Equity in innovation has been a hot-button issue this year in light of mass protests about racial injustice, so it was a featured topic in this week’s EmTech Virtual Conference, organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The conference hosted several speakers on Wednesday to talk about disparities in who has benefitted from major technology investments, and what private- and public-sector leaders might do to spread the wealth going forward.

The first guest in the segment about tech equity was adamant that understanding the problem, and putting civil rights concerns not on the periphery but at the center of conversations about new technology projects, is essential to avoiding mistakes of the past. New York University’s Charlton McIlwain, vice provost for faculty development, said for the past 50 years or more, advances in communications, transportation and other publicly funded technology have disproportionately benefitted white, affluent people who already had access to networks of capital. McIlwain said drawing attention to the issue helps, and affirming that “Black lives matter” helps — but there will be no technical fix for racial injustice that doesn’t involve government and innovators learning more about decisions that created these disparities in the first place.

“Understanding, engaging and confronting the ways that racial discrimination play out, and historically was designed to play out, is a necessary condition to imagining and designing technologies that could potentially help us to ameliorate, or at the very least not exacerbate, racial discrimination,” he said.

Jonathan Winer, co-founder and co-CEO of the Sidewalk Labs affiliate Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, offered a mixed view of several major infrastructure projects, which solved certain problems but created others. Light regulations on telecomm providers, for example, allowed them to target customers who could pay the highest prices for the highest quality services, so now at a moment when society needs ubiquitous broadband for so many reasons, instead it has a digital divide. Winer said the national highway system connected people relatively quickly, but it was designed without public transit in mind, so it led to “transit deserts” that exacerbated inequality. He said the country’s reliable, ubiquitous, reasonably priced electrical grids are an incredible asset, but some of the design choices that went into them will make it harder to fight climate change. He said water treatment facilities were built by large-scale investments, but the financing mechanism placed responsibility for ongoing maintenance on local communities where, if the tax base was too small, upkeep would become impossible. So a city like Flint, Mich., winds up with lead poisoning.

“What this has meant is that we have a huge infrastructure gap, roughly $2 trillion depending on which survey you want to look at, and because of COVID, it’s increasingly unlikely that municipalities on their own are going to be able to fill that gap,” he said. “Similar to climate change, (water scarcity) is only going to get exacerbated in the future. Over the next 20 years, roughly one-third of Americans may face a local water shortage, and there’s a very strong correlation between the communities who face that water shortage and income level.”

Winer’s view of the inequality problem wasn’t hopeless, though. He pointed to Los Angeles Metro as an example of an agency with an inclusive approach to design worth imitating. He said L.A. Metro starts transit projects by defining metrics to measure impacts on equality and inclusion, tests those metrics against public opinion early on, uses them to measure the project through completion and mandates training to maintain the project indefinitely.

Winer said Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners has already used this approach on several projects, including the construction of a community Wi-Fi network, the design of a 42-mile autonomous vehicle lane in Michigan, and Evergrid, a platform in California that aims to make the electric grid less reliant on large central utilities.

With a mix of frustration and optimism, Megan Smith, the U.S. chief technology officer under President Barack Obama and the CEO and founder of the civic organization shift7, said many of the technological inequities in the U.S. are solvable — “not a pipeline problem but a culture problem,” she said.

“I really encourage anyone who’s working in technology to really show up for your own government. ‘Government’ is whoever shows up … so if you can show up and bring your skills to team with these extraordinary colleagues, [do it],” she said. “How are we making sure that we’re working on all different challenges there, and everybody’s at the table, including leadership from diverse backgrounds. Not only who is there, but what are they working on, and how?”

As examples of projects that might have pushed in the right direction, Smith mentioned TechHire, a bootcamp to train students how to code that started in five cities and wound up in 70, and the CSforAll program that connects educators, researchers and funding to promote computer science education.

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