Why would one of America’s best-known nonprofits invest $5.25 million in autonomous vehicle technology? This week, Sam Gill of the James L. Knight Foundation explains why he says it’s vital to put people and communities at the center of local self-driving programs. Plus, hear how Miami has weathered a nearly year-long quarantine.

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Episode Transcript

Alex Roy

Hey everyone. This is No Parking, the podcast that cuts through the hype around self-driving technology and artificial intelligence. I’m Alex Roy with my favorite producer, Megan Harris. 

Megan Harris

Hey Alex! A fun inside scoop for our listeners — our very own Alex Roy has moved down to Miami. How are you liking it so far? 

Alex Roy

I feel like you’re making fun of me, but I had a legitimate reason. The weather, the beach — although I have not been to the beach once; the weather is very nice. But Miami is a city that’s at the cutting edge of innovation. If you want an East Coast city where people are moving to in this day and age, it’s Miami. You have tech investors, you have startups, you have transportation companies. Argo AI tests here. I thought it would a good time to come down.

Megan Harris

Speaking of Miami… today we’re connecting with one of its favorite sons.

Alex Roy 

Yes — we’re talking about why one of America’s best known nonprofits would launch a self-driving vehicle pilot program in a whole bunch of cities, including Miami.

Megan Harris

Our guest is Sam Gill, he’s the Senior Vice President and Chief Program Officer at the Knight Foundation. There he leads their community and national initiatives team. Quote, “That group helps cities attract talent, expand opportunity and promote civic engagement.”

Alex Roy

I love it when you bring not just professionalism, but a bit of your NPR past into your radio voice. That whole thing about what they do is some seriously, highly massaged messaging, my friends, and I can’t wait to unpack it. 

Bryan and I met Sam in-person at the Super Bowl last year. He’s awesome. Sam, so good to see you again. Welcome to the No Parking podcast.

Sam Gill

Hey, great to see you. Thanks for having me.

Alex Roy

A lot has changed since February since the Super Bowl. What is life like in Miami right now?

Sam Gill

Probably a lot like everywhere. I think we are… Though, what places like another place these days? We’ve sort of decentralized most of the decision-making about how we ought to behave during COVID. It was pretty empty in the first phase of lockdown in Miami. In the April time period. Then, you know, despite the fact that Florida was at the top of a leaderboard you don’t want to be on around rate of COVID infections and case rates, life starting to pick up over the course of the summer. I would say that the streets look different. There is still a lot of traffic in Miami, but it’s less traffic than there was. And we’ve seen, as far as I can tell, a pretty notable decline in micro-mobility. So in terms of people using things like scooters.

Alex Roy

A decline?

Sam Gill

Yeah. That’s what I’ve noticed. I mean, I can’t give you any statistical backing for that.

Alex Roy

Interesting.

Megan Harris 

Have people and businesses embraced the outdoor dining craze like they have, especially in Northern cities? Things like that?

Sam Gill

Miami is a year-round outdoor place, so we probably had less adaptation to do. But I think, well I do think that, certainly restaurants in Miami, as with restaurants in other places, have tried to take more advantage of that opportunity in order to increase the table counts. Miami, I sense, has seen the same surge in curbside pickup that you’re seeing in other places What Miami sort of hasn’t done actually, that some other cities have done is… I think some of the most exciting cities that we work in and that we watch at Knight Foundation are taking over the street. They’re using road space that had been allocated for transportation to enable people to gather and dine outside. And we’ve seen less of that in Miami, although there are moves to do that. And I think that there are a number of cities around the country that have made those moves and say, “I don’t want to go back?” You know, whatever we change, whatever we go back to at the end of this, whenever it comes, let’s continue to use more public space to be together. As opposed to allocate that space to cars.

Alex Roy

I’m a New Yorker and I love the outdoor dining and I’m so thrilled that… I mean, I’m not a huge fan of the Mayor, but I’m really glad that he’s decided to leave the outdoor dining stuff intact. When I lived in Miami years ago, I remember I was… I’m a newspaper guy. I like to read the newspaper each morning, even like the old school way on paper. I’d walk to Lincoln Road and I would go to the one remaining store and go buy a paper newspaper, and sit there. Is Lincoln Road like the most popular place in South Beach because it’s a pedestrian zone now? It’s always been a pedestrian zone. But is it like the most popular street South Beach?

Sam Gill

Yeah. I think again, people want to be outside. They want to be together. And South Beach, I should say, South Beach is a place that has made some moves to recapture a little more street space for dining. And I hope that people keep that. But no, it’s absolutely been a popular place. And I think one thing that is palpable in Miami right now is how few spaces we have that were ready for that. That lent themselves to that kind of use. If you have spent a lot of time in downtown Miami or in the financial district Brickell, where I live, one of the things that you’ve noticed during COVID is there weren’t necessarily obvious sidewalk or green spaces to go to during this period of closure.

And I think every city was a little late. I mean, New York, I think made its announcement, I want to say, in May that they would reclaim something like 40 to 70 miles of roads just for biking and pedestrian. I think there was an opportunity during the phase of the lockdown that actually resembled a lockdown, when more cities could have had a more holistic conversation about what kind of space do we want to make available to people. What is it?What can we right now to give people safe ways to be together? And reclaiming road space is a really great way in some communities to do that.

Megan Harris 

Well, Miami is also kind of known for having, we’ll say, irregular driving behaviors. Folks that pay attention to laws a little differently than elsewhere in the country. I’m curious, when it comes to trying to create outdoor dining or just sidewalk space in general, is Miami maybe more challenging, would you say, than maybe some other municipalities? What do you think?

Sam Gill

That’s an interesting question. I mean, the joke you allude to, Dave Barry, long time Florida Observer, I guess, would be the way to describe him, journalist, used to say, “Every one in Miami follows the law on the road. The law of the country they’re from.” So it certainly is known for a more pluralistic approach to driving habits. I guess my view, informed by some of the grant-making and the investments that Knight Foundation has made in communities across the country, is the way to open up space, to reclaim the road for different uses, whether they’re different mobility uses or for different public uses, isn’t to rely on people’s behavior. It’s to really closely demarcate where you can drive and where you can’t, and to not leave that up to drivers. And some American cities, in the way they approach bike infrastructure and biking grids… You know, they’ve painted a line, one block you’ve got a bike lane, one block you don’t. My understanding here and what we’ve seen is the best practice is, you can’t just paint a line. You’ve got to create separation. You’ve got to change the grade of the road if you want to create biking pathways. You need to create signaling for bikers and for pedestrians that helps people to navigate the space.

Like, look, we’ve got enough to think about. This isn’t even just about who’s well-behaved or not. We’ve got enough to think about in our lives. If you tell us where to go and how to go there, we’re going to follow the rules. Tis actually is a place where I think, not to jump ahead in the conversation, but this is actually a place where I think autonomy offers an enormous amount of opportunity. You can use the affordance of technology to enforce some of these divisions in the way the road is used, as opposed to relying on someone not to veer into a bike lane without looking. If we’re going to just rely on habit, I’m not that optimistic. But some simple engineering improvements and some technological improvements, I think can give us an ability to fix the rules of the road in a way that will allow us to get around conveniently and safely.

Alex Roy

So can you explain why the Knight Foundation has such an interest in solving these problems? Can you tell us what the Knight Foundation is and how it is that you came to learn so much about the transportation problems in Miami and other cities and what you’re doing about it?

Sam Gill

Sure. The Knight Foundation is an independent charitable endowment that is the legacy of John S. and James L. Knight who didn’t found, but really led the growth of the Knight newspaper company into a national newspaper company. In 2006, it was absorbed into McClatchy company, which actually filed for bankruptcy, which just tells you a lot about the trajectory of that industry. But the Knight brothers left behind their personal wealth, along with their mother Clara Knight, left behind their personal wealth to benefit the country in the communities where they built their business. They believed in the power of a representative democracy, and they believed that a more informed and engaged community could be the engine of that democracy. So we, as a manner of mission, work in a range of communities where the Knight brothers and the Knight newspaper company had owned and operated newspapers. We also, as a matter of practice, really emphasize, across all of our grantmaking, we grant-make in journalism, in the arts, and in community, the role of technology.

The Knight brothers were very open to changes in technology. They were very tech forward in the early days of the company. That meant using the telephone to coordinate a national chain of newspapers, which was innovative at the time. But very early, Jack Knight, I think in the sixties, had an idea to fax newspapers to people individually. So I think the idea of more personalized, instantaneous delivery was something he was thinking about. You can go look on YouTube, you could find old ads from the eighties for something called Viewtron, which kind of predated cloud computing, but it was telephony enabled information and e-commerce commerce service on like Apple II e-style displays or maybe one generation beyond that. And that’s laughable and it was laughed about at the time and it didn’t make money, but if you watch it, what you’re watching is the precursor to Amazon. You know, booking plane tickets, and buying goods online, going to the encyclopedia. Now we only go to the encyclopedia online. Now the only place people go for information is Wikipedia. The idea of going to a library to look up canonical information is ridiculous.

Alex Roy

The Viewtron. What year was that?

Sam Gill

That was like mid-late 1980s.

Alex Roy

When I was a kid, I vaguely recall hearing a Viewtron from my dad. There was also the French Minitel system.

Sam Gill

Yeah. Minitel is actually a great story of, ‘partly out of its time, but partly why you do open, not closed technology’, right? What killed Minitel, which for the two listeners we have left who are interested in French telephony in the 20th century. A couple of things killed Minitel, which was a French email system. I’m no telecommunications expert, but my sense is a few things killed it. One is, it was run by French Teleco, the French monopoly nationalized utility. So, whatever these utilities were good for, they weren’t good for innovation. Two, that everything was integrated. So they gave you the Minitel terminal…

Alex Roy

That was a plastic box. Like a cube.

Sam Gill

Everyone got that. So it was fully integrated. And one of the things we’ve learned about the internet, is what makes the internet work is the decentralization, right? We all have a piece of hardware. The hardware is completely interoperable with the network. And on the network, all kinds of information services are interoperable. And that’s what’s allowed us to, I think, have the kind of race to the top and innovation. It’s also, of course, the question we’re asking now, which is we’re now back toward reconsolidation, right? Google is about to be in court over the dominance that they have in search and the way that their different services are plugged in. Amazon increasingly feels like the only road available for e-commerce. So the Minitel questions are back in some really profound ways. I think DuckDuckGo, an alternative search engine, just came up pointing out how hard it is to change your default search engine on your phone.

So the Knight brothers were really interested in these questions. And so we’ve brought that to our approach too. And so one of the things we’ve looked at in our working community is “What is the role of technology and informing and engaging community?” And our theory of the game is, can we leverage, can we take advantage of the digital transitions that are already underway in community? And it struck us that one of the big transitions that was already underway was: first, the digitally-enabled on-demand change to mobility, which is driving micromobility and driving ride-hailing, so Uber and Lyft, which has been one of the number one changes to the use of the right of way in the curb space over the last five to 10 years.

But then what was coming was this deep investment, including by people like you, in autonomy and what autonomy would look like. And so we thought there was this great opportunity that this technological change was underway. And unlike the car, which we’re now sort of unwinding the work of in cities, it was early enough that we thought, “Why not do what we didn’t do with the car?” Which is to really hear from community about what the community wanted out of a mobility system and see if that insight could inform the development of new mobility technology and principally autonomous mobility. So that’s what led us to invest in five cities: Detroit, Miam, Pittsburgh and San Jose — we invested in a number of community engagement processes around different uses of autonomy, just to see what actual residents wanted out of their transit system and how they viewed this technology.

Megan Harris

And is that pilot program part of your work with the community and national initiatives team? We talked a little bit about Knight kind of as a whole, the bird’s eye view. But specifically, how has your team engaged with this pilot project?

Sam Gill

Yeah. So a part of the team basically did the matchmaking between this set of cities, which had active public private partnerships. And so what we invested in was a kind of a community engagement process on top of, or next to it as a part of these various mobility pilots. And government, you know, is very interested in how to get ready to take advantage of these new technologies in order to solve problems for residents. So the cities that we were working with were cities that said, “Yeah, we’re really excited about autonomy. We’re really excited about new forms of mobility, but let me tell you what our problems are. Our problems are low-income people and seniors who have a lot of trouble in the last mile. So the mile between public transit and their home. How do you make that connection in that distance. We’ve got problems getting people to employment. We’ve got challenges with sustainability. We want to reduce the number of vehicle miles, the amount of emissions happening in our transit system. We’ve got congestion problems.” So it was cities who had social problems that they wanted to solve, and they wanted to use these pilots as a way to think about how mobility could be a part of the solution.

Alex Roy

Can you be more specific? So when you say you’re connecting cities, communities, autonomous vehicle programs to link them together to solve problems. So do you actually go into the city and locate, say some of these seniors who need last mile, and then do you go to an autonomous vehicle developer and help curate the service or route specifically for those people?

Sam Gill

We don’t do that. So, we’re a funder, by the way, so we’re giving money to others to do the work. But what we do is… I’ll give you an example. The city of Detroit has a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to experiment with automated driving systems. In order for both, for the Department of Transportation, for the city, to start to imagine what a more autonomous mobility system could look like. And so what the city of Detroit said was, “This is great. We’d love to be a test bed for the use of autonomy to get around the city. Let us tell you what our problems are. Our problems are seniors and people with disabilities. Those are the people who really have trouble, factually, getting around our community.” I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Detroit. It’s really spread out. It doesn’t have an extensive public transportation infrastructure and the public transportation infrastructure it does have, which is heavily bus reliant, is really difficult for older people and people with disabilities, especially in a city that has winter months. And so they said, “That’s our problem. And so we want to use this pilot, this partnership, to try to solve that problem.” But engaging those people takes time, money, resources. You can’t engage community by just sending a survey out. You need to go meet people where they are. And so what we did was, part of our investment in Detroit is to build that processes. To actually hire people to get together with seniors and with people with disabilities now, to understand what their big mobility challenges are over time to work with them as this technology is rolled out to get their input.

Another example that we’ve worked on is in the city of Pittsburgh. And the city of Pittsburgh, where there’s a lot… I mean, that’s where you guys are. That’s where there’s a lot of technology testing because of the world-class institutions. For people who don’t know, Carnegie Mellon University, isn’t just the number one University for artificial intelligence, its the number one university for like four different sub-disciplines of artificial intelligence. So a lot of this technology is being developed right in your backyard. And so the city of Pittsburgh is sick with different startups that want to be able to try this technology out. And so they said, we’ve got these communities, Hazelwood, Greenfield, Four Mile Run and Oakland, and for people unfamiliar with Pittsburgh, these are sort of transitional neighborhoods that are on the border of places where employment densification is happening. Where economic development is happening. And so the city of Pittsburgh said, “We want these neighborhoods to be more connected to the places where people are going to find opportunity.” And so they were really interested in using autonomous technology to create shuttle services that could help residents get between these neighborhoods and employment.

And so we invested in them, building community councils to talk about this technology. One thing they found out was the community said, “I don’t want this technology to happen to us. We want to be a part of it.” The question is, “How do we want to be?” It’s not, “What does this look like?” It’s, “Should we have this? What should the mobility solutions be that we should have?” And so now what the city is doing is they’re starting with a shuttle service that’s actually operated by residents. So residents themselves can experience what we want a mobility system to do. What it can do. How it will work. Before we turn it over to a computer. Before we turn it over to a software platform to drive that. So it’s sorta like Back to the Future. It’s like they’re starting with a bus service run by residents, but as a part of a process to get to mobility solutions that residents really feel ownership over. And that wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t actually built an ongoing process that brought residents, technology, companies, and government together to talk about the future.

Alex Roy

You said something really interesting. You said, “We want this to be done with us, not to us.” And it seems like that is like the dilemma of all technology when it arrives. It should always be with and for the community, as opposed to to and at the community. And that’s the truth of Minitel and Viewtron and autonomous vehicles and construction of new modes. It’s always true.

Sam Gill

I think that’s right and it’s not even technology, right? I mean, this is something people in community will say about every form of economic development. We don’t want development to happen to us. We want to develop and grow our community. And I think there’s sort of a couple of things that are relevant for people who are building this technology and who are excited about its affordances. I think one is you can’t short circuit talking to people. At some point you need to go meet community where it is, and you need to ask people in communities basic questions that actually allow them to tell you their truth, as opposed to answering your narrow question that comes from your perspective.

Sam Gill

And one of the simple things we learned… For example, the city of Miami, they’re working on building a shuttle service to help low-income folks in town. And they learned a really basic lesson. They were getting input from people just as they were getting off of mass transit. Like that’s the last time you want to talk to anyone. Has anyone ever accosted you when you’re on your way home? It doesn’t matter what, how much you passionately care about the cause, that’s definitely not when you have time. And so there are basic lessons about meeting people where they are. I think there’s something else that is unique to the way we talk about technology today that I think is not to be missed, which is technology companies talk all the time about the needs of the user, the user, the user, the user, the user experience. Well often what a technology company means by that is how do I tune this system to maximize the engagement of the user and the time they’re spending with the process or the system. That is a very different question than, “What does this person authentically want? What are they looking for? What’s their view of community?” And, and I’m not saying that great UX isn’t a wonderful thing. It’s led to all of these personalized services. But as you’re building this technology, keep that difference in mind. There are two… Real engagement of the community and UX are two different things. And you’ve got to build in time, expertise and devote resources to both in my view.

Alex Roy

Because great UX is UX. It lasts only as long as the user needs, not the vendor wants.

Sam Gill

Well, yeah. Let’s talk about something different from autonomy. YouTube and Facebook are phenomenal at maximizing time onsite. What we’re finding out is that may not be the best thing for a democracy. So there are two… Our interest in having a thriving, informed democracy may not perfectly coincide with our interest in having really engaging ways of serving information and content.

Alex Roy

This is the mission of the Knight Foundation.

Sam Gill

Sorry?

Alex Roy

This is the very mission of the Knight Foundation is to foster democracy and engagement.

Sam Gill

Well, I think one of the problems that we’re confronting around technology of all types is that we’re developing it at the speed of and on the basis of the theoretical benefits, what in the tech world people like to call the affordances, as opposed to the empirical results. We kind of need both. We need the theoretical benefits to keep elevating our ambition. How do we start this conversation? I think computers will help us manage the roadway a lot better than human brains will. I think human brains… In Miami, I push two kids around in a stroller who are really little, that I don’t want the human brain to be managing that road space. I can’t wait for a computer to be helping me have confidence that when I’m crossing the street, absolutely one is going to drive through that or make a right turn.

Alex Roy

I agree with that.

Megan Harris

Will I mean your brain is a little bit of a unique space too. Do we know that everyone wants this? Is everyone ready for technology? Do they all trust computers to make these decisions for them?

Sam Gill

Absolutely. Absolutely. And so that’s one of things we’re learning in the community engagement is that not everyone’s ready. And some of the reasons that are not ready are because they’re misinformed. And great, let’s get some information out there and make decisions together. And some reasons they’re not ready are really authentic objections to what’s going to happen. And again, how can you not? If you’re in a major city in the United States and you live in a predominantly black neighborhood, you are living with the consequences of not being involved in the decision of how we made the city work for cars. You are living with it, more likely than not, with a roadway that has bisected a vital cultural heart, an economic heart of your community. And we are working, investing tons of money in this country to undo that legacy.

I also think one of the concrete things we’ve learned in these pilots, that came through is, you are talking to communities about technology that none of us have ever seen. That doesn’t actually exist in our lives. And that is a different burden, to your point, Megan, when you’re trying to figure out what people really want. You’re asking them what they really want about something that doesn’t exist. The onus isn’t on them to be more imaginative. The onus is on those of us who see the power of the technology to really work with and come into contact with those people. One of the things we’ve heard is…

Megan Harris

To listen.

Sam Gill

Yeah. To listen. To listen. That’s great. That’s a great word. And one of the things we’ve actually seen, that we’ve heard from the communities is don’t underwrite the power of touch and feel. Don’t underrate the power of just going to, it’s hard to do right now during COVID, but going to the expo where people can actually watch and see the technology. It makes it more real for people. And then to your point, you’re in a position to actually listen to how they respond as they start to imagine this in the places where we all live.

Megan Harris

Well, so as we’re talking about these pilot projects. You mentioned Detroit, Pittsburgh, Miami. How has COVID affected these plans? Have there been delays or any outright pivots where maybe they’re pursuing something a little differently than they had originally conceived of?

Sam Gill

Yeah, there’ve definitely been some delays. Now is not the time to try a shuttle service. Some ride hailing projects have been put on hold. And so there definitely have been some delays. There have also been some delays because, you guys know better than I do, but the industry itself is struggling a bit particularly because it’s principally privately funded right now. So some capital is drying up. And then the engagement’s been delayed because we’re all figuring out new ways to talk to people. And some of us can really easily switch over to Zoom and still have a great conversation, but in some communities that’s a lot harder to do because of issues of access to broadband, because of issues of time that people have. And so a lot of communities are trying to figure out different ways to talk to residents.

And then there’ve been pivots too, some of which are caused by COVID. So a number of these communities that were really fixated and focused on autonomous shuttle technology are now rolling out autonomous delivery. The little delivery robots that, a couple of years ago, you only saw on college campuses. At a time when goods are the things that we need more of, to come right to our doors. So we’ve seen examples of all of those things.

Alex Roy

What is the end game for these pilots?

Megan Harris

Yeah, what’s the metric for success? Do you expect, or even want all of these projects to stick? Or is just having the conversation, asking the question, is that alone already kind of a win?

Sam Gill

I think you’ve got both ends of the spectrum. We don’t need the pilots to stick. And I don’t think it’s just good enough that they have the conversation. I do think there’s a couple of tangible things that we really want to come out of this. I think one is that we want to make sure that the communities we’re working in really do have a clear idea, one, of what they want out of a mobility system. That they can articulate, “These are our goals for our mobility system.” So that as technology rolls out, as the city makes the right of way available, creates policy of what will be allowed, issues RFPs and works with companies to develop this technology, it’s guided by much more clarity about, “If we can get this, this, this and this, this is going to be a mobility system that we can trust, that we’re excited about, and that is going to make this community a better, more livable place.” I think that’s one thing.

I think a second thing is a set of lasting capabilities to be able to manage the dynamism of this. Again, we are living in both the opportunity of, and the wreckage of, a ride hailing era in which none of these conversations happened. And there’s good and bad on both sides. It means that in a lot of cities, these ride hailing companies are not contributing to the public good in the way that they ought to be. It also means like some cities aren’t allowed to have Uber and Lyft. Uber was just allowed back into London. I don’t know about you, Uber is really useful. It’s a super useful service. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been to London, but it’s a really cost-effective way to go medium distances in London. If you can’t take subway public transit system at night, the black cab service, the TNC service in London is extremely expensive. It’s prohibitively expensive for low-income people. So it’s actually a bad thing if you don’t have a competitive ride hailing option there.

So having the capability as this technology and the way it’s provisioned continues to evolve. What does that mean? It means having staff in cities that have gone through processes like this and know how to work with private companies engage community. It means having community groups that used to spend all their time thinking about, “How do we do zoning? How do we build a grocery store here? How do we build this new community amenity?” Think about this on the pallet of things that they need to worry about. That’s going to help make a community more resilient to technological change, and take advantage of it. So that’s one outcome. And then I think both of those questions on a national scale. This is like, your town is next. And so can the communities that we’re funding, who are working on this, give other communities a real template for, here’s how you engage your community to start building this capability and to begin developing your own roadmap and your own insights and your own principles about this technology. So we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel in every American city. So that we can start to accelerate our ability to develop and deploy this technology in a way that reflects and engages and listens, to use your great word, to community.

Alex Roy

Sam Gill is the Senior Vice President and Chief Program Officer at the Knight Foundation. Sam, thanks again for giving us your time.

Sam Gill

Thanks for having me.

Alex Roy

Well, thanks Megan.

Megan Harris

Thanks Alex. That was fun.

Alex Roy

All right. That’s it for us. If you enjoyed this episode and want to engage with us some more, please follow us on Twitter @NoParkingPod. Now I’m everywhere @AlexRoy144. Megan Harris is our producer and my often awesome co-host.

Megan Harris

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Alex Roy

Now please share No Parking with a friend. Like us. Subscribe. Give us a good review wherever you find your favorite podcasts. This show is managed by Civic Entertainment Group. 

Until next time I’m Alex Roy, and this is the No Parking podcast.