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Kitchen: Spirit of innovation still alive in Austin

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

This year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference kicked off with a cloud of doubt hanging over the city of Austin’s relationship with the tech sector that has helped spur the regional economy for lo these many years.

Recent efforts by City Council to take a less than laissez-faire approach to ride-hailing services and short-term rentals have drawn rebuke from the companies whose apps put those options at the fingertips of users.

Those decisions drew protests from tech leaders, who accused Council of being hostile to their interests. Both Uber and Lyft threatened to pull out of the city, then funded an effort to overturn Council’s decision with a May referendum. In response to the 9-2 vote on STRs – which affects businesses such as HomeAway and Airbnb – one prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur pledged to stop investing altogether in Austin-based on-demand companies.

On Saturday, the Council member who drew the most heat over the vote to implement stricter regulations on the ride-hailing companies used SXSW to dismiss any concerns that Austin is out of step with its vaunted tech industry.

Ann Kitchen told a packed room at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce headquarters that the new regulations were a matter of finding balance between business interests and issues of public safety and neighborhood character.

“Austin will continue to do what we’ve always done and what we’re known for,” said Kitchen. “And that’s to be innovative, and to solve problems, and to continue being a place where we can move forward in a creative way.”

Kitchen sat on a panel called “Innovation vs. Regulation in Austin” along with former Mayor Will Wynn and tech entrepreneur William “whurley” Hurley. Meg Merritt, executive director of operations at RideScout, was the moderator.

Hurley took direct aim at his colleagues who have lost faith in city government.

“It is childish – and there’s no other word for it – for a venture capitalist or anyone else who is in a position of authority and power to just say, ‘I’m gonna take my ball and go home because I don’t like it,’” he declared.

Fingerprint-based background checks for drivers have emerged as the most infamous of the new regulations that Uber and Lyft find distasteful. The companies claim that those checks are unnecessary and time-consuming, while supporters of the checks, including Kitchen, argue that they will protect riders who use the services.

Hurley suggested that tech companies can easily innovate around the imbroglio by, for example, connecting female drivers with female passengers after a certain time, or by sending text messages to designated friends and family when a passenger is picked up.

“Be an engineer and solve the (expletive) problem,” Hurley said. “It’s that simple.”

Wynn said he was reminded of meetings he had had with commercial real estate interests during his time at City Hall.

“They were just real concerned that the Land Development Code that Austin has makes it so hard to build in Austin that nobody’s building or going to build,” Wynn said. “Meanwhile, if you looked out the window of the room we were in, it was nothing but tower cranes.”

Responding to a question from Merritt about how to better engage residents and stakeholders on issues that might be off their radar until they blow up into headlines, Hurley said that it’s incumbent upon citizens to engage themselves.

Kitchen agreed and added to that thought. “Part of that responsibility is getting educated about what’s really going on,” she said.

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