At Startup Week panel, mayor and tech leaders agree more political involvement is needed

Posted October 6th, 2016

“Tech can’t afford not to play in the (political) system,” Mayor Steve Adler said in an Austin Startup Week panel Wednesday evening. 

The panel, “Tech’s Emerging Role in Austin Politics, Policy and Philanthropy,” revolved around the isolation of Austin’s technology community, and featured speakers Adler, executive director of Capital Factory Joshua Baer, and CEO of Austin Technology Council, Barbary Brunner. 

The panel was moderated by Monica Maldonado, founder of GivingCity Austin.

Brunner said the tech community as a whole should establish good relationships with the City Council and City Hall staff. “We don’t have a broader tech community relationship, where we lobby on a regular basis individuals in city hall or individuals in state legislature,” Brunner said. Brunner also mentioned that large companies such as Dell, Google and Samsung have their own lobbyists.

“There isn’t any sort of general representation or most of the software companies here in town,” Brunner said. “It’s really important to establish relationships so we can have an ongoing conversation and an ongoing dialogue.

Baer, there as a representative of the Austin Tech Alliance, said in cases of local governmental policies, tech needs to be more actively engaged.

“We need to have a dialogue,” Baer said. “Tech is mostly just reactive. We ignore everything, wait until someone does something we don’t like, and then we turn off the internet and try to get it fixed. That’s our reaction, that’s what we’ve been doing in the past. It’s such a backwards kind of attitude. If we want to make things happen instead of reacting to things…we have to be proactive. We can tell our representatives what we want them to do instead of just yelling at them after the fact.”

Baer used May's Prop 1 vote, which led to ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft discontinuing service in Austin, as an example of everything the Austin tech community should strive for. 

“The people who were against Prop 1, they had the votes,” Baer said. “They’ve been in Austin for a long time, and they’ve built up big constituencies, and they have long email lists of people to contact who will listen to them. They know what to say and how to make people react and how to go door to door, all those things that tech doesn’t know how to do. They can make people vote. I think we need to use tech to be part of the solution, and the other part is just living it.” 

Adler said it was essential that the tech community integrate itself into local politics.

“In a city like Austin there is such power and interest,” Adler said. “There is an imbalance in this city right now so long as the tech community does not (get involved in government). That imbalance is not healthy in this community. The tech community has to engage.”

Adler also said tech would become the solution to altruistic efforts in the city, as well as political ones.

“Regarding philanthropy, the reason that you should be interested in what’s happening in this community is because you’re part of this community,” Adler said. “You live in a community where half of the African-American kids in your city live in poverty. You live in a city where health outcomes are determined by zip code. You live in a city that is ranked the fourth worst city in the country for congestion. There are a lot of issues in this city that as a community, as a group of people, we can find solutions for.”

Brunner said she believed tech could do more to fund and promote social venture programs.

“One of the things we know about tech is that tech tries to solve problems in innovative ways, and when you look at it, some of them are giving in new ways,” Brunner said. “They’ve decided to give differently because they think they can innovate the way giving can impact and produce results.”

At the end of the panel, Baer announced that the Austin Tech Alliance was releasing an app to help bind the tech community together so participating in local government will be easier. The app, Baer said, will give users push notifications telling them when to go vote, and guide them to the closest voting location. It will also make it easier to register to vote and to send feedback to the Austin City Council and the mayor, he said.

“(It also has) a weekly poll where we can ask the tech community what they think, and then your voice can be part of that, so we can go to city council and say, ‘Hey, this is what the tech community thinks, and we know because we asked them, and here’s who they are and here’s what they know,’ to start a dialogue,” Baer said. “The plan is to use it and then to give it away to all the other groups in Austin, so they can use it to benefit their communities and communicate with local government.”

“Let’s make Austin the most tech-forward place you can be,” Baer said. “With people trying new things and new things happening.”