Venture capitalist Hemant Taneja sees a huge problem looming for America. Technology is increasingly taking over jobs that were once done by people. As this trend accelerates, there will be fewer and fewer people who need to work.
But at the same time, we are living a lot longer. And while ideas like a universal basic stipend might take care of paying all of those people who no longer have to work — what will they do with their days? Work gives our lives meaning as much as it fills our wallets. Are we destined to be sloths who simply consumer entertainment like the dystopian vision laid out in the movie Wall-E or the book Ready Player One?
Taneja thinks we can do better.
“Are we creating a world of technology that replaces human potential or are we unleashing human potential?” asked Taneja. “What do we want to be as a society?”
Taneja, a managing director at General Catalyst Partners, discussed these issue with CALinnovates Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan during an interview for the A Step Ahead podcast. Taneja believes that technology needs to work harder to include humans in the equation or risk cutting them out altogether. That means thinking about solutions to the unintended consequences of technology before we are faced with them as a society. Social platforms, he argued, should have seen the risk of something like fake news coming and gotten out in front of the problem in a responsible way.
“The right thing would be for the innovation sector to think about responsible innovation and for large tech platforms to handle their power with care and algorithmic accountability,” said Taneja.
If not, the government will eventually come in and impose regulations on the industry that could stifle innovation. Taneja believe that now is the time for Silicon Valley to take a hard look inward and decide how it can innovate more responsibly going forward.
Erin Schrode refers to herself as a young “Eco-Renaissance” woman, and when you look at her list of accomplishments, it’s not hard to see why. When she was still in high school, Schrode co-founded Turning Green, an organization dedicated to helping teenagers advocate for a cleaner environment. She has appeared on ABC and been quoted in TheNew York Times and was honored by the White House for her dedication to political action.
And late last year, she was shot with a rubber bullet.
Schrode was interviewing pipeline protesters at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota when she felt a piercing pain in her back. She turned to see an officer who had fired the bullet out of a grenade launcher. The experience only doubled her resolve to continue telling stories of the protesters.
“Any rhetoric of violence from the water protectors was a lie,” Schrode told CALinnovates Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan during an interview for the A Step Ahead podcast. “I saw the power of nonviolent direct action play out again and again there.”
Schrode is someone political watchers should keep an eye on. Last year, at just 25, she ran for Congress in California’s 2nd District. Although she lost to incumbent Jared Huffman, Schrode used her campaign to call attention to important issues involving the environment and education.
Over the next four years, she hopes to fire up her fellow millennials to fight back against the Trump administration through technology and by showing up in person.
“This is the time to organize and advocate and mobilize in a way we never have before,” said Schrode. “Our future depends on it.”
Chelsea Collier is obsessed with smart cities. The Austin resident recently spent several weeks in China visiting different cities to see how they are using technology to work more efficiently. There she discovered things like a smog-sucking high-rise in Beijing and government organizations dedicated to building bridges between industry and government.
“Their process is very deliberate and streamlined,” Collier told Kish Rajan during CALinnovates’ latest A Step Ahead podcast. “But that’s because it’s a single party. They all march to the beat of the same drum.”
While there may be some appeal to that simplicity, the Chinese system obviously comes with its share of problems. But Collier was happy to focus on the positive and see inspiration in the work happening in China.
Her trip was part of her research through an Eisenhower Fellowship which she won last year. She’s looking all over to see what make some cities smarter and publishing her findings at Digi.city.
“I don’t think of some cities as dumb per se,” said Collier. “They’re just not as connected as they could be.”
Collier believes that cities should be using technology to engage citizens and to make services smarter. In San Diego, for example, the city is using an app to let people instantly report problems such as potholes and downed electrical wires. In her hometown of Austin they’ve created an app to help move excess food from restaurants and stores to people who don’t have enough to eat.
“How do we invite smart people in the private sector to help create these kinds of solutions?” asked Collier. “At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.”
Much of Silicon Valley may be mourning Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump last month, but at least one tech insider believes Silicon Valley itself helped hand Trump his victory.
Economic anxiety outside of the technology centers was a major factor in Trump’s victory, says Ronald Klain, executive vice president and general counsel at Washington, D.C.-based venture capital firm Revolution. When voters heard Clinton talk about adding jobs in clean energy — an industry tied more closely to California and New York than to any part of the Rust Belt — they felt excluded. Their wariness may well be justified, according to Klain. “We bear some responsibility for this in the sense that the tech community has largely been focused on funding companies in just three parts of the country,” Klain said during an interview for CALinnovates’ “A Step Ahead” podcast, adding that those areas — Silicon Valley, New York and Boston — receive an estimated 75% to 80% of all venture capital funding in 2015. “This industry hasn’t done a good job of funding growth and innovation in the other 47 states, and it’s time to change that.”
How? For starters, Revolution has a program called Rise of the Rest, which invests primarily outside of Silicon Valley. Twice a year, the firm rents a bus and visit places such as Ohio, Indiana and Michigan to hunt for promising startups that need money.
“Silicon Valley is a national treasure; it is a global resource,” says Klain. “But we can’t have a country where only one or two or three parts of the country are thriving.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez is not going to take Donald Trump’s presidential victory sitting down. The California state representative has spent her career protecting the rights of the many immigrants who live in her district (the 80th) south of San Diego. She’s not about to let an anti-immigration administration trample on those rights.
“California is a laboratory of the left, and we’ve shown you can move forward with a progressive agenda and it will work,” she told CALinnovates Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan during an interview on the podcast “A Step Ahead.”
Although she views Trump’s plan to build a wall as mostly symbolic, she’s still worried about what his actions will mean for people such as the Dream Act kids, who willingly handed over their parents’ addresses (even though they are here illegally) to secure their own visas. Now the government has that information and may use it to deport people.
“They’re scared the government is going to break up their families,” she said.
Gonzalez also plans to fight for people in the service industry. While she acknowledges that the technical marvels that employ so many people in Silicon Valley are costing jobs in other parts of the state and country, she believes there’s still hope. Automation doesn’t mean an end to human workers — it means people will still need to operate and service machines and provide some human contact in settings such as stores and salons.
“You could have a robot cut your hair, but there is a social aspect to the service economy,” said Gonzalez. “We don’t talk about that a lot.”
To prepare the workforce of the future, Gonzalez believes we also need to rethink education. The idea of everyone going to a four-year college is a lofty one but may not be realistic or necessary, she says. She would like to see more apprentice programs, not just in tech but in industries like child care and health care.
“Going to college and studying sociology might not be the best path for everyone.”
Steve Westly moves easily between the worlds of technology and politics. The venture capitalist, who was an early investor in Tesla, served as state controller and chief financial officer of California between 2003 and 2007.
Now, like many in Silicon Valley, he is watching cautiously as President-elect Donald Trump forms his cabinet and starts to signal what his priorities will be over the next four years.
Despite Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign, when he railed against immigrants, called climate change a hoax and threatened to start a trade war with China, Westly believes that when it comes down to making real policy, Trump will back down on some of his most damaging rhetoric.
“I think Silicon Valley will fare just fine,” Westly told CALinnovates Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan. “Silicon Valley is getting bigger, not smaller. It is the tech center of the world, and I don’t think Trump wants to slow that growth for any reason.”
Immigrants have proven to be the secret sauce of Silicon Valley helping build companies that have created thousands of jobs. Renewable energy is quickly getting more affordable than coal and natural gas, and almost every economist agrees that a trade war with China would be a disaster.
But that doesn’t mean the Valley should be complacent. The economic dislocation that swept Trump into office is a growing problem.
“The 800-pound gorilla in the room is that new technology is coming,” says Westly. “But we have to get smarter about re-educating the American workforce. We have not done that nearly well enough in the past.”
Silicon Valley is just starting a long conversation about what the technology industry will look post-election. There’s no denying that things like fake new stories and filter bubbles strengthened the digital walls that are dividing the country. But that’s not where the conversation should end.
Over the coming months, we will be using A Step Ahead to explore questions around how much responsibility Silicon Valley should bear and what the industry can do going forward to help unite the country and build a stronger economy for everyone.
“This is a real opportunity for the technology community at large to force correct a little bit,” said CALinnovates founder Mike Montgomery on the latest A Step Ahead podcast. “Silicon Valley needs to fully embrace that the world changed on election night.”
In addition to thinking about social media, the industry will have to reckon with what role hacking may have played in the election and how it might hurt politics going forward. Tech titans will have to think carefully about how technology can help everyone, not just the people who are profiting from venture capital money, and we will all have to continue to talk about the ways in which government can harm or help the tech industry’s growth.
When big companies build new office or commercial spaces, they have teams of lawyers and consultants who help them navigate the permitting process.
Small-business owners don’t have that same luxury, and city hall can often be a confusing place.
That’s where OpenCounter comes in. The tech company works with cities to make the permitting process easier and more tech friendly. They take the many rules and regulations a new business owner might need to understand and present them in an intuitive way through their online portal.
It’s an idea that more cities could use to help spur new business. In a conversation with CALinnovates Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan, OpenCounter co-founder Peter Koht pointed out that America is 49th in the world for ease of starting a businesses and 33rd for ease of construction permitting. These complications create real problems for new business owners.
“This is not a problem unique to California,” said Koht. “We need citizen-focused permitting.”
Koht and his co-founder, Joel Mahoney, approached the problem from a design point of view. The information that new businesses need is mostly already on a city’s website. OpenCounter uses algorithms and natural language to present that information in a way that more people can easily use.
There’s enormous potential in clean energy. Not only will it finally wean us off of harmful fossil fuels, but it will create an entire new industry with lots of new jobs.
But in order to make this vision of the future a reality, businesses and government need to work together. That’s where Graham Richard comes in.
The former mayor of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Richard is now chief executive of Advanced Energy Economy, a San Francisco-based advocacy firm that is working to bring about a “prosperous economy based on secure, clean, affordable energy.” Richard works with companies such as Apple and Facebook that want to purchase more clean energy. He also works with federal and local governments to put policies in place that encourage the growth of the clean-energy sector.
“I’m more optimistic today than I have ever been,” Richard told CALInnovates Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan during an interview for the podcast “A Step Ahead.” “Because of innovative forces, the job-generating and economic impacts are becoming more effectively understood.”
Richard understands that in order to bring about a truly robust renewable economy, we need more than clever entrepreneurs coming up with great ideas like Nest and Tesla. We need the government to make fundamental changes in the way utilities are built and regulated. Instead of siloed regulations that look at things like the energy grid and renewables as different beasts, we need system-wide regulation that can bring lots of different players to the same table.
“Innovation in environmental technology is creating a $200 billion market,” says Richard. “That could climb to a $1 trillion market by 2030 and create new jobs all across the country.” If everyone comes together to make it happen.
As the executive director at For Richmond, Kyra Worthy is a tireless advocate for the people of Richmond, a working-class community located north of Berkeley and just across the San Francisco Bay from tony Mill Valley.
Worthy’s job is to help the people of Richmond live up to their full potential through better education and better jobs. She helps students and parents navigate the tricky waters of education beyond high school by working with historically black colleges to send promising students to college summer programs and then to four-year programs. She makes sure that when companies promise jobs for the community, they deliver, and that residents are prepared to fill those jobs.
For Richmond helps lots of people, but Worthy says there is still more work to be done.
“To have this negative cloud over the city as if folks aren’t ready [to work] is really doing an injustice for folks who just sort of skip over Richmond,” says Worthy. “People try to make the answers for the community instead of engaging the community.” She’s working to turn that around.
Listen to “A Step Ahead”‘s full interview with Worthy below: