Sweet bread, technology and democracy: behind the scenes at #techLA

Amy Shimshon-Santo (far left) moderates the #techLA panel at City Hall

Amy Shimshon-Santo (far left) moderates the #techLA panel at City Hall

“Mmm, pan dulce,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti. Around the Green Room table behind the Los Angeles City Council Chambers, diverse leaders gathered around cafecito and conchas de vainilla o chocolate. It was 8:30 a.m. on a cool Saturday morning. Our disciplines ranged from transportation and interactive design to Smart Grid technologies, and from electric vehicle infrastructure and urban planning to community economic development.

We came together at the invitation of Mayor Eric Garcetti and Peter Marx (Chief Innovation and Technology Officer) to galvanize the technology track of #techLA– the city’s inaugural Technology and Innovation Conference held in City Hall.

Tasked by Marx with facilitating a panel on the future of mobility, I seized the opportunity to spark an interdisciplinary conversation on the topic. Representing Art Center with me were two respected innovators: Geoff Wardle (Executive Director of the Graduate Transportation Design program) and Maggie Hendrie (Chair of the Interaction Design undergraduate program). Later that day, Art Center Graduate Transportation student, Retro Poblano, also presented his research on automated shuttles to the public.

Interaction Design Chair Maggie Hendrie and Graduate Transportation Design Executive Director Geoff Wardle

Interaction Design Chair Maggie Hendrie and Graduate Transportation Design Executive Director Geoff Wardle

I invited the first Latina Rhodes scholar– California Public Utilities Commissioner Catherine J.K. Sandoval to join us, along with Dr. Rajit Gadh, who is the founding director of the UCLA Smart Grid Energy Research Center, electric vehicle charging entrepreneur Enid Joffe and newly appointed Los Angeles Transportation Commissioner Tafarai Bayne (Consultant to TRUST South LA, CicLAvia and The California Endowment). The highly regarded panelists all agreed on the need for an L.A.-based transportation discussion connecting diverse perspectives– disciplinary, geographical, cultural and experiential.

I arrived in the morning for a sound check as renderings from Art Center graduate Daniel Day Lee were projected onto four large screens in the Council Chambers. Lovely, I thought. Design thinking belongs in the halls of government. Any region committed to technological advancement could benefit from the knowledge and perspectives of designers and artists.

At 9:25 a.m., our diverse team entered the Council Chambers for the Mayoral Kick-off. The hall resembled a historical sanctuary with its ornate arching ceilings, rows of columns, and heavy wooden pews. The space was packed with people. Even the exits were crammed with media representatives and their telescoping cameras perched on supportive cranes.

“Butterflies,” one of the panelists whispered to me.

“Me too,” I said.


“Yes. But, this is the only way to change things. Participate.”

The Mayor stood behind a podium. “How many of you have ever been in the Council Chambers before,” he asked. A smattering of hands jetted up. This community was new to the world of local governance. He reminded us that democracy is a verb– an aspiration that requires action to fulfill.

An avid reader, I carried a copy of The Ursula Franklin Reader in my bag. Franklin is a feminist scientist and holocaust survivor who compares technology with democracy. She argues that technology and democracy are best seen as “ideas and dreams, as practices and procedures, as hopes and myths.” How fitting to have the chance to practice both at #techLA.

Both democracy and technology rely on participation. When #TechLA event planners opened their Eventbrite to the public they had expected 200 nerds to sign up. Instead, word spread online and the event sold out a week prior to the opening with 2000 registrants. The #techLA conference, job fair and hack-a-thon were used to promote the launch of a new Open Data portal geared to increasing public accountability.

After the Mayor, City Controller and City Council representatives welcomed the public, our mobility panel team migrated over to a large rectangular table. The aim of our panel was simple but complex: facilitate an interdisciplinary dialogue on transportation. I worked closely with the panelists to frame the discourse, and interviewed additional leaders from the Port of Los Angeles, the Port of Long Beach, The County Office of Sustainability, the L.A. County Department of Public Health, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, Toyota, Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and the East LA Community Corporation.

We focused on Mobility in a Connected and Sustainable City; and chose four sub-themes for the panel to discuss: Connectivity (or what I call the Internet of Mobility – IoM), Infrastructure, Private and Public Partnerships and Education. As we spoke, the panelists scribbled down new thoughts. “I am not texting,” said Commissioner Sandoval. “I am taking notes. I wanted to write ‘No Silos.’ I made a typo– ‘No Solos.’” She smiled. That thought became our mantra: “No Silos. No Solos.”

Assembling the panelists’ disparate images into one slide deck reminded me of how many different worlds exist simultaneously in our very own region. How would our panel find common ground? What could we learn from each other?

I warned the audience, “We may not agree on things, but we are open to that creative tension.”

Here are some examples of what we found:

  • While Art Center’s work in Pasadena is innovating new roles for automated vehicles; our friends in East Los Angeles are trying to amass a fleet of bicycles for low-income tenants in affordable housing. Tenants are largely transit dependent.
  • While transportation designers advocate for using our existing roadway infrastructure more efficiently for vehicles; organizers in South LA are repurposing local streets for public space due to the local lack of green space and parks.
  • While electric vehicle (EV) entrepreneurs develop business models to expand EV charging infrastructure, California still has residents without access to electricity. No electricity. No broadband.
  • Smart Grid alternatives for storing and sharing energy more wisely will count on mobile applications to connect households and businesses with the grid. Interaction designers can employ human centered design via mobile and web to support this process.

After 60 minutes of inspiring debate, our panel wrapped up. Maggie Hendrie commented to me on the ethos of friendship she felt between us regardless of our differences. We left the hall with new friends from across industries, governance, education and community development.

Later that afternoon, Retro Poblano presented his graduate research and vision for automated shuttles to local leaders. Immaculately prepared, Poblano was greeted by eager reporters following his presentation, saying, “let’s talk!”

After the event, I heard back from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT). The email stated: “Our positive exchange of ideas provided a boost of inspiration!!!!”

Even government officials sometimes use multiple exclamation points.

This level of enthusiasm confirms the connection between technology and democracy. Indeed, the winners of the student tech hack-a-thon used their talents to develop a homeless services application. In the right hands with the right tools, technology can serve the public good.

#TechLA seeded new relationships, built greater awareness of our region and fostered exciting opportunities for collaboration. Art Center was pleased to support this effort and have a seat at the table.

Amy Shimshon-Santo, PhD, serves as Art Center’s Assistant Director, Foundation Relations and Government Grants

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