SF to ward off emerging technology dangers by launching new regulatory office

Board president Norman Yee says innovation must ‘provide a net common good’

A new city office in San Francisco is about to emerge to prevent new technologies from taking over public spaces without oversight, as was seen in the past with electric scooters or sidewalk delivery robots.

The Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee approved legislation Wednesday introduced by board President Norman Yee that would establish the Office of Emerging Technologies, or OET.

The office, he said, will “ensure that the technologies provide a net common good.”

The office is expected to launch as early as next month and will cost $250,000 for three positions in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The full board will take its first vote on the legislation Dec. 10.

The legislation describes an emerging technology as “one or more physical objects, whether mobile or stationary, that constitute or incorporate new electronic or mobile technologies or applications of technology and which are proposed for use upon, above, or below City property and/or the public right-of-way.

Under the proposal, if emerging technology surfaces in San Francisco without approval by the Office of Emerging Technology, The City would impose administrative fines up to $1,000 per day, criminal fines up to $100 per day for the first violation, and civil penalties up to $500 per day, according to the budget analyst’s report.

The new office would have jurisdiction over emerging technology citywide “except for areas under the jurisdiction of the following departments: Recreation and Park Department, the Airport, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), the Port, and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC),” the report said. “If a technology is fully authorized by State or Federal law, it would be exempt from the Office of Emerging Technology’s review.”

The proposal drew support at the hearing from Rudy Gonzalez, executive director of the San Francisco Labour Council. “I think it is really important that we approach these conversations from the perspective of frontline workers,” he said.

Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk San Francisco, which advocates for the safety of pedestrians, also backed the proposal.

“I believe that one of the most important outcomes of the office of emerging technology is the alerting the public and groups like Walk San Francisco about an application process,” Medeiros said. “We do want to be able to work with these companies and it is really good for us to have a notice.”

The new office would operate from out of Public Works.

City Administrator Naomi Kelly, who convened an emerging technologies working group in collaboration with Yee, said that Public Works was chosen because the department ““already has an existing permitting system so we are not creating the ball from scratch.”

“They already collaborate with many of the different city agencies and the different permitting agencies,” she said.

Those looking to launch emerging technology would need to contact the office. The office would then notice the public and relevant city departments and allow for comment before making a decision. The application comes with a baseline fee of $2,006. The office could issue a permit for a pilot for up to one year. An additional one year extension is possible.

“OET will allow the city and the public to effectively evaluate an emerging technology’s benefit and impact before it operates in our public infrastructure or in our public space,” Yee said. “I support innovation and technology but our residents are not guinea pigs and our public infrastructure are not a free for all.”

In rendering its decision, the OET director would have to take into consideration such things as the effect on public safety and the effect upon the labor market.

After a pilot, the office would make recommendations on whether The City should adopt permanent regulations.

“Early in 2018, when I tried to ban delivery robots I was seen as anti-tech or solving for something that wasn’t a problem,” Yee recalled. “A few weeks later after my attempt to regulate robots, there were hundreds of scooters that were dumped on our sidewalks, suddenly everyone understood what I was talking about.”


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