Mayor de Blasio Pushes Five-Borough Tech Plan at Internet Week NY

5/20/14Follow @jpruth

Change.

On Monday, there was plenty of change on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s mind.

Praising the merits of the city’s technology community—and talking disruption—he gave the opening speech for Internet Week New York.

The first-term mayor took the opportunity to share some of his vision for New York’s future. It was the kickoff to the weeklong conference about local innovation on the Web. But even as de Blasio outlined hopes for a five-borough technology growth campaign, one issue brewing in the background was the mayor’s occasionally contentious dealings with a few tech companies—namely Airbnb.

During Monday’s speech, de Blasio said public servants should be disruptive in order to serve the people better. “By definition we should be agents of change,” he said.

De Blasio spoke about commonality between the technology community and the city’s administration when it comes to challenging old ways of doing things. “There is a pure synergy here that we need to act on,” he said. “More than ever in history, a successful city thrives on the kind of disruption new technology brings.”

After describing New York as a hub for progress, de Blasio said the public sector can facilitate economic growth or inadvertently stand in its way. He said his administration has an “energetic view” on the local technology scene, and has learned lessons from the failures of policymakers past. “There are plenty of examples in history of government not getting it or being protectionist, status quo-oriented, and unwilling to embrace change,” he said.

A subject de Blasio did not mention in his talk at the techie-dominated event, was the fact that New York and other cities and states across country have crossed swords with some startups that have tried to innovate by skirting—or openly flouting—existing laws and regulations. The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, for example, threw cold water on the plans of ride-sharing app startups such as SideCar Technologies and RelayRides for allegedly violating its regs. According to The Wall Street Journal, last May both companies halted service in New York. Uber had to nix its yellow taxis in this city, though still runs its black car service here—and is even transporting folks to various Internet Week New York events.

Tensions between residential rental service Airbnb and de Blasio surfaced last year during his campaign for office and seem to remain fresh. Then-candidate de Blasio spoke out about a New York law prohibiting short-term residential rentals and, according to Capital, he voiced his concerns again just last month about Airbnb.

For its part, San Francisco-based Airbnb has extended an olive branch or two to de Blasio, including a congratulatory blog post last December after he was elected.

As he spoke Monday, de Blasio did not address the legal issues tripping up some innovators. But he did profess a desire to see innovation continue to flourish in his city. “We want to foster what’s new; we want to foster what’s better,” he said. “We know government plays a crucial role.”

That, he said, includes growing the local talent pool for tech companies with a bit of legislative help from Washington, DC. “We’re pushing for changes to get talented tech professionals to this city immediately,” he said. “That would be most aided by…comprehensive federal immigration reform.” Helping foreign-born entrepreneurs at U.S. colleges remain in the country after graduation could keep them in the local innovation community, he said.

Increasing local technology education at various levels, de Blasio said, is another way to grow the talent pool. He announced on Monday the NYC Tech Talent Pipeline, budgeted with $10 million over the next three years from city, state, federal, and private sources, to offer locals education needed for technology jobs. The city will administer the program, he said, to recruit and train workers as well as design curricula that meet employers’ needs.

De Blasio said he also wants to transform public education, from pre-K up, to better prepare New Yorkers for technology jobs. Furthermore, he wants universal, affordable access to high-speed broadband data connections for local residents. The mayor reiterated his belief that leveling the connectivity playing field is crucial to New York’s prosperity on the technology front. “Our approach is going to be bold and decisive because we simply haven’t done well enough for this city,” he said. “We can’t continue to have a digital divide that holds back so many of our citizens.”

Shaking up access to broadband, he said, will include reexamining the city’s agreements with providers such Verizon and Time-Warner Cable. He also said New York plans to turn 10,000 payphones into Internet hotspots across the boroughs. Another project includes creating a free Wi-Fi network in Harlem for some 80,000 people, he said, between 110th Street to 138th Street.

With such lofty hopes for a broadband and technology makeover for New York, de Blasio noted that his administration cannot do it alone. “We need people from the tech community, academia, from nonprofits to help us figure out the solutions,” he said.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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