on the most pressing municipal problems.

Let me give you an example. San Francisco was looking to reduce street litter and was dealing with overflowing trash cans. They were thinking about smart trash cans, but were also open behavioral - or design-based approaches. We worked to define the problem statement and help to bring a solution made by Nordsense out of Copenhagen through a competitive solicitation. They collaborated closely with SF Public Works, by installing fifty IoT sensors in public trash cans and proved that they could reduce the amount of street litter by 80%. In the areas of the pilot, requests related to overflowing trash cans dropped to nearly zero. Additionally, the city gained visibility into precisely when service providers were actually attending to trash cans; in the past, this had worked on the basis of trust alone.  Now, San Francisco is looking to deploy this capability across several thousand trash cans. This is a big deal for our city, which has been hit with plenty of criticism in this area.

Leaders in the city saw that tech can make a dramatic impact in a short time and I would say that they have growing self-confidence that they can solve these problems, that they can work with external partners in innovative way, that they can utilize data in innovative ways. So, there are second order impacts to a success like this.

SA: You seem to be emphasizing the criticality of those 'soft wins', in terms of changing perceptions and attitudes?

Absolutely. There is abundant tech and many, many great startups. The greater challenge is in engagement. City officials often do not have strong tech backgrounds and this is not an easy journey. Strong leadership is required and we simultaneously have to work with startups to drive cultural change. Culture is more important than administrative change.

SA: Have you explored working with the City of Austin?

JN: Yes, we've had some early communications there but would absolutely love to accelerate collaboration. Austin is a Tier I tech city in the US and I know that there are a wide range of interested leaders in this space. We look forward to more conversations here, and look forward to deepening our contacts.