OPINION: From Wallingford: Fear is holding us back

OPINION: From Wallingford: Fear is holding us back

By Jared Liu

When Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in chess, many feared that computers would go on being the champions forever. Instead, the event ushered in a new wave of human champions who were better because they trained with computers. Moreover, it resulted in twice as many grand masters as there ever were before.

There has always been a menu of fears surrounding technology, including: the cost, lack of need, labeling it as harmful, and more. Some caution is valid, but the reality is that making decisions from a perspective of fear holds us back. This sentiment that was well expressed by Marie Curie who said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Today, her words are as relevant as ever.

Similarly, the root issue of the Town’s antagonism toward technology goes beyond our police having to get their internet at the public library or Town Hall departments sharing email addresses, embarrassing as these situations were. Rather, the current administration’s fight against technology is symptomatic of why we are hurting economically and why it is so important for us to make a change in leadership to ensure Wallingford’s long-term success.

In a tech-driven economy, you have to ask what could be true, not what will be true. Leaders who are stuck in trying to predict the future succumb to siloed thinking and incremental decisions. Both are fast ways to get left behind, and are evident when you compare our progress to peers or when improvements stop getting done because they’re too expensive. It’s like trying to source parts for a refrigerator that is 30 years old. The parts could cost you more than a new fridge because no one makes them anymore. You can be mad about that or you can move forward.

Economics 101 tells us that, to grow an economy, you need either an increasing population or greater efficiencies. As we know, the population in Wallingford has been holding steady for the past couple of decades and even shrinking slightly since 2013. So, to understand why other towns in Connecticut whose populations are also shrinking are leaving us behind economically is a bit of a rhetorical question. It is because they are creating efficiencies while we are not ... efficiencies largely driven by technology.

I’ve heard the Town give varying excuses for why we don’t use current technology including: the internet is a hoax, we should appreciate how far we’ve come from the telegraph, Town employees will surf Facebook all day, and everyone wants service in person. I suspect that comparable excuses were made by some long-serving mayor in history for why the car wouldn’t be as good as a horse, electricity was too dangerous, or central plumbing was unnecessary. It’s a comedy of disjointed excuses, and the fact that their narrative is always changing should be a flag that none of these is the real reason why the Town is afraid of technology.

Let’s be extra clear about two things.

1. The Town’s fear of technology is damaging our economic health. This is about leveraging technology to attract and retain businesses, build a more sustainable grand list, and diversify the tax base so there is less pressure on residential taxpayers.

2. Technology is not the same as social media. Although the Town doesn’t engage on social media either, they seem to conflate the two. Social media has a place, but it is about reaching people where they are, distributing a message, and curating a brand. Technology, on the other hand, is about driving innovations to save money (e.g. e-communications instead of postage) and organizing and analyzing data to be publicly transparent and operate more efficiently.

Let me give a few examples of how my approach to technology would be different. I propose we:

Put public land & zoning records online. Some towns even charge a small fee to commercial users for online access, which generates revenue. Without the use of available technology, for you and me, reviewing these records requires a day off from work. For commercial interests, this inconvenience is a real expense and may cost us their business. What’s more, if you want to take pictures of these documents with your phone, the Town charges for that. They’ve created a rule to bar technology.

Encourage entrepreneurs, businesses, and residents to communicate with public servants through voicemail, email, and online scheduling. In towns that take economic development seriously, one can get a response within 24-48 hours of sending a message. In Wallingford, the Town cannot even always act on applications within 3 months. Adding ways to communicate doesn’t mean losing the ability to talk with someone on the phone or in person; rather, it makes the Town more accessible.

Create usable online portals that provide services without charging extra fees for people to receive and pay utility bills, apply for pool passes, and reserve athletic facilities and fields.

Update Wallingford’s website to allow citizens to report potholes, buckling sidewalks, utility damage, and street light outages. Then use this data for staffing and budgeting.

*Allow emergency vehicles to utilize red light technology both to gain life-saving minutes in an emergency and to protect our first responders. Again, why do we allow fear to stifle progress from available technology?

When the mayor was first elected in 1983, the world’s fastest computer was the size of an office, cost $15 million, and was slower than today’s basic laptop. Currently, microprocessors that are more powerful than early computers are in everything from laptops and telephones to refrigerators and toothbrushes, but Town Hall continues to deny that technology creates efficiencies or improves lives. In 1983, mobile phones were the size of your glove box and only the wealthy owned them. Today, cell phones are smaller than a deck of cards and are so cheap and convenient that practically everyone owns one. And in 1983, the internet was still largely a military application. Today, the internet is not only a source of information and best practices, but also a standard means for getting business done and communicating.

Very simply, over the past 36 years, neighboring towns have used technology in transformative ways to make the unimaginable possible and drive economic development. Now three decades behind on technology, Wallingford has much work ahead to catch up. It’s time to embrace technology that makes town government more customer-focused, service-oriented, and transparent. This is about our economic health. Let’s use technology to drive efficiencies so the Town can better serve residents.

Jared Liu is a 2019 mayoral candidate. His full plans are at: www.jaredliu.com