Technology companies seeking operating permits can now test out new innovations at San Francisco’s Office of Emerging Technology.

The new office is an effort to to curb new tech testing on city streets and sidewalks without regulations.

Supervisors in recent years have had to play catch-up, creating new legislation and regulations for every new tech device companies release onto streets, such as electronic scooters and robot delivery devices.

Mayor London Breed said last week:

“What we find is that we are reacting to what they do rather than being proactive about creating the kinds of policies that would allow for these technologies to not only thrive in San Francisco, but actually be meaningful to residents of San Francisco.”

The mayor said she wants companies to initially work with The City, rather than having to come after companies after they have launched devices for testing.

Aaron Levy-Wolins/SFBay SF Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee laughs with Mayor London Breed before she signs legislation for a new city department at City Hall in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. The City of San Francisco hopes the new office of Emerging Technology will help city departments work with tech companies on SF-based issues.

Now, companies wanting to test new technology on streets will have to apply for a permit with the the office.

According to the legislation, companies will work with the director of the Office of Emerging Technology and relevant city departments to set specific guidelines for each permit. Companies are given a “Notice to Proceed” if the technology is found to contribute to the common good of The City and its residents.

Companies not in compliance with conditions set in their permit will receive a notice of suspension and face administrative penalties of up to $1,000.

The Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee, who was instrumental in development of the new office, said emerging technology companies are welcome to use The City as a testing ground, but he wants to ensure public safety, security and privacy rights are at the forefront before companies are given the green light.

Yee said:

“This office will be a vehicle for this city to be actually a partner in the innovations. That’s how we solve this. That’s what we are creating.”

Yee was able to fund the new office with $250,000 from the 2019-2020 budget.

City Administrator Naomi Kelly and Yee convened a working group in April to identify ways The City could incorporate new technologies with a focus on innovation, safety and equity. The group repeatedly suggested centralizing how and where companies pilot and evaluate technology. 

Aaron Levy-Wolins/SFBay Jessica Lehman (foreground), executive director for the non-profit Senior and Disability Action, explains that the City could use technology to help sensitive populations at City Hall in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. The City of San Francisco hopes the new office of Emerging Technology will help city departments work with tech companies on SF-based issues.

City officials said the working group was comprised of more than 200 participants, including industry experts and people from start-ups, nonprofits and merchant and neighborhood associations. 

Jessica Lehman, executive director of Senior Action and Disability, said seniors and disabled people could benefit from new technology, but she wants to ensure those communities are included in discussions ahead of time.

“We can make sure that we have an open, collaborative process in permitting and addressing new technologies and that seniors and people with disabilities, that communities of color, that all marginalized communities are involved because people directly need to be part of that process.”

Jerold Chinn
Jerold Chinn is the San Francisco Bureau Chief of SFBay. A San Francisco native, he has spent a decade covering transportation in San Francisco. He has produced stories for the San Francisco Public Press and Ingleside Light. Send tips to jerold@sfbay.ca or at Twitter @Jerold_Chinn.

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