We spoke with Peter Marx, Los Angeles’ first Chief Innovation Technology Officer, on his role at City Hall and how the city plans to support the startup ecosystem.
Appointed in February 2014 by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Peter Marx is Los Angeles’ first Chief Innovation Technology Officer. He oversees the implementation of various city wide tools, as well as supporting the city’s booming technology startup ecosystem. Additionally, Peter Marx is an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Formerly, he was vice-president at Qualcomm Labs and Global Market Development where he worked on creating new technologies for the most significant companies in mobile, especially in the area of context awareness. Prior to that, Peter Marx held various seniors positions at Mattel, Vivendi-Universal Games, Universal Studios, and Electronic Arts. Peter is a Los Angeles native and can be followed at @pietromarx.
Tell us about your role as the Los Angeles’s first Chief Innovation Technology Officer.
Well it really has three aspects. The first is city services. This focuses on bringing greater ease of use, reliability and availability of city services. Technology and communications is a big part of that. If you look at how 311 was originally set up, it relied on a fixed telephone connected to a couple of pieces of copper and you’re calling a city operator to get city services. That worked great for many years. Today, however, we’re in a mode where everybody has a smartphone and you’re continuously interacting with the city, whether you know it or not. You need to be able to use a mobile device to find out what’s going on at the park, or that you need help with sanitation or emergency services. City services need to be translated to mobile technology and be available regardless of where you are or what you’re doing.
The second part is working with the city agencies to improve the livability of the city. Two examples of this are traffic and universal access to the Internet. New technologies and innovations are coming forward which impact traffic flow, such as Uber, connective vehicles, and soon autonomous vehicles. Meanwhile transit agencies are trying to figure out how to provide internet access to the people on the bus. These advances interrelate with traffic and a city’s general livability. In terms of internet access, somewhere between 14-30% of households in Los Angeles don’t have access to Internet. How can anyone get a job or be a functioning member of our society without internet access? It’s incredible! That’s why if you go to a parking lot outside a library after hours it’s filled with people using the WiFi. Technology has a transformative power but with this digital there are still a lot of people who are being left behind. Addressing the livability of the city is therefore really important.
The final third is working with the city’s economic development team to create a thriving tech and startup ecosystem. There are many parts to this, including helping with the city’s identity, working with the universities to foster incubation, working with the VC community, and so on. Los Angeles is the home of a lot of technology, after all, this is one of the three places in the world where the original internet was created. We have three really great engineering universities. We have more people with doctorates living in Los Angeles than in any other big city. One of the things I’ve heard a lot is people asking for membership or an identity to a community. So one of the things this job will do is help create that with the Mayor’s support and with the help of City Hall.
What does the Los Angeles startup ecosystem do really well?
There are quite a few things. We have three great universities. USC is doing a lot of work around fostering innovation. Between Viterbi, Annenberg, and Marshall, USC is doing a ton of great stuff. UCLA, which does a lot of work on the national level, and, which incidentally a number of the founders of the last company I worked for, Qualcomm, graduated from, is a place where graduates emerge and work in the startup space. The same thing applies to Caltech. Also, we’ve received more venture financing than any city other than Silicon Valley. This is the now number two destination for venture capital. Over my career I have watched many interesting technologies come to LA and find creative uses, whether it is multimedia messaging which translated into SnapChat, or MPEG which eventually translated into YouTube channels and the like. This is a place where tech comes in its raw engineering form and is turned into a much more human creative experiences.
What does the Los Angeles startup ecosystem need to develop further?
Tech, like entertainment, is a hit-driven business. You have companies that appear on the scene, do fabulously well, like Microsoft in Seattle, Google in Mountain View, Apple in Cupertino, and IBM in White Plains. Silicon Valley is composed of thousands of small companies that are all doing great things. As an identity people go to Silicon Valley because they know that it is where they can find a large number of VCs and talk to people in a common context. I would argue that in Los Angeles needs a tech identity that leverages its depth of engineering talent and the breadth of funding sources, whether angel, VC or other. The insiders know all of this, but the wider community may not be aware of it yet. So it all comes back to creating that branding and identity and putting us within a context where people get it.
How can the City of Los Angeles support the startup ecosystem?
The first step is having someone who is advocating on their behalf and understands the needs of the tech industry. One of the reasons I wanted to come here to City Hall was because I felt there’s a really unique opportunity with an incredible tech-enabled Mayor. He is focused on the future of this city and how tech can change people’s lives for the better. This is an opportunity to be a part of that.
Also, there’s been an interesting movement towards open data. A city has many databases which cover all aspects of life. We have talked about publishing our datasets to make it easier for people to develop apps that relate to city services. For example, with parking, depending on the length of the trip, there are estimates that 40% of driving time is spent looking for parking. Having a database of meters, parking zones etc. would allow startups to create clever tools to help the public. It’s a very simple example, but if we at the City get to a place where we have this information available, we will start to see what happens in the tech industry.
The Mayor has been pushing for more tech education in schools. What are the plans for this?
Since the Los Angeles Unified School District has its own jurisdiction from the city, the city’s job is to help support them. The city’s influence is the wrap around time – before school and after school. The mayor is very clear in making STEM and STEAM education a priority for his administration. The way we influence that is through a couple of different initiatives:
Firstly, we’re investing in after school programs. We’re launching a summer initiative very soon where we are pairing with a lot of private entities to create after school opportunities that will give more kids access to online based learning. For example, coding, arts, math, science. This will be City-provided opportunities to enhance that learning.
Secondly, the Mayor’s office has the power to convene. So what we’re able to do is bring together a vast track of educational institutions where, for example, technology that USC is working on can be brought to a high school in San Pedro. Likewise we can bring together sources of funding. Recently the Mayor spoke at a kickoff for a program that Blackstone was doing in which they funded a launch pad program for university students to do startups. So it’s a broad variety of initiatives.