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Evolve Foundation launches a $100 million fund to find startups working to relieve human suffering

01:58 | 4 November

It seems there’s nothing but bad news out there lately, but here’s some good news — the nonprofit Evolve Foundation has raised $100 million for a new fund called the Conscious Accelerator to combat loneliness, purposelessness, fear and anger spreading throughout the world though technology.

Co-founder of Matrix Partners China Bo Shao will lead the fund and will be looking for entrepreneurs focusing on tech that can help people become more present and aware.

“I know a lot of very wealthy people and many are very anxious or depressed,” he told TechCrunch. A lot of this he contributes to the way we use technology, especially social media networks.

“It becomes this anxiety-inducing activity where I have to think about what’s the next post I should write to get most people to like me and comment and forward,” he said. “It seems that post has you trapped. Within 10 minutes, you are wondering how many people liked this, how many commented. It was so addicting.”

Teens are especially prone to this anxiety, he points out. It turns out it’s a real mental health condition known as Social Media Anxiety Disorder (SMAD).

“Social media is the new sugar or the new smoking of this generation,” Shao told TechCrunch.

He quit social media in September of 2013 but tells TechCrunch he’s been on a journey to find ways to improve his life and others for the last 10 years.

His new fund, as laid out in a recent Medium post announcement, seeks to maximize the social good, find solutions to the issues now facing us through technology, not just investing in something with good returns.

Shao plans to use his background as a prominent VC in a multi-billion-dollar firm to find those working on the type of technology to make us less anxious and more centered.

The Conscious Accelerator has already funded a meditation app called Inside Timer. It’s also going to launch a parenting app to help parents raise their children to be resilient in an often confusing world.

He’s also not opposed to funding projects like the one two UC Berkeley students put together to identify Russian and politically toxic Twitter bots — something Twitter has been criticized for not getting a handle on internally.

“The hope is we will attract entrepreneurs who are conscious,” Shao said.

Featured Image: Yann Cœuru/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE



Immigrant eyes

18:10 | 19 March

Over the past few years we’ve seen a lot of anger. We’ve seen a seemingly sane country cut itself off from mainland Europe and we’ve seen a seemingly beneficent border police force turn angry. We’ve heard that immigrants steal our jobs, kill our people, and bring in drugs and terror.

This is wrong.

On the pro-side we know that immigrants, as a whole, commit less crime than US born citizens. On the side against immigration we get a few vignettes of terror that pretend to paint a whole picture. Further, we must understand the plight of the worker in America and Britain. Immigrants do take jobs and the white-collar world can’t see the effects. Antonio Garcia-Martinez, author of Chaos Monkeys, said it best when he wrote:

Blue Staters ridicule working-class Red Staters’ support for Trump, and his rhetoric around building a wall. Of course, white collar workers already have their wall: it’s called the H1 visa, and it means they don’t have to compete with every graduate of IIT or Tsinghua for a job. Imagine for a moment if there were a scrum of diligent and capable Chinese and Indian engineers in front of Facebook and Google (as there is a scrum of Mexicans outside every Home Depot in the US), each ready to take the job for less than the coddled American inside stuffing his face with the free ribs. What would that engineer’s opinion on illegal immigration be then?

What the Red Staters are asking for is essentially the same guarantees around a limited flow of outside labor that the Blue Staters already enjoy.

As always, it’s not enlightened ideals that define political opinions, it’s power and self-interest. White collar workers have the views they do because they’ve already gotten theirs, and they don’t care about the high-school-educated plumber or construction worker in Louisville or Des Moines, who sees that Mexican outside Home Depot (rightly) as a threat to his livelihood.

Everyone is right and no one is. High tech is blind to the plight of the migrant worker and depends on the largesse of governments for programmers and outsourced data centers. Everyone, from the guy in a truck at Home Depot to the woman in an Uber on the Golden Gate, must take stock and try to help.

Ultimately immigration is a change agent and a necessity. Populations age. Cultures shift. New technologies will fix old failures. And throughout it all the sane and accepted migration of the skilled and unskilled, refugees and expats, will get us through. To blame our ills on those different from us is a failure of humanity and this failure has repeated itself over and over again since the Dark Ages. We fear – but need – the Other. That fear must be excised.

In the end I can only recommend one or two things to fix this in the short term. First, understand your own roots and your own path and try to help others in your same course. My grandparents were Polish and Hungarian. I’ve tried, in my own way, to boost those countries as much as I can, knowing full well that their economies and ecosystems are in full bloom and they don’t need much help. But what they need is investment and attention. I can give them that.

We can also help spread the vision of entrepreneurship throughout the world. A few weeks ago I met a group of Cuban entrepreneurs who were visiting Denver and they stopped in at Boomtown to see what the accelerator experience was like. These were men and women who, desire the odds and political machinations, were building their country’s Internet infrastructure. They loved seeing how the accelerator helped young companies grow and I think their eyes were opened to new possibilities. They’ll be attending Disrupt in May, as well. It was the least I could do for them.

But the thing that struck me most was how similar they were to every entrepreneur I meet from Zagreb to Alameda. All had a clearness of vision, all were ready to work and change. All were ready to move forward despite all odds. They aren’t here to steal jobs, they’re here to make jobs. Their not here to break the body politic but to strengthen the good and cleave away the bad. They are here to fix things at home and abroad.

They are not immigrants. They are people. They move from place to place, bringing some bad but more good. They will never stop. They will never give up. It’s best to harness that energy than to stifle it.

I was at a wedding in Pittsburgh a few years ago when I heard a story from an older friend who heard about my Polish roots. Three girls, eight, ten, and fourteen, came over from Warsaw by way of Gdansk in about 1900. They sailed with their father, a blacksmith and drinker, and arrived in New York shaken and sick. They took an overland route to Coal Country and settled outside of Pittsburgh. Their father went to work in the mines and the girls went to school. One afternoon, when they came home, their father was gone.

He had gone back to Poland, leaving the girls alone. They didn’t know why he left – he had a half-baked plan to bring his wife over – and he din’t leave much money or even a note. The girls took jobs sewing and cleaning and the oldest took care of the middle child who took care of the youngest. All went to school when they could. The neighborhood, made up mostly of immigrants, tried to helped and the girls made a life for themselves. Unbeknownst to them, their parents died back in Poland which is why their letters home went unanswered. It is a tale of penury, perdition, and fear, of babes in the woods and, potentially, failure.

But it didn’t end in a nightmare.

The girls grew and married. They built lives in a new world into which they were thrust, like babies dipped howling into the baptismal font in Pittsburgh’s Kościół Matki Boskiej, the shock of the future coming over them in a rush. And they made it. Their father, for all his faults, knew they would be safe. The world where his daughters now lived was not nearly as dangerous as the world he left and the potential for survival was far greater. He trusted his girls to the tide of immigration and he was not wrong.

“That was my grandmother, the youngest one,” said my friend. He is now an engineer in Pittsburgh, an American.

We forget that we all came from afar, with nothing. And we cannot fear those who follow behind us.

Featured Image: jvoves/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE



London’s Black Cabs Turn To Crowdfunding To Fight Uber

17:34 | 18 January

The battle between London’s black cabs and upstart incomer Uber has been a relatively subdued affair thus far — aside from the odd scuffle and some roadblocking demonstrations last year. Not for Brits the violent displays of anger seen over the channel in France last summer.

But despite the lack of open street warfare in London there’s still no love lost between London’s distinctive — and heavily regulated — Black Cabs and the Silicon Valley upstart.

And now a group of London Black Cab supporters, called Action for Cabbies, is hoping to step up the fight by launching a crowdfunding campaign to push for a judicial review of Transport for London’s 2012 decision to grant Uber a licence to operate in the city.

It’s arguing that the procedures followed were wrong and that TfL has subsequently failed to enforce the law. The group is led by Artemis Mercer, the wife of a cabbie, who has also been running a campaign group on Facebook.

“TfL is inept,” Mercer tells TechCrunch. “They really need to stop faffing around. Bringing in new legislation to cap the amount of new licences that they’re issuing — I’m told it’s about nearly 800 a week last week. Touting is going on, there aren’t adequate insurance checks or legal background checks with a lot of these PHV new licences. It’s paramount to public safety that TfL regulates and they’re not doing that. And they’re operating outside their remit by giving licences and creating operators who operate outside the legal framework.

“The legal framework that’s in place has got public safety at the heart of it. And it creates a two tier system between private hire vehicles and black taxis. When TfL issued Uber London a licence in 2012 they effectively created a third tier system — so they went from being a law regulator to a law enforcer and acting outside of their remit,” she adds, arguing that this third tier system compromises public safety. “We’re saying that TfL were wrong in their decision to grant Uber a licence.”

Last year London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, effectively voiced support for this point of view, writing in The Telegraph that: “At present that law is being systematically broken — or at least circumvented — by the use of the Uber app”, and adding:  “Until Parliament has the guts to change the law we must uphold the existing and long-standing legal distinctions between black cabs and minicabs.”

Specific regulations Mercer flags as being undermined by the ‘three tier’ system she argues is effectively in place given Uber’s presence on London’s road include wheelchair accessibility, stringent background checks on drivers and local road knowledge expertise. She also notes that black cabs are regulated on the price they can charge — so can’t impose surge pricing at will as Uber does.

Action for Cabbies is looking to raise £600,000, via, to finance an initial stage of what it hopes will become a full-blown legal challenge to Uber’s licence to operate in London. The first tranche of sought funds will cover applying to the court for permission to bring an application for judicial review against TfL.

If that application is successful, more funds would then be needed to finance the next stage of the legal challenge. “If… permission is granted the application would then be heard in open Court with both parties having the right to make their case,” notes the group’s lawyers, Rosenblatt Solicitors, in a statement. “It may be that Uber itself would appear in Court too on the basis that it has a vested interest in the outcome and if so they would have the chance also to make their case.”

In Germany, taxi association Taxi Deutschland, has had considerable success in squeezing Uber out of the domestic market. Last November Uber pulled out of three German cities — citing difficulties getting enough drivers, and blaming regulatory complexities for that — albeit the move followed a court ban on Uber using unlicensed drivers earlier in the year. Uber is now operational only in Berlin and Munich in Germany (although in the former it only runs a service that uses regular licensed taxis to fulfill rides hailed via its app — with its UberPop service having been banned).

Why has it taken London’s black cabbies some four years to get round to trying to challenge Uber’s licence, given the success of such coordinated action in Germany?

“I can’t really answer that question,” says Mercer, noting she’s not part of an official black cab organization. “I’m a cabbie’s wife that set up a Facebook group in May last year that’s now got over 20,000 followers between Facebook and Twitter. And this opportunity was given to me to act as a neutral body to bring all the 25,000 cabbies together.”

But when the German example is brought up she does add: “The London taxi trade is a very fragmented industry.”

tl;dr — if the taxi industry wants to fight Uber, it better have a united front.

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A TfL consultation on proposed changes to regulations governing Private Hire Vehicles (PHVs) — which is what Ubers are classed as — concluded at the end of last year, with the body now considering responses. Uber lobbied against these proposed changes, couching them as a specific attack on its business and an attempt to “address the concerns of black cab drivers”. However Mercer is scathing about this process — arguing that TfL should be upholding the existing law, rather than engaging in a knob twiddling exercise.

“The law is already in place they just need to enforce the regulation,” she says. “We didn’t need to have a consultation to tell us what already needs to be done. Unfortunately because TfL are so inept they’ve let it go on for such a long time and now we need to backtrack to actually put back in place how it should have been in the first place.”

Uber saw off a major U.K. High Court challenge last October, brought by the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association — successfully arguing that the use of its app did not constitute an illegal taximeter. However that case pivoted on the technical definition of a taximeter. A legal challenge to Uber’s licence, based on proving the parameters of current regulation, may be on firmer ground than trying to argue a smartphone is the same as a taximeter.

If Action for Cabbies can raise the £600,000 in crowdfunds over the next eight weeks Mercer says it envisages being able to bring a case to court “around June time” — provided the rest of the funds can also be raised to finance the legal action. Mercer won’t be drawn on costs for that, noting: “We’re just dealing with phase one at this stage”.

Featured Image: Counse/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE


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