Issues

What China Can Teach America About Smart Cities

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.”

Listen to the full interview here:

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A Step Ahead: Chelsea Collier

Hey everybody. Kish Rajen, Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates and welcome to the latest episode of A Step Ahead. We’re talking to Chelsea Collier who is talking about smart cities through her initiative, Digi.City. It’s a fascinating discussion about how innovation and technology can revolutionize the way that communities function. Basic infrastructure, basic civic services, and the way citizens can use technology to get involved in the communities where they live and work. Chelsea here brings a wonderful perspective and we were glad to have her on A Step Ahead. Chelsea Collier, hey, thanks so much for joining us on A Step Ahead, we really appreciate it.

Chelsea Coller: Oh no, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

You and I had a chance to talk and you helped convene a panel in San Diego not long ago. A really great conversation that ensued there, where you brought together the public sector, private sector, people thinking about innovation policy, that was a really informative session.

Glad you enjoyed it, and my hope is to be able to put people in a room who may or may not always find themselves together in conversation. I think smart cities is a great platform to be able to do that.

Well, that certainly worked and it did, it brought very innovative leadership from the city government itself along with people on the business and economic development side. It was a rich conversation about how those public and private interests can align and how we can do important things in places like San Diego and beyond. I gather that’s what your work is, so tell us a little bit about Digi.City and what you’re up to.

Sure. Well, I’ve worked in a variety of different sectors over the course of my career. Public sector in communications, I worked for the governor’s office in Texas so had a little bit of public sector experience. I’ve worked in this tech and startup community, I’ve worked in social impact community, and all of that has felt phonetic over my career but I’m really excited that the topic of smart cities is a chance to bring all of that conversation together. I was really fortunate, I received an Eisenhower Fellowship in January of this year and I chose the topic of my research to be smart cities both across the US and also in China. Really, as a way to study best practices, see what was happening in the fields across both nations, and then use those practices to bring people together to have interesting conversations and to hopefully spur more innovation. I launched Digi.City which is a blog, it’s my personal blog, as a way to foster that conversation. I thought I can publish a Whitepaper in a year that nobody’s going to read or I can talk about it as it’s happening, which might be a little more messy but to me, messy is interesting. That’s the background of where I’ve been and what I’m working on and hopefully being of service to everybody, private sector and public sector, and the smart city spaces, we’re all trying to figure it out.

Well let’s get into that a little bit. Are most of our cities dumb in the United States? Tell us what that means.

I don’t think they’re dumb, per se, but it’s certainly not as connected as it could be. If you look at public sector and private sector, I think cities have really evolved in two different silos and that hasn’t helped anyone. People in the public sector, city staff and city leadership, they’re tasked heavily with serving their community but not always knowing how to engage citizens. Even the whole idea of a city council meeting as a place to involve citizens, most citizens and residents aren’t going to sit through a city council meeting, it doesn’t fit the way that we work and live. On the other side, in the private sector side, technology is moving so fast and it’s enabling this 24/7 connectivity in our lives to where we’re always on, we’re always connected, we’re always creating. I’m really hoping that smart cities is a way to enable technology to connect and bridge those two divided areas. I’m seeing that in some cities.

Are you talking about using technology as a means of reaching the citizenry and enabling them to be more civically engaged, or are you talking about city operations and the way the streets work and the way the water systems work? Help us understand where you see the opportunities for technology to be applied in our civic life.

That’s a perfect question and I’m really grateful that you framed it that way because it gets to the heart of the challenge and to the heart of the promise, I think. In San Diego, I was really impressed to hear about the Get It Done app. This goes to the point of civic engagement, really enabling citizens who are running around their city as a way to connect with how the city operates. The Get It Done app, as I understand it, is basically empowering every citizen and resident with their mobile phone if they see a pothole, if they see an electricity line down, if they see grounds that are unkempt, or something that’s not quite right, or something that’s really wonderful that they want to champion and cheer. They can snap a picture of it, upload it to the app, and then it fosters the conversation between that city department or that city employee and the person who’s recording the issues. That’s an example of smart technology and smart city technology in San Diego that’s doing that citizen engagement piece.

At the same time, your question about how a city operates, smart technology is absolutely critical to that piece of it. I learned a lot about what was happening with street lights and there’s a pilot program where there are sensors connected to the street light that helps them adjust the timing of the traffic lights in accordance to the traffic volumes. A dumb way to operate is somebody shimmying up the street light every two years and clicking how many people go underneath it as opposed to a sensor which communicates in real time what’s happening. If there’s congestion, it can adjust with its current reality.

Yeah, there’s so many great applications you could think of and as you may know, I served on my own city council in a small town in California for four years. I was coming out of the mobile phone industry that I had been in for 10 years and seeing this incredibly rapid evolution of new technologies that were changing everything. We were looking at how city governments function, whether it’s how citizens learn about or report potholes or how traffic flows or how street lights operate from a lighting and safety perspective, to how the trash and recycling gets collected and when and where. You could go on and on and on, all of these seemingly mundane aspects of our daily life in our cities that we take for granted, could and probably should be revolutionized by technology to make them more effective.

That’s exactly right. Yeah and it’s really fun to think about. Having been in the private sector and the public sector, I really appreciate that you have that perspective and can have compassion for both. I live in Austin, Texas, you know, we have such an engaged, super, super intelligent startup community here. Tech entrepreneurs who are priming employees to see a challenge and then fix it. They’re focused on how can we quickly escalate the solutions, and then you apply that to city government, which has been created in the citizen interest, and you can’t experiment in the same way. I think the cities that are unearthing better leaders in the smart city space are finding a way to meet in the middle and to rethink the silos that aren’t about immediate delivery of services, the trash and the potholes and the parks and recreation and those groups. But in thinking cross laterally and especially from a policy perspective, how do we become more nimble, how do we invite smart people in the private sector both in the corporate world and the startup world to help us create these solutions because at the end of the day, we’re all in it together so how does each city want to create the city that it wants to become.

Well, it’s such a great way that you phrased that, how do we invite that kind of talent and entrepreneurship and ingenuity to tackling what again, can often be these mundane but really important public problems. One of the things that we’ve worked on a lot at CALinnovates is around open data and I’m wondering if this is part of your work or the research that you’ve seen in places like San Francisco, San Diego, I’m sure in Austin and Boston and New York and other places. When the city government or the local government will make the data that they possess inside of all of their internal operations, when they’ll expose that and make it available for entrepreneurs to see that data, what often is produced are great new ideas, great applications, great tools that as you said, invite that ingenuity in creating whole new mechanisms around how we deal with important aspects of our daily lives.

Mm-hmm, and the important piece of it for the city is to really message what they’re doing with that data, how they’re managing it, and address the citizen and resident concerns that naturally pop up. It’s easy, I think in the lack of information, for fear to be produced. I think cities that are getting it right are really doing again, that citizen engagement piece where they say wow, I think we have a great opportunity here, we’re going to be capturing all this data because we’re putting sensors on street lights and cameras to make our city safer, all of these sensor, data collection points.

“By the way, here’s the department that’s managing all this data, here’s what was thought about, of course we’re worried about security and privacy and that’s our number one priority. Here’s how we clean the data and here’s how we use it.” Everyone is opting in because as private sector citizens, we exchange privacy for convenience all the time.

Yeah, we check that-

Every single, tiny-

That terms and conditions boxes all the time, right.

Exactly right, every time I try to get from here to there, I’m letting someone know where I’m going and I’m very happy to do that because it helps me live my life more efficiently. I think if the messaging is right and it’s inclusive and there’s a real conversation there, then we can do exactly the same thing on the safe front as well.

Well, it’s a great point you make and again, my experience at government at all levels is that communication is a very difficult thing to do. I think we are entering a very complicated period for government because I think for the reasons that you touched on, one, government is always going to be risk averse, I mean, it should be risk averse. These aren’t startup companies that are inviting risk because failure is part of the process. Failures in government have real consequences and so there’s a natural risk aversion to experimentation and innovation, right? We have to deal with that but the other piece that you mentioned also is that how do you get the citizenry comfortable, let alone participate in new models of engaging their government when the communication channels are old and often are not that effective. These are really vexing challenges right now.

Agreed and I think it’s the tech community that gets it on an entirely different level. In Austin, I think it’s in June, we have the ATX Hack for Change which is a civic hack-a-thon that is sponsored by the city, it’s put on by St. Edward’s University, and it brings all of the people in the tech sector and the broader community, everybody becomes a hacker whether you’re a designer or project manager, a coder, developer, teacher, whatever your role is. It’s this participatory engagement way that you can choose a project and hack the city. Not in a bad way but in a good way, creating an engaging project. That’s one small part of this solution but I think the more that we can talk about it and lovingly challenge cities to be transparent and support them, that they don’t have to have it all figured out and that they can ask for help and that the citizenry can rise up to meet that challenge.

What’s one of your favorite examples that you’ve seen or have you seen anything that really strikes you as a good example of where that kind of hack-a-thon or that engagement between the city and inviting in those entrepreneurs produced some new idea or some new approach that appears to be making a difference in that community?

Yeah, there was a project that came out of the hack-a-thon and I’m playing favorites here, which is a bit unfair. There are literally hundreds of projects that are so cool and we could talk for 10 hours about all of the great stuff but in the early years of the hack-a-thon, I think it’s in its fourth year, coming up on fifth year, there was a project that engaged folks to work with area restaurants around feeding the hungry and handling excess capacity from restaurants and grocery stores. That project was actually recognized by the White House and the leaders of that project went and presented it in front of the White House administration. I think that was two years ago but that’s the one that comes to mind as something that literally was started with a question, like why do we have all this excess capacity and hungry people at the same time? This doesn’t make sense, can technology be some part of the solution to bring people together? The program is still up and running.

Well, that’s a fantastic example. We certainly have seen that if there’s one thing the internet and good applications can do well, it’s find excess supply and demand and put them together in a more efficient way. We see through these new innovations, there’s challenges with home share and with ride share and new types of applications that are doing that really well. Consumers love it but it causes consternation. I think those battles will continue for some time but there you are raising an example of matching supply and demand, it sounds like it’s doing some pretty significant public good.

Yeah and you bring up a great point about the sharing economy policy, that was a big wake up call, I think, for a lot of people that you can’t sit back and wait for the city to unfold the way that you want it. It really requires participation from everyone. In Austin, we’ve had a lot of challenges due to a new city council that’s come on board, and ride sharing and a lot of the home sharing, Airbnb legislation was not what people wanted it to be. It was again, a huge wake up call where people said wait a minute, what do you mean I can’t rent out my home to Airbnb, this is Austin, we’re the founding city of HomeAway. What’s happening? What do you mean Lyft and Uber can’t operate here? It was a rally cry for engagement and that policy doesn’t happen by accident. Another piece that is really top of mind, at least for me right now but doesn’t get a lot of talk, it doesn’t get a lot of air time, is the whole idea around network capacity. We’re seeing all of the IOT, Internet of Things, all the sensors collecting data, that number is proliferating at a speed that none of us are truly conscious of but the numbers are staggering. The capacity for our networks to handle all of that volume is going to be a very, very big issue very soon.

Well, as I mentioned, I spent at least the first part of my career in the mobile industry and I’m old enough that I was around the first go around when we were building out the first generation of what we now take for granted as digital wireless networks. Now that was 1G where now we’re talking about 5G, which is what you’re alluding to, but when you talk to the telecom network providers, they’ll tell you about the amount of physical infrastructure, the number of the repeaters or the mini-towers if you will that need to get deployed. That number is growing dramatically because of the nature of how these more powerful networks need to function in order to accommodate all of the data that you’re talking about. Whether it’s the billions of devices being connected through the Internet of Things or it’s the intensity of video and other varied data intensive services that people really love and want. To your point, it raises a really big challenge at the local level to enable that infrastructure, doesn’t it?

That’s right and to educate the policy makers and also to educate the citizens and residents that this stuff doesn’t happen overnight. One of the things that I’m hoping and attempting to do through Digi.City is really cheerlead and champion cities who are having the right approach to that policy who are creating a streamlined permitting process that really spurs competition and encourages innovation. As opposed to what I hope doesn’t happen in many cities, which is four years down the road, people aren’t getting the connectivity that they want and then all of a sudden, everyone’s mad and not as connected as they could be. Cities will really lose out in that scenario. Trying to raise the profile of that conversation and really get people thinking about it and talking about it and looking at what policies have been successful so far.

Well, no kidding. In the few minutes we have left, you mentioned in your introduction that the work that you’ve been doing or the research is both here and in China. Obviously a very different form of government there where they can move much more deliberately at the government level with things they want to accomplish. I’m wondering, what is your experience in terms of the contract that may be happening there versus what you see in the US?

It’s pretty massive. All of my assumptions were challenged. I was there for four weeks and spent time in five different cities in China and the massive scale at which they think and deploy innovation is absolutely amazing. To your point, which is so well said, it’s very deliberate and it’s very streamlined. It’s a single party system and there’s an edict from the central government to the local government and associations and private sector and citizens, they all march to the beat of the same drum once that vision is communicated. The language that I kept hearing is, “innovation is the way that we will liberate citizens from poverty.” They’re incredibly connected and have I think 298 smart city projects active and another 300 in the works about to be deployed. They’re moving at a rapid, rapid speed and to some that causes fear. I think there’s a lot of hesitation around China but to me, I think it’s incredibly inspiring. We can learn from the advances that they’ve already created and then apply that of course to our system of government and what works here in the US.

Yeah and-

I think if we concentrate on the positive, then we can learn a lot.

Yeah, yeah, you know I mentioned to you when we met that when I worked for governor Brown, we took a ten day trip to China. It was a trade mission but also where the governor was actively working on climate policy with the Chinese government there at the national and at the provincial level. Governor Brown, of course, he’s got a very unique style as you know and he was openly talking about how much he admired at some level the speed and the determination with which big projects and big things could get accomplished in China. No California Environmental Quality act or regulations slowing them down. He of course was a bit tongue in cheek but he was honestly saying here in the United States, we could learn a little bit from them about how, as you said, they get a vision and they make it happen. Of course, they can learn quite a bit from us too in certain ways but he did acknowledge that there’s a lot to look up to in certain ways there.

That’s right and in my experience, again, I’m one person and I was there for four weeks so I’m certainly no expert on Chinese foreign policy or even their rate of technology but what I did understand is that they’re very transparent about the challenges and very determined, to borrow your word about how to leverage technology and innovation to address those challenges. I think it’s definitely something to keep a tab on.

Yeah. Well, back here at home, last question Chelsea, we’ve gone through a national election, we have a new president that’s talked a lot about infrastructure, some policy and potentially investment from the federal level. You’ve been now traveling the United States and seeing examples of what’s possible here. What is your level of optimism and enthusiasm about where we’re headed as a country towards this vision of deploying smarter cities?

In the smart cities space specifically, there has been a very decentralized approach in the US. It’s been every city for themselves, and the private sector has really led that conversation and then tried to apply that to cities. That has some success but I don’t think it’s as efficient as it could be. In June, the Department of Transportation issued a smart cities challenge and chose the winner in June through the Department of Transportation and Secretary Fox chose Columbus, Ohio as that winner. That was really the first time that there was a dialogue between the federal level and the local level of some challenge or even very light policy recommendations about how to go about implementing smart cities, smart city technology. I think we’ll see a lot more of that and that will happen relatively quickly because that conversation can’t happen in isolation.

I was at a conference and I was listening to the chief innovation officer of Chicago talk about when they’re looking at their infrastructure challenges and there are many, whether they were talking about roads or waterways or bridges or you can fill in the blank, whatever big system needs a ton of money to maintain it. They’re looking at smart cities and connected technology as sensors to gather information about what are the most vulnerable, and what’re the most efficient way to go about and deploy resources. They’re using that smart city technology to spend money wiser and more efficiently which in the big picture, means that they save money in the long term. I think that’s perhaps a subcurative answer to your question but I think we’re going to see a lot more collaboration with some vision from the federal level. It can really help to bolster the local level to make decisions smarter.

Well, I think that it’s a hopeful idea that we can find smarter ways to create collaboration at the federal and local level in ways that are also inviting more of that private investment. It certainly seems that that’s going to be the necessary combination to help us to look at all of our legacy infrastructure and the things you touched on before, how do we create a new chapter of civic engagement between the public and their government? Hopefully this vision around what the smart cities can be can stimulate the progress that we’re capable of and that we really need.

Yeah, that’s very well said, great.

Well, listen, Chelsea Collier at Digi.City, thank you so much for the work that you’re doing and we’ll be following your travels and the information that you’re sharing on your blog. We really appreciate you spending time with us here on A Step Ahead.

Thanks for the opportunity and for creating a platform. I mean, these are exactly the conversations that we should all be having and thanks for fostering it.

Alex Wilhelm, Editor in Chief at Mattermark

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A Step Ahead: Alex Wilhelm

Hey everyone. It’s Mike Montgomery here on the A Step Ahead podcast, and today we’re joined by Alex Wilhelm from Mattermark. Hey, Alex.

Alex Wilhelm: Hey. Thanks for having me.

Really glad you’re here. Let’s start by talking about you. Is that okay with you?

I never get bored with myself, so I’ll go ahead and say, “Yes.”

All right. What is Mattermark?

Mattermark is two things. On the business side, it’s a corporation that collects and processes a bunch of data on private corporations, that people like venture capitalists buy from us on a recurring basis, to help them do deals and that sort of thing. It has a history in journalism, the company was actually founded as an add to journalism by accident. Back in the day our CEO, Danielle Morrell, wrote a long series of blog posts over a month long period, and in one of those she ranked a bunch of portfolio companies of the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. She ranked them by traffic, and Twitter followers, and so forth to come up with kind of a ranking of their portfolio. That became a product, that product became a company, and Mattermark’s been around for three or four years now. That’s kind of one thing. Then my side of the company is the publishing arm. A little old journalism shop that does coverage of the intersection of finance and tech. You want to think about this model in more of the real world sense, Bloomberg is a data company and a media company. We’re like the micro micro micro version of that, if you will.

Got it, so your audience is like VC’s, investors?

About four people and my mom, so a small crowd.

No I think that’s it’s odd to see a niche topic like finance and tech, and kind of their collision point become more mainstream. There’s so much money inside of Silicon Valley in the technology industry right now, it’s quite a broad thing to talk about it. So my audience goes from people that are interested in tech, people that are into tech, to people that fund tech. Also I think a lot of people that may invest into VC portfolios and so forth. I have a relatively savvy audience, if you will. I don’t have to do a lot of re-explaining of issues and topics, which is fun, but it also means that I do write for a more narrow audience. Back when I was at TechCrunch I wrote for a much more mainstream set of people, which means that you have different goals, but over the last, I guess eleven months now, I’ve gotten to focus on kind of one evolving story, which is the state of technology in America, and that’s been a real blast. I really feel like I’ve learned a lot. I hope I’ve done a good job. I can’t really grade myself, but it’s been fun.

I have a question for you. You spend a lot of time as most journalists do, on Twitter.

Yes sir.

How do you get anything else done, because Twitter seems to have the ability to take over people’s lives. How do you balance that?

Well it’s not a subtraction from productivity if you do it correctly. Often I will get off Twitter for an hour or two when I’m working on something that’s creative and I need to focus. If I’m writing or I’m editing I’m not usually on Twitter at the same time because I need to have kind of a singular focus, but a lot of the time I’m news gathering, or I’m reading, or I’m taking part in a conversation, and a lot of the things that I share on Twitter, that I see in Twitter, that I talk about on Twitter, find their way into stuff that I write about. That’s kind of the continuing conversation that feeds and helps me kind of hone what I think. It’s where you get a lot of good ideas, you see a lot of really bad ideas, you see hot takes, cold takes, medium rare takes, whatever.

You’re no different than Donald Trump?

I don’t watch Morning Joe on MSNBC and then tweet about what I saw and tank stocks, so no, not quite Trumpian. Also, his tweets are lame. His tweets are always about him. He’s actually really bad at Twitter. Imagine if he had no followers and tweeting out that same crap. I mean how ridiculous would it be. He’s only famous because he’s famous.

You’re kind of a pot stirrer, you like to throw shit occasionally, right?

I wouldn’t self-describe that way, I just think we’re all very snarky. I think that one fun thing about Twitter, kind of a recurring basis is that it gives us-

Is that-

Go for it, sorry.

I was just going to say, is there any regrets with some of that snark, or is it all just usually in good fun?

Yeah, I think it would be unfair to say none. Not as much as you’d think. There’s a lot of people out there who, either due to their job can’t say much though they want to, a lot of people there have a bias towards positivity, which I find very interesting. They say, they default to the rule that if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything. Which is ridiculous. If you write, as you guys do, at least some, you understand that every sentence you put down is a declaration. If you’re always making judgment calls, why stop at the positive? Why not go on to the negative? I think the PR industry is so big and so powerful in a way, that you need an even more corrective dose of negativity just to get back to even. They’re paid to spin positive about everything. They’re much bigger than journalism, and they’re better funded, and they’re growing more quickly. The negative stuff is stylistic to some extent, I have to admit it’s fun, but it has a purpose too. It’s not just me, you know, I can’t say that in a podcast, what’s a polite way to phrase self-indulgent? I guess that’s a good enough.

That may be a polite way to phrase it.

Yeah I think we’ll just leave it there.

Yeah, your, all right, so you’re pretty young, are you a millennial?

I’m viscerally a millennial, yes.

Uh huh, okay, and you spent some time at The Next Web, right?

Yeah, I did.

What’s changed since your days at The Next Web? Like what, in terms of journalism, what’s different now than it used to be?

Well, I joined The Next Web probably, what, seven years ago, somewhere in there, and so back then I don’t think BuzzFeed was nearly as big as it is now, and BuzzFeed didn’t have the same high quality news team that it does now. BuzzFeed news is actually pretty good. Recode wasn’t born, BI wasn’t spun out and purchased. Washington Post had different owners. The Journal wasn’t doing as many buyouts. Newspapers sold more ads. The one thing about the journalism industry is that it continues to fall apart somehow and still exist. I don’t know how that keeps happening, but it’s strange.

What the future of newspapers?

I mean I was just at Starbucks for my 8:30 a.m., and I was reading the print copy of The Journal, and it only had two main sections to it. Made me kind of sad. It used to be a lot deeper. I don’t know man, there’s a lot of cool companies working on this. There’s a Dutch company that’s doing a lot of great work on micro payments for individual articles that I’ve covered actually for Mattermark, and that’s doing a lot of good work, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s been lost. I think as we all understand paywalls are not replacing declining ad revenues for papers. To me it’s a bad looking situation that won’t probably get better until the general public decides that it wants to invest in newspapers, or the government does. The government won’t, and people don’t seem to be willing or able to, so I don’t have any good news. Or even good hopes. Okay but same question back to you, what do you think the future of newspapers is, say in the next five years?

I think they’re a lot of smart people in the newspaper industry who are taking a second look at it. We’ve got Jeff Bezos who’s trying to revive The Post, and you’ve got some really smart people running the Times operation, and then I even heard that the Chronicle’s making money now, which is surprising given the fact that it seems like it’s not got a lot of news in it, so-

Well, I like The Chronicle, I have to protest. I have to protest big, my friend Owen Thomas is the Business Editor over at The Chronicle and I think he’s doing a very fine job. At least for in that desk.

That’s great, but it’s not a business newspaper. It’s a multipurpose newspaper. If you get past the great work of Owen, and you try to read the sports page or the front page, or the entertainment section, there’s not a lot left.

Are you a big fan of the entertainment section? Is that your go to?

No, I’m a sports fan.

Ah, okay, fair enough.

Yeah, yeah yeah yeah. But I’ll read it all. I’ve gone through a lot of years sitting on a Muni bus or whatever with some time on my hands, and something to read and I used to be able to fill that time well, and now it’s harder to fill that time because I can just blow right through it.

Yeah.

I guess there’s the beauty of this world that we live in now is that there’s a great mix, right? You can grab a newspaper, you can use your phone or whatever you want to read, anything from Mattermark to Reddit, wherever you get your news. There are more options, but this idea of micro payments per article is great. It may help everybody.

I recall the name of the company, it’s called Blendle.

Blendle.

Blendle, yeah, and they’re a big hit in Europe and they’re just I think in open beta here in the US. I’m hoping, just between us, that it does well, because if there’s a way to get more money from me to newspapers, that’s great. I’m a Post subscriber, which I’m actually pretty happy about, and I founded a company back in the day called Contenture. That was trying to do micro payments for online content, but way before it’s time, so it died. This is a space that I really care about, both intellectually and professionally.

I met somebody at a conference who was trying to do micro payments for porn. What do you think about that?

Well, given that it’s porn, why not do macro payments?

You know what? This is a topic that I find explaining working knowledge of will somehow out myself. I’ll just say that I think that’s there’s a number of online media formats that monetize at different levels, and pornography may be one of the more successful ones. Especially going back in the history of the internet, porn’s been at the forefront of technology. They were the first people to do online payments, video streaming, and so forth. It does matter, jokes aside, but given the advent of free porn, and here I am showing off my knowledge of the industry, I think that cat’s kind of already out of the bag as it were.

Right on. Okay, so let’s talk a little bit about journalistic integrity and direction. When you worked at TechCrunch, TechCrunch was owned by a variety of a different companies. I guess first AOL and Time Warner, maybe now Verizon. Did that limit you in any way shape or form? Did you feel bound by positions that your parent companies had taken?

When I was there it was owned by AOL and then my last six months were the Verizon acquisition. I was there towards the very tail end of AOL’s independence and then the first bit of its non-independence. The short answer is not even slightly. I never had any pushback. I mean really the first thing I did when I got to TechCrunch was cover the implosion of Patch, which was AOL’s micro, sort of hyper local news startup. I was a jerk, because it was a horrible product, and a horrible business, and it lost tons of money.

My wife is offended that you’re saying that. Offended.

I mean Patch is a delectable, delightful, delicious thing that should have been kept going. With Patch, whether you liked it or not, it lost a bunch of money and AOL couldn’t afford it. I joined TC and that was one of the first things I worked on. I’m sure they read it, but they couldn’t do anything about it, because they didn’t control at all the newsroom at TC. This is a pattern that kept going. The only times that I ever really interacted with AOL staff in the editorial sense was when I needed legal backup. If I needed to have something read of mine that was let’s say breaking then about lawsuits, and you want to have your lawyers read it to make sure you’re not over your skis, it’s great to have institutional level resources to lean on. In terms of day-to-day, or even just month-to-month or quarter-to-quarter operations, zero pushback. Which is why TechCrunch works, and that’s why it’s stayed around. If there was any interference from above like that the brand would die, because it would lose all of its voice. TechCrunch really is just a voice. The Times has more reporters, Bloomberg has more reporters, The Journal’s bigger. TC only exists because it still has it’s own, I forget can we swear on this podcast, guys?

Feel free.

Okay, TechCrunch still has that “Fuck you” attitude, and that really does stand out in the mix of relatively milk toast reporting we see. No, it was great, and I’ve got to give them points for keeping the AOL stuff as far out of the TechCrunch world as possible. The only thing that ever really showed up that was AOL was my badge to get in the office and my AOL corporate credit card. Otherwise, there was no real AOL influence whatsoever.

Is that why you’re not there anymore? Because you ran up that bill pretty heavily?

I may have been late on my expenses once or twice. I will confess that paperwork is not my forte. No, actually that’s the thing I miss the most is having, well that’s a different story.

For another time. For another time.

Yeah, I think for the podcast it’s off recording. No I left because I had been doing that job effectively for six years, TechCrunch and I needed a new challenge. Taking over an editor role and doing things like writing style guidelines and ethics policies and hiring freelancers, and schedules and so forth was a whole set of new challenges that made me break out of my writer shell. I think TechCrunch remains the best place to write if you’re covering anything related to technology because it has the most support and the most freedom.

At Mattermark though now you’re going to start covering technology policy, right?

I don’t see a way around it. Yeah.

Is that because of the confluence of the issues you cover, they just kind of make natural sense, or is it because of the craziness that’s happening in Washington and New York right now?

I don’t see a difference between the two answers. The disaster force hurricane that is descending upon DC in the form of the crypto-fascist Donald Trump is the reason I have to write about it. I have a link pulled up right here from Recode from I think yesterday, that reads “Net neutrality faces extinction under Trump.” All right, that’s pretty interesting. That’s a political story that involves regulatory policy that directly impacts everyone here in Silicon Valley. Trump is bringing these stories essentially back into my fold. I haven’t covered tech policy much in the last year, but I don’t see a way that I can possibly talk about the industry without mentioning it and working on those issues.

If Hillary Clinton were President Elect right now you wouldn’t be touching on any tech policy?

Much less. I know Tom Wheeler a little bit, we’ve met a couple times and I interviewed him in New York, and I asked him when we were on stage, I was like “Are you going to stay in your role?” He said “She hasn’t asked me to yet.” His point was that if Hillary won the election and asked him to stay on he might have, and we would have had a continuance at the FCC which would have had a relatively stable regulatory landscape. Now with Pai probably taking over, that’s my guess, thankfully if it isn’t abolished altogether, it’s going to be a disaster. You know and a bunch of people are going to fight against it and it’s going to become again a Silicon Valley story.

Disaster, that’s going pretty far right? I mean it’s not like-

More effective in your life, man, disaster is polite terminology for what I might call it. That’s a two out of ten.

We’ve gone through a really interesting four years with Tom Wheeler. I would argue that what he did was pass a lot of highly partisan issues down three-two party lines where there was no willingness to work with the other side to get to a point where there could be compromise so that if something disastrous like this happened, some of these policies that would be in place wouldn’t be so controversial. Right now it’s very controversial. What we did at CALinnovates is we tried to look for third ways, right?

Yes.

It’s not one way or the other, but let’s find a creative path toward a solution that works for everyone.

That was the first time we spoke, right?

Yep, yep.

Yeah yeah yeah, I recall.

I would argue that Chairman Wheeler didn’t take that path. He took the path of least resistance which is “I’m going to get what I want, and fuck everybody else.” Now what we’ve got instead of taking the CALinnovates way, which was “Hey on net neutrality we need legislation that we can lock into affirmative law. What we have now is a regulation that can be overturned.”

Mm-hmm.

It’s not law anymore. It’s really hard to change a law, right?

Yeah, the term after parliament has a place in our shared language for a reason. I disagree a little bit. I don’t think there was enough political will through the means you’re describing to actually get net neutrality done in any strong capacity other than the way Chairman Wheeler did it. I agree that that would have been a much better option if possible. I just don’t think that that door was actually unlocked, at least in this last cycle. This is going to sound kind of dumb, and I’m not a fan of real politic in the morning, but if Trump’s pick trashes it, it may lead to a response from tech on a submission scale to actually drive legislation. I’m not sure if that’ll happen, tech so far has essentially, as I think we’ll get to, rolled over a bit now that’s Trump’s in charge, but I’m hoping they’ll find some back bones. On this issue, I mean it is cut and dry here, at least among all the investors, entrepreneurs and employees that I talk to. I don’t know a single person in Silicon Valley on a personal basis who’s not if favor of strong net neutrality.

To me the third option is more of a political point as opposed to a functional way to approach the issue. Again, Ajit Pai is not going to pursue a third option either, and I think he will work against that. There’s political will on the other side of the spectrum here, to drive that change forward.

In a perfect world, which we’re pretty well aware we don’t live in-

Sadly.

Yeah, the new Chairman would look for that compromise, would look for four one or five zero, votes, right?

Mm-hmm.

We’re probably looking at another four to eight years of three-two party line votes.

Why do you hold four-one five-zero votes in such high regard?

Because that means that at least the other side is getting closer to what they want, right? It’s not just steamrolling the other side. Let’s look at net neutrality or privacy or any other number of NPRM’s that happened under Wheeler. The controversial ones were all three two votes.

Yeah, sure.

What that meant was that, and again arguments that CALinnovates made, was there’s uncertainty in the future. There’s uncertainty with a new President, how’s it going to all play out? Those three-two votes that were really national stories-

Yeah.

Wouldn’t be as big of an issue today, because they would have been handled differently if they weren’t these three-two highly charged votes. A four one, a five zero, and we’re not talking about net neutrality or privacy any more because every side would have gotten closer to what they wanted. We may be moving on toward different issues. Net neutrality passed, right? All the sudden Netflix backs away from it. Cloudflare says “Whoa, whoa, whoa, be careful what you wish for, we didn’t mean what we just said.” There are groups that have come out and said, companies that have said “Wait a minute, hold on. Strong net neutrality, yeah, define strong and how that works and what that means.” I think we’re getting into a world where we’re going to stop talking about what things mean and how they apply. We’re perhaps entering a world where it doesn’t really matter.

You know I guess your call for-

According to the decision makers. I’m not going to say it doesn’t matter, because obviously all these things do matter.

For sure. I think the argument for centrism which we see a lot among the New York Times columnists, that are always calling for some sort of middle pathway, presumes that the winning group, in this case Tom Wheeler et. al., could’ve found in their opposition, I guess, to use a polite phrase, some willingness to compromise. In my experience talking to the people on the other side of this issue, there was no political will there. Or to use the old joke, there’s no there there. I don’t know.

We saw a long concerted effort by John Thune and Bill Nelson to try to craft legislation.

Inside of the GOP. When Ted Cruz called it Obamacare for the internet, that’s not a position from which you can argue a middle pathway.

That’s also Ted Cruz who didn’t have a lot of fans in congress, right?

Are you saying Ted Cruz is unpopular?

No, I would never suggest such a thing, never.

It’s amazing to me. Ted Cruz actually makes me feel better because at least when I wake up every day, I have at least one friend somewhere. Ted Cruz cannot say that and that’s one up on Ted Cruz every morning before I even have breakfast. I’m still beating Ted Cruz because I have at least one friend. So I smile. That does help on grayer minutes.

That’s true. Okay, so let’s talk about anybody who has ever made more money than everyone in America meeting up with Trump and his transition team to talk tech issues. What are your thoughts on that?

This is one of those moments in which I get to lean on my elders and betters. Kara Swisher, probably the best journalist in technology, she’s writing a column again over on Recode, and the headline, which I’m just going to read for you is “As Trump will thin skin, let’s down his hair for tech, shame on Silicon Valley for climbing the tower in silence.” It’s a great piece, everyone should read it. It’s Recode, there’s no paywall, you can just jump into it. She is taking a harder line against Trump than other people are and she is being as strident as she should be, and she’s doing it in a voice that’s much more authoritative and better spoken than I could ever muster, so I’m kind of enjoying her as my hero, as I’m her acolyte in this.

I think that there is an inherent complicity among big business, which is not a pejorative, to work with administrations. Which is great, and I think that shows a lot of maturity to work with people you disagree with. Then there are certain cases in which any sort of compromise is a form of appeasement. You have to decide is Trump an actual fascist, or is he just an idiot. If he’s an idiot go talk to him. If he’s a fascist and a threat to democracy don’t. It seems that tech is trying to have it both ways, and not discuss the moral applications of their move. For me, I think it’s sad that this is happening, but at the same time I do understand it from the shareholder perspective why they might do it.

Tell me this, what’s the difference between this meeting with these tech leaders and Trump, and the dinner that Trump had with Mitt Romney.

Well I think they’re great analogies. Mitt Romney looked horribly uncomfortable and then got shafted, so what’s the difference?

Right.

I think a better example there would be the discussion he had with media executives a couple weeks ago, that one of the media executives said was like a firing squad. He essentially brought in the media and then shot at them, the whole bunch and called them out for calling him out for lying. If that’s the tone of this meeting, and tech sits there and takes it, then they don’t have the moral fiber that we hoped they did. I think inside this industry there is some optimism that its leaders are in fact creating more than just short term profits. That they’re building technology that will improve lives and drive long-term improvements to human happiness.

That’s a big issue that I think perhaps people out on the West Coast didn’t realize bothered the rest of America. Think about the fact that tech is seen as a bunch of elites creating products and platforms for the elite.

Mm-hmm.

Do you sense that that’s something that the greater tech community is going to focus on and rethink a little bit?

I don’t think you’re ever going to get the arrogance out of tech. I don’t think you actually really want to. Which sounds counterintuitive, but to be an entrepreneur is to be arrogant, because you’re saying “Here’s the world, it’s not good enough, I’m going to make it better. Or at least try.” Which is inherently a non-conservative statement. In a small “c” conservative way, not in a political conservative way. I do very much feel the point you make about how much technology and the industry can seem very odd to outsiders. Especially because all the stories they read are like “These tech kids, they’re on hover boards drinking green juice upside down in the office pool.” Or whatever. Which is not 99.9% of tech.

The hot tub, right? Yeah.

Hot tub, that’s what I was going for, yes. Upside down hot tub with a green smoothie, yes. Which Google has five of out here. I’m kidding. There’s a lot of money here, there’s no way around that. I think that if you look at the quality of life improvement that technology can bring to humans on a short term basis, I mean in the last ten years, smart phones, okay? Ten years before that, broadband internet access. Ten years before that, the internet. These are big things that are going to change the arc of human history, and are changing how politics works around the world and so forth. Yeah, people here can be pretty full of themselves, I just don’t see it changing, or there being really any force to change it.

Right on, okay, let’s talk about a couple issues here. Fake news.

Oh.

Is this real? What should people be thinking about when they hear about fake news?

Oh man. That is a huge question. Let’s start with some facts I guess. Fake news, which I think for this we can define as news stories that are completely constructed to be sharable on social platforms that have no basis in reality and are not designed for a political point but are designed to generate clicks in ads, is an issue. It hit a, I think an apparent peak around the end of the election cycle as we’ve all seen. It’s not as big an issue outside of certain bubbles so far as I can tell, and finally there are some ethical requirements that social networks should answer to involving fake news. I’ll clarify that slightly, because it’s an odd statement.

Facebook is a media company because they filter your news feed and they decide what you see. They’re making editorial choices about the products. While they do that, they are in effect a media company and should have an editor, a public editor, an executive editor or something, to help guide that process. If they just run a straight temporal based news feed, and not make editorial choices, not name trending topics and so forth, then I think they can get away with saying “This is not our problem.” While they’re an active media company that has editorial capacity, I think they have a moral requirement to keep blatantly fake news that is sold as news off their platform. It’s a big topic, it has a lot of different sections to it, but I think that we can’t let tech companies that are also media companies shirk half their responsibility just because they right a whole lot of code.

Let’s break it down. Is fake news an epidemic or an overreaction?

It’s a bad head cold.

You didn’t answer the question. Great, great answer.

It’ll pass, like you like.

Yeah I like that, I appreciate-

That’s the third option.

Okay, I can accept that. All right, so what about the idea of zero rating, or free data, or any variety of names that this zero rating process is given? On the one hand you have the argument that it’s great for consumers because it doesn’t affect their data caps, and they can use, enjoy, listen, as much as they want. On the other hand, you have the argument about competition, and the effect that it has on perhaps startups entering a space dominated by the big players. What do you think about this issue?

I would say especially in the era of increasing mergers among both content and distribution companies, in developed markets zero rating is an abrogation of net neutrality both in spirit and print, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed. The other side of that is, in developing markets where there isn’t capital to build out the same level of access, if zero rating and other forms of bent marketplaces effectively, can help people get online I’m in favor of it. Where internet access is hard, if this is the only way we can get people online, viva. In developed markets where that’s not the same issue, I think it should be privy to the same rules as wire line connections. I want to have my cake and eat it too, but here in the US, to bring it to a local issue, I think zero rating is a bad idea.

You don’t want your Spotify zero rated?

No. No.

At all. Ever?

I do not want Verizon to decide that Spotify over other music providers is the way to go because one, they won’t choose Spotify, they’ll choose Verizon Music. Two, I don’t think I want to see that-

Wait a minute. Wait, hold on, hold on. Who chooses Verizon Music? A show of hands on this podcast. Who even knew that Verizon Music existed?

It doesn’t, I was making a point.

Exactly. Here’s the other piece of this. I think the idea behind zero rating is that it’s offered to all comers at the same price, right?

If they’re zero rating for an entire category of things, so if my mobile provider wanted to say all music services are zero rated equally, that’s slightly different to me. That’s not picking a single service or supplier, that’s taking a genre, and I would have less problem with that, but I’d still be I think intellectually opposed to it. I do think that’s an interesting way to approach the issue.

Okay, that’s fair. All right, so let’s talk a little bit more policy and let’s get into the brain of Alex Wilhelm from Mattermark here a little bit more, which could be equal parts awesome and scary, right?

Okay, yeah, fifty fifty.

Yeah, fifty-fifty, let’s roll the dice here. Do you have any policy predictions for the first hundred days of the new Trump administration?

Oh, man. Well, policy in what sense? Do you mean policy in the technology sense, or policy in-

In tech.

I think that the only thing we’ve really got a good handle on is that he has no idea what to do with the NSA. He’s going to probably appoint people that will end net neutrality. I think those are the only two things we can pretty well know looking at what’s going to happen. He’s very unpredictable. I mean, say whatever you want about him, he does things on a very random basis, so I don’t want to over prognosticate, but I do think we have given control of our national security apparatus to the wrong person. As a privacy advocate in a small way, that terrifies me. Those two things are huge. Even though there’s just two on the list, at least in my mind, I’m scared. Same question to you. Are there things that I’m missing?

I think it’s going to be interesting to see how the Trump administration deals with immigration. I don’t know if that’s a first hundred days issue, but it was a hallmark of his campaign, it talked about immigration in general. I know that most tech immigrants aren’t rapists and murderers. How does that get dealt with? I don’t know the answer, but it’ll be interesting to find out how that-

What’s your stance on H1B, and high school immigration?

My stance on H1B, from a personal perspective is the more the better.

Sure.

I think the US needs to be a magnet for pulling in the best and the brightest minds that we can, because they come here, they work at different tech companies, perhaps they fund a startup. The last thing we want to happen is for them to come over for a short while, create a platform that’s meaningful and creating jobs, and then you know what, they’re done. They’ve got to leave.

Right.

They’ve got to take that company somewhere else, they’ve got to take it to India, China, wherever. This country should be the place for the best and the brightest in tech, and we should open those walls and break down those barriers. Comprehensive immigration reform, I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen in the Trump administration, but I’m hopeful, and perhaps maybe the Peter Thiel principle comes into play. I guess we’ll see how much of a voice he has with the administration.

What is the Peter Thiel principle?

His existence.

Ah yes, it’s Peter Thiel’s corporeal, okay, all right. What’s your take on Peter Thiel by the way, that’s a good segue. What do you think about him?

What do I think of him? He’s obviously very smart.

Mm-hmm. Now who’s not answering the question?

Yeah, right? That’s my answer to the question. He’s obviously very smart, I’d like to go to the horse races with him, he’d pick the right pony. Knowing that he’s a Libertarian, knowing that he’s gay, I think there’s a sense that he’s turned his back on a lot of the people who not only rose up through the ranks with him, but people that he works with, people he invests in, I think there’s probably a lot of distrust right now.

Yeah. Also a lot of confusion, if you will.

Sure.

That’s been a notable thing. It’s also been really interesting to watch, and this is just as an observer. I’m not taking a side here. To watch how Y Combinator, the well known startup incubator and accelerator here in the valley that he is associated with, how they’ve handled this, and how they’ve tried to find a way to make their own individual political beliefs known, especially Sam Altman who’s roughly in charge of it, and also keep Peter Thiel in the fold somewhat. There’s been a lot of fire brand complaints about that, and again, and I’m not taking a side in this paragraph, but I think it’s driven a really interesting conversation among at least my peers around here, about what is an appropriate response. That comes back to what we said earlier which is “Is Trump a normal event,” in which case talking to and with his administration makes sense, or “is he a large enough threat that that will be collusion as opposed to opposition?” I don’t know I’m really excited to see how tech handles the next couple years.

Let’s say you’re walking down a dark alley on Friday night, and you walk past Peter Thiel. What would you say to him?

Can I have some money?

After that.

That would be my first thing.

How much would you ask for?

I don’t know about twenty bucks. I don’t want to owe him anything. It’s a cool question but I mean let’s rephrase it, slightly if I can, if we were having like dinner, so I had a little more time and it wasn’t creepy and rainy in the back alley, I would be really curious to get a better understanding of some of his politics. I would love to get into his mind a little bit and listen to him talk at length in a comfortable setting for him. The speech at the RNC was a bit brief. I’m really trying to get my head around what he thinks. I think that he is very much in a political mindset that I was when I was younger. I don’t say that as a slam, I haven’t been in the more hard core Libertarian head space for a while.

Let’s rephrase the question even a little bit more. If there was one thing you could ask him to do on behalf of the tech community, what would it be?

Ooh, that’s fun. I think I have an answer. This may not be my final answer, but it’s a good one.

Okay.

There’s so many things you could ask him to say. I think on behalf of me and tech in general I would say, “Take the message to the government that there is no middle option on encryption. That if they are forcing back doors and so forth into encryption, it will be inherently weakened, and we will all be under assault from foreign actors. Encryption is binary in how it works, and we must have strong encryption, or the internet as we know it does not work.” I think the internet, ecommerce and all that stuff is very important, and so I’m in favor of strong encryption, and I think that maybe given that he has the ear of Trump, he could pass along that message. That would be, at least a good answer, I don’t know if the best one, but it’s got to be top ten.

I think that’s pretty good. With that Alex, let’s wrap it up. A couple important things for our listeners. One, how do we find you on Twitter?

I’m Twitter.com/Alex. A-L-E-X.

How did you actually get Alex, where you like the first Twitter user of all time?

Nope, I bought it off a guy in Mexico in 2008.

For how much?

All the money I had at the time which was $60 in my PayPal account.

That is really impressive. What should we be looking for from Mattermark here in the coming months, anything exciting that we should be aware of?

Yeah, a couple small things. One, it’s the end of the year so we’re going to be taking a really long look back at all the venture capital cycles we’ve seen this year, where all the money went essentially. All the bets that were laid. We’re going to take a look ahead at the IPO market, and keep reading because we’re going to start doing more posts on tech policy as this all starts. This conversation is effectively preamble to the next four years. If in the first hundred days stuff goes down, as it were, we’ll be covering that too. I hope we do a good job and if we don’t, shoot me an email. It’s in my Twitter bio, and I will hear all your complaints.

Awesome, well Alex thanks for taking the time to join us on A Step Ahead and we look forward to agreeing with you, disagreeing with you and locking horns over the next forever.

It’s going to be a blast. Fries are on me.

All right sounds good. Everybody give Alex a follow on Twitter, and stay tuned for the next A Step Ahead.

In Cancer Fight, Artificial Intelligence Is A Smart Move For Everyone

By Mike Montgomery

Cancer, unfortunately, touches almost everyone. Like far too many, I’ve lost friends to this horrific disease. Luckily, there are a number of exciting technologies on the horizon that might help save lives.

For instance, right now, women depend on monthly home exams and annual mammograms to detect breast cancer. Soon, though, they may have another option. Cyrcadia Health, a cancer therapy startup, has developed a sensor-filled patch that can be inserted comfortably under a bra for daily wear. Connecting through the woman’s smartphone or PC, the patch uses machine-learning algorithms to track the woman’s breast tissue temperatures and analyze this data at the Cyrcadia lab. If it detects a change in pattern, the technology will quickly alert the woman — and her health-care provider — to schedule a follow-up with her doctor.

“This technology is fully automated in the cloud,” says Rob Royea, CEO of Cyrcadia. The patch, whose predicate is FDA cleared, is expected to hit the market next year and had a greater than 80% historical trial success rate in detecting tumors, even in dense breasts (which are typically tough to read in a mammogram).

Cancer therapy startups that use artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms are proliferating. While some parts of the tech industry are coming under fire for creating products and services that only help the wealthy (most people don’t really need things like on-demand liquor delivery), this is one area where technology is being used to help everyone.

Read the full article here.

VC Tech Insider: Nation Will Thrive When Middle America Gets Its Fair Share

Ronald Klain is executive vice president and general counsel at Washington, D.C.-based venture capital firm Revolution.

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.

Listen to the full interview here:

Like what you hear? Subscribe to A Step Ahead on iTunes.

A Step Ahead: Ron Klain

Hey, Kish Rajan, Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates, and welcome to this addition of A Step Ahead. We’re so lucky this time to be joined by Ron Klain, who is a long-time veteran of many presidential administrations and presidential campaigns. He is one of the smartest and most respected minds in all of Democratic politics, and now he works for Revolution, a venture capital firm investing in the businesses of tomorrow.

As you’ll hear, Ron has tremendous insights on the outcome of the election. The President-elect’s proposed infrastructure program and some of the pitfalls, and really what the future of tech looks like. It was a tremendous conversation. I hope you’ll enjoy it. Ron Klain. Hey, thanks so much for joining us on A Step Ahead. We really appreciate it.

Ron Klain: Thanks for having me.

As we record this, we’re still looking at the aftermath of the presidential election both in terms of what contributed to that outcome, and now as the new Trump Administration is coming into focus, in terms of its people and priorities. We’re watching very carefully the steps that are being taken, so I’d love to talk about that a little bit with you.

Right off the top, you just recently had an op-ed piece in The Washington Post where you talk specifically about the infrastructure program or at the least the concept that came out in candidate Trump and now President-elect Trump’s discussions of priorities. You warned that program, at least as he’s talking about it, really could be a trap for the country and particularly Democrats. What do you mean by that? How might that be a trap and what is your perspective there?

Well, thanks, Kish. Sure, I think we have great infrastructure needs as a country. We need to rebuild our roads, our bridges. We need to make sure every American has access to broadband. We need to improve our airports. We need to do all of these things. It’s not a question of whether or not we have infrastructure needs. We do. The question is, what has Donald Trump as a candidate for President proposed as the way to address them?

The plan that he put out in the campaign, a plan that was written by Wilbur Ross, the man he nominated to be the Commerce Secretary, now, the Ross plan basically provides a series of tax cuts to private sector investors to invest in for-profit infrastructure projects. The problem with that is this. First of all, the most pressing infrastructure needs we have are not for-profit infrastructure projects. Things like pipelines and utility systems, which are for-profit. Our biggest needs are things like roads, and water systems in places like Flint, and bridges that don’t charge tolls. That’s where we need the help, and the Trump plan does nothing for that.

Secondly, because the tax cuts can be used for projects that have already been planned doesn’t mean necessarily we’ll get any net increase in infrastructure. No net increase in jobs. People could just take the tax breaks that the plan offers and use them to give them even greater profits on the projects they already planned to do. That’s the second problem.

The third problem is when a version of this was proposed in the past it’s been loaded up with anti-labor, anti-environmental provisions that really just splinter Democrats, help some working people hurt other working people. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. I think when you look at the Trump plan, it is addressing a need we have, but it’s addressing it in a way that will not work, that will make the rich even richer and that won’t really deliver the kinds of infrastructure projects the country needs.

Well, that’s a pretty serious indictment. There are a lot of problems in that to be sure. Not to repeat all of that, but certainly the idea that significant tax breaks could be going to projects that are already planned, that wouldn’t stimulate new infrastructure, would not create new jobs, but only would end up being a financial windfall to people that have already committed to investments. That’s obviously quite troubling, and then really the last point that you made, that if it comes at the expense of not only potentially no growth and projects but also creating leverage to inhibit the types of labor protections and environmental protections, boy, that thing really could end up being a bad deal for America.

I think it would be a bad deal for America. Sadly, it would come at the expense of the kind of infrastructure plan that we really need. The kind of infrastructure plan that Secretary Clinton, for example, proposed during the campaign, which was a plan that made the investments we need in roads, and bridges, and infrastructure, and broadband, and the other kinds of basic fundamental needs we have as a society, and did it by actually raising taxes on the wealthy to help fund these projects. That’s the right way to do it. Giving tax breaks to investors is not going to get the job done.

I think the thing that is so troubling, and I guess a real challenge, and I guess, hence, you’re stepping out and wanting to create a warning to not go too quickly to be in support of this program is certainly so much of the campaign was about the state of the economy, and people’s economic anxiety, and a real concern about jobs or a lack of jobs that are out there and growing in places around the country. This plan, I think, is at least at a high level being built as a job creation plan, and you, of course, we’re involved in a real stimulus program that was about building projects and trying to put people to work. This seems like it would stand in real contrast to those efforts.

No question about it. Look, I think that good infrastructure programs can create jobs. I want to come back to that in a second. A program that just simply gives tax breaks to investors for projects that may already be planned, may already be about to launch anyway, will not create net jobs or may create very few net jobs, so I think there’s a big problem with that. The second issue is people need jobs and people live in places. It’s not clear that if you fund for-profit infrastructure projects, that if it even does create jobs, will those jobs be in the places that jobs are needed? The single biggest thing that Trump’s plan would fund would be pipelines probably because those are a kind of for-profit infrastructure project that the plan seems to envision. Pipelines are mentioned several times in the text of the plan.

Think about that. First of all, do we want more pipelines or not? There’s a big debate about that around environmental issues. Secondly, the pipelines are largely built in remote areas that may not be the places where people really need the jobs. In terms of getting jobs to the people who need jobs, building pipelines through wide open spaces may or may not be a great job creation program.

Yeah, no kidding. Well, it’s a really interesting perspective that you’re bringing. At CALinnovates here, we talk a lot about innovation in technology broadly. I’m wondering, one of the things that we certainly aspire or would love to see in any kind of infrastructure program is thinking about how new innovations could work alongside larger infrastructure projects to create 21st-century infrastructure that is smarter about transportation, smarter about utilities, smarter about energy conservation in ways that are both good environmental practices, but good economic stimulus because it’s catalyzing the growth of whole new sectors of the economy. We would love for that to be the case in a large-scale infrastructure program, but I get a sense from you that you have some doubts about whether that would actually be the result of what Donald Trump is talking about?

Well, I do. He was very critical throughout the campaign of a lot of the Obama Administration’s clean energy programs, a lot of the kinds of investments that have been made in wind power, solar power, other forms of clean and renewable power. Donald Trump was very, very critical of all that, so it’ll be curious to see where he winds up as President. We do have a lot of needs in this country. There are a lot of ways to create great jobs, high paying jobs in the clean energy of tomorrow. That was a high priority for secretary Clinton in her campaign, and we just can only hope that it will wind up being a priority of President-elect Trump. It hasn’t been yet, but I guess we can hope for the best.

I would love to talk about job creation broadly for a moment. It does seem, certainly, when you do these election postmortems there’s a lot of things that contributed to the outcome that we got. Clearly, economic anxiety in places that aren’t the innovation and technology centers was one of the major factors. You look at how successful President-elect Trump was in the rust belt where traditional industry has been the backbone of that economy and it’s been waning. They seem to look at places like California, like the Silicon Valley, and feel that type of technology is ivory tower. It’s kind of behind a wall that they can’t reach. It seems that there’s a lack of trust around where so much of innovation and technology’s headed. I’m curious as to your perspective on how pervasive do you see that point of view and what do we do about it? Because it certainly seems that we’re going to have to embrace technology if we are going to grow a new 21st-century economy.

Oh, I think that all of us in the tech community, though I work here at Revolution, we’re a venture capital firm that invests in tech firms. We bear some responsibility for this in the sense that the tech community’s largely been focused on funding companies in just three parts of the country. 75%, 80% of venture capital in startups in venture capital is just in Silicon Valley, New York City, and in the Boston area. This industry hasn’t done a good job of funding growth and innovation in the rest of the country, in the other 47 states, and it’s time to change that.

This is a big program we believe in here at our firm. At Revolution, we have what we call “The Rise of the Rest,” and so almost all of our investments are outside of Silicon Valley. We believe there are a lot of great companies in the rest of the country. In fact, twice a year we rent a bus, drive through places like Ohio and Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and we look for forgotten startups in these areas. We invest in those startups because we think that there are a lot of great people starting great business outside of Silicon Valley. It’s time for the industry, the technology industry, the investment industry, the entire ecosystem that supported the great success of Silicon Valley to look at the other 47 states, and to look for opportunities there, and to help grow the economies there.

Silicon Valley is amazing. It is a national treasure. It is a global resource, but we can’t have a country where only one, or two, or three parts of the country are thriving. We can’t be global leaders with only success in one, or two, or three parts of the country. There are super talented entrepreneurs in the rest of the country. They need investment. They need support. They need help. That’s really where our future lies.

Well, that’s really interesting. Why has it been, that statistic that you cited, 75% to 80% of the venture capital has been concentrated in those three states, those three major tech hubs that you’ve talked about? I’m curious as to what’s driven that deep of a concentration of investment in so few places and then how do we change that? How do you create financial incentives or otherwise to do what you’re talking about, which is to spread it more broadly?

Well, look, I think that these are kind of virtuous cycles, if you will, and highly concentrated cycles. That’s the nature, I guess, of the way we are as people. I think it also contributes, frankly, to a lot of the lack of full inclusion we see in tech and in venture capital. It’s basically people investing in places like them, people like them. It becomes very much of a closed circle. It’s not a surprise to me that someone in the middle part of the country looks at that and says, “That’s not going to create jobs for me. That’s not going to help people like me.”

It’s interesting, when we go and we invest in these cities, we invest in places in North Carolina, and Ohio, and Michigan what we find is a lot of great companies. Because since there isn’t as much capital chasing them from an investment perspective, we are able to do deals with better valuations. It’s often cheaper for the startups to start in these cities. They can hire talent at a more affordable price, and the cost of living is better in these places. We also find more female founders. We find more founders of color who aren’t locked out of the closed ecosystem that Silicon Valley often is. We find more diverse startups in terms of who their founders are to fund in these other places.

I think there’s a lot to be said for…again, I’m not trying to take anything away from Silicon Valley. It’s an amazing place. There’s obviously great companies, but there’s a lot to be said for what’s out there in the rest of country and what it would do both our country, for our economy, for our society, and for the tech VC community to look out there and to see what we can support.

There has to be the fodder for these types of startups all around the country. You’re right, there’s no question that Silicon Valley is sort of the nature of these virtuous cycles, as you’ve said, where talent wants to rush to the Silicon Valley because that’s the only place. I guess it’s the old Willy Sutton line. “You rob banks because that’s where the money was.” Now I would think and would hope that if others follow suit with what you’re saying they can discover that there’s all kinds of brilliant ideas, wonderful new concepts, wonderful ideas for new technologies, new companies all around the country. You don’t have to go to the Silicon Valley to find that stuff.

That’s right. Look, there are people who are graduating every day from colleges and universities all over the country. They want to stay in their communities. They want to start businesses with the people they went to college with who are also in those communities. They can hire teams in those communities. They can use a lot of the recent innovations to build virtual teams, cloud-based services, and sourcing talent from other places over the internet and whatnot to startup companies without moving to Silicon Valley. As I said, if they can get capital they can often build a team less expensively, rent space less expensively. All the things that make business very expensive to do in Silicon Valley can be a little bit easier in other parts of the country.

We just took our “Rise of the Rest” tour to Omaha, Nebraska. We found some great startups in Omaha, Nebraska and some great midsize and growing companies in Omaha, Nebraska where people leave the universities there. In particular, University of Nebraska. Great engineering backgrounds. Very talented people. Start great companies. Want to grow them there. That’s true in a lot of midsize places all over the country.

Finally, on this topic, and then I want to turn to politics maybe for just a couple more minutes before we let you go. It also seems to me, or a hope would be that by encouraging this kind of entrepreneurship and business development in places all around the country, what that could do is apply technology to a whole range of subject areas and not just the development of cool applications or cool gadgets that are driving a lot of what we see in Silicon Valley, which is interesting, and fun, and creating lots of wealth. How do sort of modernize traditional systems? Whether it be agriculture, or energy, or water, or other things that are sort of basic elements of our society that could benefit from refreshing or renewal by the type of folks that you’re seeing in Omaha and other places I would suspect?

Yeah, Kish. I think this is right on. I think it’s right on in two respects. First of all, there are regional specialties where startups can really benefit from that. Saint Louis is a great agricultural hub in the United States for a lot of reasons. Seeing a lot of ag tech and food tech startups in Saint Louis is good in every single way. One, it’s great to start a business in that space in Saint Louis because there’s a lot of expertise in the area. Two, starting such a startup in Saint Louis means you’re going to help revolutionize the incumbents in that area. That’s true for food in Saint Louis.

We did a “Rise of the Rest” stop in Nashville. We found a lot of people trying to use all kinds of technology to change the music industry in Nashville. Every region has these specialties. We’re investors in a company call Shinola, which is trying to bring some new forms of manufacturing to downtown Detroit and put people to work manufacturing things in the heart of Detroit. I think there are these local cultures, local specialties, and I think that matching those up by community can be very helpful in terms of the talent that’s there and the culture that’s there. It can disrupt and improve existing incumbents, make big companies more innovative themselves. There’s a dialog, kind of an interim process between the incumbents and the startups in a community. That can be very helpful, which leads to the second point, which is a lot of this regional-based startup idea centers around having these incumbents be the reference clients for startups. When we talk to people in the startup community, of course, it’s a challenge to find talent. It’s a challenge to build your company. It’s a challenge to find capital, but often, the really critical barrier is, can I make a first big sale? Can I sell my thing to somebody? Can I get someone to buy my thing?

Having startups in communities where there are big incumbents in the same space that often provides that critical, critical customer. Will Monsanto in Saint Louis buy ag tech from ag tech startups? I think that having this kind of regional-based strategy can really be good for all elements of the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Well, it sounds vital if we’re going to get to a place where we’re truly getting folks all around the country to see, and embrace, and leverage the benefits of technology and not see it as something to be worried about or, frankly, leveraged against, which I think in my view was just too much of what happened in the election. I appreciate your point that folks that are in the technology ecosystem bear some responsibility in helping to change that understanding and that perception in reality of what technology can really mean to us.

Look, I think bearing responsibility may be harsh, but I think the point is we all should understand that we’re all in this together, and that there are opportunities for the tech community if they reach out to the rest of the country. That will also change our politics in a more positive and healthy way.

Turning to politics for just another minute, you’ve been one of the great leaders in the Democratic party in our country now for some time. For those of us that are of that persuasion, thinking critically about what happened here, building this type of economy going forward that you’re talking about, I’m wondering if you see some challenge from within. Things around how organized labor, for instance, which is in such a critical and vital component of the Democratic party, but where is the willingness there to engage in this type of change? I might look at the education sector and ask the same question. I’m curious as to your view of what types of internal changes might have to happen to unleash the type of new economic era that I think you’re touching upon?

Well, look, I think that we have a lot of priorities as a country, and certainly, we need to do a better job on education. I still believe passionately we need immigration reform, even though I know immigration took a hard hit in the campaign. We cannot win the global battle for talent if this country educates hundreds of thousands of young people from around the world and then proceeds to send them home when they want to start jobs and create wealth here in the United States. That’s a mistake.

We need to invest in our infrastructure. That’s a critical need. Both our traditional infrastructure, and as you talked about earlier, give some of the new forms of infrastructure. We should have the best broadband in the world here in this country. We should have the best internet in the world in this country. That’s a critical part of our global competitiveness. Find ways to promote job creating capital formation. I think we have a lot of needs.

I have to say, I was a little disappointed. I know I’m a partisan, so you can take this with a grain of salt, but I was disappointed to see when President-elect Trump named his group of business advisors, his council to advise him on jobs. There wasn’t a single executive from the tech sector on that council. There were executives from Wall Street. There were executives from big industrial companies, but no one from technology, no one from venture capital, no one from social media, and no one from any of these new economy sectors. That sends a bad signal. I think we’ve got to obviously invest in our traditional legacy businesses here in America, but we also have to invest in the things that are creating jobs of tomorrow. Hopefully, the President will listen to people who are from these rising economic sectors in the future.

No kidding. It really begs the question if in his mind making America great again means that we’re going backwards to a time when the economy just looked and behaved differently, or if it actually means renewal, which is to build on what’s good, but to try to modernize it. I think by that measure of who he’s surrounding himself with so far, sadly, it looks like more of a backward looking approach to what the economy can or used to be.

Correct. That just seems to be highly unlikely that’s going to succeed. I don’t think we can go back to the America of the 1950s. I personally don’t want to go back to the America of the 1950s, but even if someone wants to I don’t think it’s possible. I think we have to find a way to really embrace what’s succeeding in our economy and then make sure it’s more widespread, more evenly shared, more evenly distributed, has more people with access to it. That, to me, seems like the best way to create jobs and growth for everyone.

Finally, finally, I always try to end on an optimistic note. Despite these present challenges that we have and the political disagreements and debates that are obviously going to ensue, what are you seeing out there through your work and revolution, and what you’re seeing on the political landscape that never the less gives you hope or makes you optimistic about what’s possible?

To go back to what I said a little while ago, Kish. I think it is interesting to me that as we travel the country of evolution, we go to some of these places that most people in tech don’t think about, midsize cities in the middle of the country, in almost all of them you find really enthusiastic, really energetic entrepreneurs. It’s encouraging in a number of ways because a lot of these entrepreneurs outside of Silicon Valley not only have all the same energy, and intensity, and enthusiasm that they have in Silicon Valley about the products they’re building and the teams they’re assembling, but they also really often have a real dedication to their own communities. To making these a better place to live. To really growing and revitalizing cities in the heartland of the country.

They often have a dedication to focus more on job creation. I think too often in Silicon Valley it’s almost a badge of honor that you can create a billion dollar company and employ no people. I think that you see out in the heartland people are really focused more on startups that create jobs, that growth, and that often real focus on a double bottom line. A real focus on the social impact of what they’re doing. When you talk to these entrepreneurs you hear so much enthusiasm about how their product will make their communities better, how their product will make the world better. How their products help the environment, help with people’s healthcare, help with education, help with these pressing social needs. I see a lot of really energetic and enthusiastic people out there who want to make their communities a better place, who are looking for some help to do that. There’s a lot of great people doing great work out there in the country if we all just give them a hand.

Well, listen, Ron Klain, the work that you have done for some time through politics in the public sector and now the great work that you’re clearly doing at Revolution, you have been and continue to be one of those contributors making a real difference across the U.S. We really appreciate the work that you continue to do, and I’m very grateful that you took a few moments out of your schedule to talk with us here on A Step Ahead.

Great. Thanks, Kish. I appreciate it.

Welcome To The Resistance: Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Prepares To Fight Back Against Trump

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.”

Listen to the full interview below:

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A Step Ahead: Lorena Gonzalez

Hey all! Kish Rajan, Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates, and welcome to this edition of A Step Ahead.

Lorena Gonzalez has become one of the rising stars of the California State Legislature, and as you’ll hear in our conversation, she is a proud progressive leader, part of what now is being viewed as the “California Resistance” to the new incoming Trump administration.

She’s passionate on a whole host of issues, and I hope you’ll enjoy the discussion that we have.

Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, thanks for joining us on A Step Ahead. I appreciate it.

Lorena Gonzalez: Thank you for having me.

Yeah, it’s great to be here in beautiful downtown San Diego. Any chance to come down here is always nice.

Yeah, people don’t usually complain about having to come down to visit.

No. No, no, this is not tough duty.

Nope.

So listen…as we record this, we are still in the immediate aftermath of the election of President-Elect Trump. We are seeing him make some very key appointments, or at least indicating who he wants to appoint to important positions.

I’d love to unpack that a little bit, and talk about the reaction that you all have, just in the California State Legislature…is it fair to say that, in California, welcome to the resistance? Is that the way you all are seeing it up there?

I think it’s clear there are two things. One, we’re going to ensure that we protect Californians…every Californian, from any kind of atrocious act by our federal government. You have some, I think, really progressive people who probably never thought that they’d be waving the banner of federalism and state rights…but suddenly it’s become very important.

But you also have California. And it’s, kind of, the laboratory of the left, if you will, and we’ve shown in recent years that you can move things forward, progressive agendas…and it can work.

Right.

We’re doing well in this state. There’s always going to be problems, but we’re doing very well. And I think that you’re going to see us continue to show that it.

It’s going to be more important than ever, because eventually, we’ll get out of this nationally. We’re not going to be stuck in a…kind of a, Trump America…I don’t think, for more than four years.

Yeah.

Definitely not for more than eight.

And we have to provide an example of where America can go. And I think that that’s what we’re trying to do.

I think it’s a good point, although we’ll see about the “eight” limitation, you never know what the ambition may be. I think Steve Bannon said they were going to rule for fifty years after this.

Don’t scare me!

It’s Friday, I wanted to…

Yeah, yeah.

All right. Let’s talk about some of the specifics.

So, immigration…we saw how strident he was during the campaign. He’s appointed an Attorney General who has a track record, personally and through his staff, of being very tough on immigration…the president-elect hasn’t backed off the idea of a deportation force, that he talked about in the campaign. He certainly hasn’t backed off the idea of building the wall. You all took some action this week, talking about those issues, as I saw.

We’re obviously going to push back. We’re going to protect Californians. Quite frankly, the obsession on the wall is…I represent the border. And our border is completely fenced or walled off already.

I think those of us that live along the border, who represent this area, laugh…we know that most of the drugs that come in come in via tunnel. He’s not even talking about a tunnel. We know that a huge portion of those who come to this country, and don’t have documentation, overstay visas…they’re not walking across.

So I guess a symbolic thing…for other parts of the country, they would have to actually create some sort of barrier.

Yeah.

I think it’s much more important and we need to focus on what’s really going to happen.

I always say, “Fine. If you’re going to build a wall, I hope it’s done with union labor…I hope that we can build it under a PLA when we build it up, and under a PLA when we take it down, eventually, because that’s what’s going to happen.”

Right.

So, I think…it’s symbolic though, right? Of kind of, putting a barrier between what we know are families. It’s not just two countries. It’s portions of families that live on the other side of the border. And we need to be cognizant of that.

I represent a community, City Heights, in my district…well, all of my districts…has a large immigrant population. But in City Heights, the small community where I actually live, a third of the folks who live there are foreign-born. We have a huge…one of the biggest Muslim refugee communities in the nation. My district itself is one of the largest, both legal and undocumented immigrants.

And so, a lot of his rhetoric has become very, very scary.

It must be terrifying that people, I trust, are coming to you, and asking you for help, or protection, or support against the kinds of things that he’s suggesting.

The two folks who I feel, I think, the most for, are: One, school age children, who maybe were born here, many of them born here, who know that their parents are subject to deportation.

And the fear that we saw, even coming into this election, I think probably, and I blame all of us, for giving false promises that it was never going to happen.

And I think going back and trying to protect those kids who have never spent a day in Mexico, or another country, who have been born here, who are citizens, but know that, maybe, one or both of their parents are not here legally…that thought of breaking up families is very scary.

It’s amazing. And then, the DREAMers, right? The idea…

The dreamers are the other, I was going to say.

We’ve had interns who are DREAMers…I worked on a DACA bill, and a few of them have said it’s amazing, when you think about the fact that they gave this information to the federal government…not just about themselves, but about their parents. The only way to become a DREAMer officially, or be qualified, was to show consistency in the United States. They gave up the address of their non-documented parents.

I think there’s some fear, yeah. And that’s already in the hands of the federal government. There’s not a lot we can do about that in California.

And, we know, we passed a law in the last few years to allow, of course, every Californian the right to drive, and we’ve collected that information. Where that information goes is very important. We have students, and colleges, and universities, as well as K-12, that need to be protected.

So, yeah, there’s a lot to do. We have to.

It appears there’s a real clash.

How do you feel about the proposed appointment of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra? Because that’s going to be a critical role on immigration and on other things.

Well, I’m really looking to him to show his brilliance. A Stanford grad, a Stanford law grad. There’s bias there.

I knew that had to come out at some point. Go there, but that’s a different podcast.

I was very happy to see Xavier appointed in that position. I think, as Attorney General, it may be the perfect appointment.

I mean, Jerry Brown always surprises us and gets things just right, and I think that this is one of those. Somebody who has shown himself to be a leader nationally on immigration issues…Has shown himself to be able to stand up and articulate why we’re doing things…And I think he’ll lead the way in fighting this administration.

Yeah. Well, I think he’s going to have his hands full. But I think it’ll be interesting.

Switching gears a little bit to climate…of course, California’s prided itself and done so much to be a global leader in the fight against climate change. President Obama’s administration has done a great deal as well.

Now you have a new appointee, or proposed appointee, whose mission as the Attorney General of the state of Oklahoma has been to fight, and to sue the EPA…the organization that now he’s being appointed to lead.

Your thoughts?

Well, you know, the Department of Defense has stated in the past that climate change is the biggest threat facing the United States. It is the biggest threat internationally.

So I think, if…for somebody like the president-elect, who has said he wants to fight terrorism… he should probably look at starting with protecting our environment. Because we know that what comes next, because of the heating of the world, is scary.

It’s almost beyond me to imagine we’re going to go backwards, and I just have to keep having faith in states like California, obviously, Oregon, Washington…some of the states who have really led the way, and will continue to, on ensuring that we’re moving forward.

And not to understate…California still could be its own nation, so…

Right. Well, there’s no doubt.

And you think about everything that’s happened in California, as you say, from a resilient, and a threat perspective to our people, but also to our economy. Here on the coast, the Port of San Diego, the Port of Long Beach, the Port of Los Angeles…obviously, subjected to sea level rise as a result of climate change.

The economic implications of backing out that policy is very big for our state.

I think it’s very big. And that’s our state, where we have the political will, I think, to continue.

But if you look at states like Florida, and you have places in Miami where the water’s just seeping up on the sidewalk. Hey, you know, they’re not going to be able to ignore it either.

And so, I think we’re going to have increased effects. We don’t get the extreme weather that other parts of the country get, and that’s going to continue. And if we make it worse I think at some point, people have to realize.

And I loved seeing even the Pope talking about this as one of the biggest issues facing our world.

Yeah. It’s an economic issue and it’s a social justice issue. There’s just no question about it.

I’ll keep moving through the issues. Labor, which is something that…you, obviously, come out of the labor movement, feel very connected to and remain a leader in the California labor movement.

We have a new designee for the U.S. Department of Labor and I wanted to pull up a quote. So this gentleman is currently the head of the holding company that owns Carl’s Junior and Hardee’s and other fast food restaurants.

He had a quote a couple of months ago talking about automation in those retail establishments, and how important it is to replace workers saying, quote, “Machines are always polite. They always up-sell. They never take a vacation. They never show up late. There’s never a slip and fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

He was just celebrating how wonderful machines are from a labor standpoint. Apparently, that’s the philosophy he’ll bring now to the Federal Department of Labor.

Well, it’s going to be a challenge. It’s not exactly what president-elect talked about in his stump speeches, and I think that people are in for a rude awakening.

This is a man who really, as we’ve grown, kind of, the rights of fast food workers, has just pushed back. He has suggested that everything from, the minimum wage shouldn’t exist, no sick day legislation. He’s been opposed to overtime rules.

He’s just not exactly somebody who has ever fought for a worker, or even from the rights perspective, has even looked at the possibility of workers mattering. And so obviously this quote doesn’t surprise me.

We know that the workforce, and that computers, and machines, are going to enter the service industry. That’s been coming. That’s nothing new.

Right. Sure.

You saw Amazon’s PR push this week about this new retail store concept that they’re rolling out. That, it’s a grocery store that’ll have no clerks, no checkout. It’s all automated.

The minute that you wall in with your Amazon account, it detects who you are, your payment mechanism is connected, and you can literally just grab and go all of the items and it will automatically detect…it’s kind of like the old mini-bar concept, right? Where you touch that sucker and it just…

It’s done.

Yeah. They’re building out stores right now. They’re launching one in Seattle in a couple of months, so it’s coming.

Yeah, there’s definitely an automation that’s coming, but, what we’ve seen, And I think that this is true, is it won’t go fully automated. There’s just no way. We have…The fact that the clientele won’t adapt to that.

You try to tell my father that he’s not going to have a person to talk to at a store, and you’re going to have mass chaos. And I know he’s not the only one.

And you have ways around that. In California, obviously, if you want to go checker-less, I suppose, you can’t sell alcohol.

We have laws we’ve already passed to kind of look at some of these issues, because there are protections that are necessary, that human judgment is the only thing that can come into play.

So we’ve known this is coming. Obviously, we’ve got to adapt to some of it.

Right.

The question is, how much? And what all will change, and how quickly, and what we do as a society to help ease the way?

But in the big picture, shouldn’t we be embracing and encouraging this level of innovation and technology? And not holding on to traditional or legacy approaches to labor? I mean, isn’t there attention there that perhaps can be an inhibitor to progress, and stop us from finding ways to employee people in different ways?

So, I think there’s a balance, right? When we saw automation, kind of, in the manufacturing industry?

There wasn’t a lot to be done about it, quite frankly. It was coming. We’ve seen it in agrarian society. It doesn’t completely replace the workforce, but we’ve seen this already happen in different forms.

I think one of the unique things about the service industry is there is a person-person contact that happens. You could have a robot cut your hair. You could. They’d probably figure out a very good way to do it.

Yeah.

But there’s something about people going to their hairdresser, their barbershop, and having that relationship. And I don’t think we can minimize that. I think that there will always be a need for people in the service industry, because it is a social aspect.

And that’s not talked about a lot, because we talk about business as, kind of…supply and demand, and customers, and the product, but that’s a very real portion.

You see, your kids, for those of us who have them, they’re not picking the phone up and calling their friends anymore. They text, they email, but they don’t even email, let’s be honest. They text and they message on whatever thing, or they’re playing a game together, somehow, remotely.

They still go over to each other’s house. They still hang out. We still have organized sports. So, as things change, we’re still human beings. And we’re going to need that, kind of, person-person contact.

On the other hand, look. We’ve got to figure out…where are those new jobs going to be, though? And how do we get people into those new jobs, and productive? Because work matters.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re the person making the hamburger at Wendy’s, or if you’re the person cleaning up after everybody who had been there goes home. That work matters too, and it matters to the individual.

And we can’t just disregard the notion of work for folks.

I think it’s a critically important point. And you’re talking about self-worth and dignity, and it’s always been the anchor of people, and families, and communities. There’s no question.

But we really are in this very complicated time of seeing the advancement of technology. In California, you and I met when I was leading the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development.

I traveled all around the state, really saw what was happening, and it doesn’t take you very long to see this bifurcation of the economy, where you have these technology hubs, and innovation, and entrepreneurship that is driving incredible economic wealth.

California, once again, the sixth-largest economy in the world…at the exact same time that we have one in four Californians living in poverty, almost one in three children in southern California living in poverty, and the divergence of those lines widening all the time. It’s a very, very troubling set of circumstances. And no one has a magic wand.

But I guess the question I would ask, though, is, how are you thinking about it from a labor perspective, right? You had a bill that you introduced this week. Tell us what that is and how you think those types of mechanisms are helping to stem the tide that we’re talking about here.

Well, I think a lot of the bills that I try to introduce with labor, and including AB-5, the Opportunity to Work Bill ordinance, is attempt to say, “We understand the world is changing. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a human capacity, or there’s not a human component to it.”

So, the Opportunity to Work…it’s modeled after what the Silicon Valley just passed, San Jose’s Measure E, and it says, basically, if you’re a larger employer, you hire part-time workers…before you continue to hire part-time workers, you offer your part-time workers more hours.

And we heard, from time and time again, part-time workers at a McDonald’s getting eight hours of work a week, and then they’re bringing in new people. Not because they’ve ever asked these folks, “Do you want more hours?”

A lot of this has to do, actually, with automation. And not the kind of automation we’re thinking about. Not the fact that you can order with the computer. They’re still hiring people. The automation that’s happened is that so much scheduling is being done by a computer, and so there’s not that human component.

What we said is, “Hey, you’ve got to still realize you’re relying on human beings. Quite frankly, you’re relying on a human workforce. We live in a society, in a community, where, if you don’t provide for your workers, then our taxpayers still have to.”

So we’re going to make a decision…say, how many millions and millions of dollars do we provide for fast food? It’s funny that we’re talking about fast food workers, because they don’t get enough hours. They’re not paid an adequate minimum wage.

Well, these big employers that are making corporate profits that are still off the charts, let’s make sure that they’re responsible to their workforce as well.

Sure. Yeah. Of course, the argument is, that if California becomes too much of an outlier in these types of rules around wages and hours … That it puts us at this competitive disadvantage, and it’s a disincentive for businesses to start here, or to grow here.

Is that a concern that you think about? And how do we address that part of the equation?

Well, you know, it’s always interesting that we talk in those terms. Because, when we talk about business, there’s a lot of different types of business. Right?

Do big IT companies in Silicon Valley, who are hiring programmers and very well and high-skilled workers? No. The market takes care of that, if you will.

What we’re talking about is really a service industry that can’t be outsourced. If McDonald’s wants to say, “Well, we just won’t allow McDonald’s in California,” all of us would laugh. Because we know that’s just not true.

And it’s not so different, actually, when we said that why we met during the fight about redevelopment at enterprise zones. Right?

That’s right.

Where we were giving millions in tax breaks to people like McDonald’s, who were making a decision, and I don’t mean to pick on McDonald’s, I should use Jack in the Box, or whoever, but making a decision to come to a poor community because people are buying their product, and yet we’re saying, “Oh, we’re attracting business.”

They aren’t coming because of the tax break. That was just money we are giving them.

Right.

It’s the same kind of idea.

If it’s something that can’t leave, and that’s what we’re talking about with a lot of these rules. The mass numbers of people that are affected are in an industry that is coming in ways…the demand is here. They’re going to continue to be here, and quite frankly, are doing just fine.

So I think we should be a model for other places.

Yeah.

And that’s why you see so many of these, kind of, innovative worker ideas coming out of high-density areas. New York, or Chicago, or places…Seattle even, where folks are saying, “Yeah, we know, you’re Starbucks. You’re not going to get up and leave. You’re not. You’re going to build another one. They keep coming, regardless.”

Right?

That’s certainly true with Starbucks. They are gonna…

They keep coming.

Yeah.

Let me turn to a couple of other quick things with the time that we have left.

We’re talking a lot about retail, which is tremendous, and it’s an important place to work, but how do we sort of think about broadening opportunity, and give them pathways up to grow in their careers?

And that certainly turns to education and workforce. I know, another huge topic we could spent a lot of time on.

But, kind of quickly, what are your thoughts? How do we renew an approach to education and to workforce so that we’re giving folks a…more contemporary skills and training that can allow them to capitalize and participate more broadly in this new innovation economy that…clearly, it’s not new, but it’s continuing in a very pronounced way?

Whenever I go down this path I get in trouble, and so I’ll probably get in trouble here, and granted, in all reality, I have three degrees. I’ve benefited from this idea that poor Latino kids should go to college, and then keep going…go to graduate school and go to law school.

I’ve benefited academically. I wouldn’t say, necessarily, I picked the right path to benefit financially.

Yeah?

But something my daughter told me when she was in 8th grade, having been raised around organized labor is, she told her 8th grade English teacher, when he was pushing college for all…she pointed out that, if I’d gone to a union apprenticeship, I’d be making more than I did taking on all that debt in law school.

And she was right. And the fact that we really need to get back to this idea…even if we’re going to go to automation, somebody has to fix those machines. Somebody has to program those machines. Somebody has to build them in the first place. Somebody has to clean them. Right?

And a lot of this work is semi-skilled, or highly skilled. And yet, not necessarily what they’re teaching in college. Right?

You don’t have to be a philosopher, necessarily, to do some of this work. So I really think we have to refocus the way we’re teaching people. I really believe in the apprenticeship program, the joint labor-management, kind of, apprenticeship program, building trades, has created and grown. Especially with people like IBW, like higher skilled. It’s just phenomenal.

And you see other countries really leading the way on apprenticeships, going beyond just construction trades, and I think that’s what we need to look at. And for some of that, it might be more appropriate to go to…after high school, and then directly into a program. Or directly into a program, or start that program in high school.

But we kind of have this academic idea, and it’s beautiful, and lovely, and I think sometimes I say it myself, “Well, of course you have to go to college. You have to go to college.”

Well, going to college and taking sociology may not be the track for everybody. It may not be what’s going to be best for…

Well, I’m with you on this, 100%. I think that we aren’t trying to devalue or diminish the notion of going to a four-year university or graduate school. Those are incredibly important pursuits.

But to have that be the only focus, at the detriment of creating a more robust set of pathways for people to go down and get a more practical…it’s an interesting thing.

I don’t know exactly where your family came from. My father came from India, so I’m sort of that immigrant stock, too, and it’s almost like…we can’t let go of the idea of a four-year university. If we position any other notion, we’re lowering expectations. We’re diminishing these kids’ potential, and it’s really proving that it’s almost opposite…is the way things are playing out at the moment.

I don’t think it’s smart, and I don’t think we’re doing a lot to take care of our society as a whole, to train the next generation of a workforce that we need, and instead, then we’re…of course, we’re going to use work bases to bring people in from other countries, which people get angry about.

But, if we’re not teaching folks to do that here…and how do you do that? And how do you disrupt the status quo in a way that doesn’t? Unfortunately, what I see in politics, and I think one of the frustrating things for me is when people start talking about reforms, and disrupting, even, the status quo in any way, it becomes this question of unionized teachers, you know? And it has nothing to do with that.

Or it becomes this idea of, are we minimizing this community? Well, you know what? I represent a very poor and working class community. You want to bring some apprenticeship? You want to bring the companies that make what’s going to be the service in the future? Okay!

Like, bring it. Let me put some kids in there. Let’s give them a pathway, something interesting. And the other thing we have to be careful about, even going down this route, and I always worry about this, coming out of labor, is, it can’t be just male-focused apprenticeships, quite frankly.

We have a lot of needs that are…and not that we’re categorizing men or women, but I had…I tried hard to get girls into the trades, and a very few number actually want to go.

Yeah.

But there are some fields that are traditionally female, that girls self-select into, that we need more workers in. Childcare, healthcare…

Yeah.

And the apprenticeship kind of model should be extended to that. There is just not enough childcare in California. It is the biggest barrier to employment for all women.

Well, why aren’t we training more childcare providers? Why aren’t we taking folks and actually making them apprentices in childcare, and then having them help take care of other people’s kids so those folks can go on to school or go on to a different job?

That’s a job, and it’s a worthwhile job. So I think our focus is kind of off sometimes.

A great thought.

All right, final question. And that is, one thing that perhaps we could work on, with the Trump administration we’ll see, is this idea of an infrastructure program that he’s talked about. We’ll see how it actually materializes.

But certainly, in California, there’s no question that we need a substantial overhaul of our infrastructure, and in many ways…although, the thing I wanted to ask you about is in infrastructure, we tend to immediately think about roads and bridges…very important, although transportation is totally changing…whole other podcast we could do on transportation.

Yeah, please no more roads.

Yeah, well, you’re…

I mean, we’ve got to fix them, but we’ve got to build some other things.

Well, I think that’s right. I think transit’s critically important. We have to recognize that. And I think that’s good.

But I think about IT infrastructure, right? So broadband, and bridging the digital divide, right? And that’s the last thing I want to ask you about, is…you know, given your district, and given the things that we’re talking about, education, workforce, pathways to opportunity, different career possibilities, all of that depends, it seems to me, on creating real, universal access to the networks that are the prerequisite for participation in all of these things.

I’m curious to see your thoughts on that.

It’s funny you ask. This is something I’ve been talking to a bunch of groups about over this past interim. And it’s not just internet for all, if you will, or broadband for all. It’s quality, access to quality, infrastructure, quite frankly.

I was complaining the other day that I pay the same amount in my very working class neighborhood that, probably, people pay in a different one, and yet, we have the internet go out 12 times in a month.

And if the internet goes out when your child is working on a paper for school, and it goes out for three or four hours, that’s, it’s not true access at that point.

Sure.

And a lot of it is, we have aging infrastructure that was originally put in…we have a need to upgrade, and a constant need to upgrade.

And you talked about jobs. There’s jobs that we could provide for and invest in, and ones that I think that we could do. And that’s just it.

But we, of course, need to train workers for that type of investment. We need to encourage the telecoms and the wireless provideres to actually come in and invest in these neighborhoods, and I think they’re trying to.

At the same time, we’ve got to make sure that our local governments aren’t putting up local land use barriers to having…I mean, talk about, God forbid, a tower, even if it’s a small one.

Wow, you’re not kidding.

Yeah, we did. We did the smart cities panel here as part of what we’re doing in San Diego, and 5G, which is the next generation of wireless.

Yes.

It is going to require a whole new series of smaller cells, smaller repeaters. It’s just the nature of the way that network functions.

And you’re dead right. If you’ve got every municipality that is putting up roadblocks to getting that infrastructure deployed, it just doesn’t work. You don’t get the network you need if you can’t put the physical pieces in place.

And it’s thousands upon thousands that need to go up, and a lot of times, go on our public infrastructure already, on our light posts, and I think there’s room for it. We do.

I think that’s where it’ll take some tough decisions by state legislators to say, “I understand that every local government wants to be able to do x, y, or z, but let’s not go crazy. Let’s not avoid this moving forward.”

And we’re seeing that, like, we can’t be in an internet or wireless, kind of, crisis that we’re in with housing. And that’s what we saw in housing.

Oh boy. Yeah.

And we really should look at what each municipality has done to prevent the kind of high-density, affordable housing that everybody agrees we need…just not here.

This is a whole other podcast too!

We’re going to have to come back, and talk with you more. I can’t keep you all morning. But I really appreciate all of your comments and the thoughtful answers that you’ve given to these questions.

There’s so much that’s on the table in California. It’s got to be a dynamic time. And I trust you’re looking forward to the upcoming session, and where we go from here.

I am.

Just a reminder, though, on that piece. When you’re electing state folks, it’s not always important that they came from local government. Because sometimes, not coming out of local government means you’re more likely to step on their toes and do what’s right for the entire state.

So, I just want to put that out there.

Interesting.

Well, with that, I will say assemblymember Gonzalez, thanks so much for your wonderful insights and for sharing your perspective and time with us on A Step Ahead. Very grateful.

Thank you.

Silicon Valley Rejected Trump. How Will The Industry Work With The New Administration?

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.”

Listen to the full interview here:

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Monday Meditations: Where We Are Now

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A Step Ahead: Mike Kish

Mike Montgomery, Executive Director CALinnovates. How you doing?

Mike Mongtomery: What’s up, Kish? How are you?

I’m doing great. I’m going great. I’m enjoying the conversations that we’re having on the podcast. The guests have really been enlightening, and we’re still dealing with the reaction and the fallout to the presidential election. We just talked to Steve Westly, California’s former Controller whose very involved still in the Silicon Valley. He brought great perspective. We talked to Dex Torricke-Barton, really fascinating guy who has a background in communications in technology, but also in the public sector most notably at the United Nations. He’s starting a whole movement around using technology platforms to try to constructively engage people in politics. What these gents were talking about and what we’re going to continue to talk about is the role and the responsibility of technology broadly, social media in particular, in what’s going on with our politics.

It’s a fascinating thing to continue to hash out.

Yeah. I think it’s a real opportunity for the technology community at large to try to correct a little bit. Kish, you were in the Bay Area back at the fall of the dot com-

Right.

We saw a lot of venture capital go to a lot of companies that didn’t really do much for many people. One of the biggest failures back in the day was Webvan, and that Webvan idea has now morphed into something that can help everybody everywhere in the country…

I agree with you…

wealthy elites in San Francisco and so…

Yeah, and I think … Oh, go ahead. Sorry.

I think we can be helpful that through convening these thought leaders, what we’re going to hear more about over the coming podcast is how these thought leaders view the world moving forward and view technology as a piece of that, rather than this stand alone fun grouping of tools and platforms that help some people but not all people.

It’s a great point. I think you’re dead right. I think there are a couple of different traps. Substantively, what are these new solutions, technologies, applications, and gadgets? What are they doing to contribute to broader public impact and important public outcomes? What’s the substantive value if you look at it through the public policy lens of what Silicon Valley’s producing? I think that’s obviously a really important question. Then in a near term here, we’re also asking these political questions. What I pushed on Dex about was what responsibility did social media have in contributing to arguably division and the coarseness of the political campaign? Now, he wasn’t quite willing to accept that social media was a culprit in that.

I think he was thoughtful in saying but we do have to recognize that if we’re in politically divided times, these tools can contribute to the division. Maybe they’re not driving the division, but they may be contributing to it.

Right. The contributing factor though is meaningful. We’ve grown up in an era where we thought the news was the news, and now we have this term fake news. The only fake news that I had thought about prior to this election was The Onion. Now, we have this idea of fake news being propagated on social networks.

Yeah, and to your point and you started the word there. It’s not satire, which is The Onion. It’s propaganda if it’s being used explicitly for political purposes.

Right. It’s no different than dropping flyers over a town hall from an airplane. It is propaganda and so it’s a total new era. Not to mention, one of the other components of…well, two of the components of technology that people spend a lot of time thinking about are security and privacy and so we witness hacks. That’s something that maybe you consider a Watergate hack, but when’s the last time we had a political hack of great significance?

It’s extraordinary. I don’t think we have at all really come to grips fully with what apparently was the Russian government’s involvement through technology hacking of our election systems. It’s really an extraordinary thing that we’re talking about, but we still don’t really know the full extent let alone the implications of what that really meant.

Right. Down the line we’re going to talk to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla who…

That’s going to be great-

It is, and it’s going to be great to hear his perspective on this ongoing debate about the votes. Is a recount needed in certain states across the country? Is it possible that an organization actually played a role in those certain states? We may never know. It’s going to be interesting to talk about it because technology is the thing that is not only going to help people understand and maybe regain their footing after at least many millions were displeased with the results of the election, and many millions were pleased. I do think that there’s so many people who need to feel, not just see, but feel the benefits of what Silicon Valley is bringing to the world-

You’re totally right.

So that…

You’re totally right.

Silicon Valley needs to fully embrace the fact that their worlds changed on election night.

You’re totally right. I think that not only around the sanctity of our voting process but then also, again, the role of social media and other sites that had become so prevalent in our lives, what responsibility do they have? Other conversations I’m really looking forward to are with Hemant Taneja and Ron Klain. People that at the Silicon Valley level and at the national level are thinking a lot about things. Like what Hemant talks about. Algorithmic accountability which is to say if we know the sites are designed, their intent is to be as popular as possible, to be as self-fulfilling and self-gratifying to the user as possible. That’s what makes us go back to the site and continue to use them so extensively in our lives.

Knowing how big those sites have become, how massive their influence is, I think the question is that we’ll explore with Hemant in particular is, is there a responsibility on the part of those applications to consider the impact of their individual users and society writ large? Then further, may there be some role for, wait for it, government to get involved in how these sites behave and what their impact is? Those are really big questions that I think have to be on the table.

Those are huge questions, and we’ve been fighting against the idea of government intervention for edge providers. Then you just suppose that with what, say for instance, a site like Reddit and that the power that a site like Reddit has. The mantra there is that it’s really a free-for-all. The idea of opinions, or fake news, or bluster, or whatever noun or adjective you want to plug in there, it’s hard to parse. It’s a very popular place. I’m not saying anything negative about Reddit…

Sure.

I learned a lot about Westworld on Reddit recently trying to figure out what on earth is going on there. If you’re getting your political news from Reddit, or your political news from Facebook, or Twitter, we may be doing a disservice to the American public in terms of how broad the perspectives may be.

I think that’s the question, and I’m really looking forward to our upcoming episodes of A Step Ahead. I think that we’re going to continue to dive into these issues with people that are extremely knowledgeable and thoughtful. I think they’re going to be engaging conversations as we’re wrestling with questions that I don’t even think we could have imagined a year ago. Here we are with really big important questions that have to be asked, and answered, and explored so A Step Ahead’s going to be a fun place to chop it up.

Definitely.

For Mike Montgomery, our Executive Director. This is Kish Rajan, Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates. Thanks, folks, for listening to A Step Ahead.

Dex Torricke-Barton

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A Step Ahead: Dex Torricke-Barton

Hi everyone, Kish Rajan, Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates and welcome to this edition of A Step Ahead.

This time we’re talking to Dex Torricke-Barton. Really, a fascinating guy and a fascinating story. Someone who is a communications professional that’s worked both in the United Nations early in his career, and then with major technology companies in the Silicon Valley, but then decided to move on from that and get more involved in an effort that’s about trying to bring people together in a more constructive way around politics and policy. A really fascinating conversation that we had about someone who was trying to bring his enormous talent and background to bear on innovating the way communities come together in politics. It was a great chat and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

All right, Dex Torricke-Barton. Thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate you being on A Step Ahead.

Dex Torricke-Barton: It’s great to be here.

Well listen, your story has gotten a lot of attention and we certainly are captivated by it and I’d love to jump right in. I saw a quote from you that said that you were motivated to take a big action in your life because, in your words, I believe you said you see the world as “under threat”. I’d love to know what you mean by that.

Yeah, absolutely. The last couple of years of just seeing communities in the United States and Europe, particularly, moving in a direction that I think is less open, less compassionate and really as someone who is an immigrant to the United States, nearly nine years ago, and as someone whose dad was a refugee, all the things that we’ve seen with the global response or lack of response, to the refugee crisis, Brexit in the UK, the rise of the far-right in Europe, and then finally the election of Donald Trump, convinces me that the world is not on a good path for somebody who cares about a common humanity and the possibilities and the challenges that we need to solve in order to serve that population. So for me, it was something that has been concerning me for a long time and the election results this month have just been one more step along this increasingly dark path.

Yeah, no kidding. You’ve had such an interesting journey, career wise, working early with the United Nations at one level but then, of course, famously going into technology. We at CALinnovates, of course, are very focused on the impact of technology.

We’re based in Northern California in the Silicon Valley, which is this melting pot of multiculturalism. It really celebrates this alchemy that’s been created. It’s produced so many wonderful things, and yet those political events that you’ve just described appear to be a rejection of that. I’m interested in your perspective. How you see that and what you see as the danger in that.

Right, well I think in many ways Silicon Valley has always sort of been a bubble. A lot of people who work in the Valley talk about the bubble with a sort of wry smile on their faces. But the fact is, Silicon Valley and California and the communities that are dedicated to innovation really do not represent most of the world. Having worked at both Facebook and the UN, two organizations that closely engage with topics around global connectivity, I’ve really seen first hand just how ignorant, in many ways, people are about communities beyond our borders. Most of the world is not online and a lot of people think, “Oh, everybody’s using my app, my service, my product.” The fact is, the vast majority of humanity has never ever used the internet, ever.

And even close to home, I think people often exaggerate the extent to which Silicon Valley attitudes or values or interests have penetrated the United States. The fact is, most people don’t feel that connected to Silicon Valley and vice versa, I would say.

Yeah, it’s a really interesting point. One thing…we certainly look at that as well and I’d love to explore this notion of a bubble for a minute.

In California and the Silicon Valley, we love to celebrate our uniqueness, our specialness, the amazing innovations and applications and gadgets that emanate from this part of the world, but it can often be quite detached. And I think when you look at political events like Brexit or perhaps the election of Donald Trump, it in some ways is being described as a backlash against attitudes that seem elitist, ivory tower, and perhaps in a way that’s unacceptably disconnected from the lives of everyday people.

Absolutely, and I’m not saying that I think that’s necessarily a fair characterization, but the fact is technology is only truly useful when it serves social ends. It’s not good enough to just build a shiny new product or an app if you’re not actually solving something fundamental in people’s lives. A lot of the time, I think the technologies and innovations coming from Silicon Valley really are serving truly transformative ends and creating economic and social value in communities all over the world, but the folks who build these things don’t always think about the right way to communicate these things. They don’t think about the right way to illustrate what that value truly looks like.

One of the first and most obvious signs of that, when I arrived in the Valley back in 2011, was how people were so fond of the word “disruption.” “Disruption” means something very specific and positive in Silicon Valley. It’s about changing old industries and building new forms of growth and new ways to communicate, new ways to collaborate. But to the world, the word “disruption” is a scary one that implies the things that you have grown up with, and cherished, and which you rely on may well be disappearing, and when disruption happens, that is both opportunity but also just a massive everyday challenge for people who are living through that. And Silicon Valley has not always been good at explaining and mitigating the affects of that disruption and especially the unintended effects of that disruption.

Well, it really is an interesting question. I think that because of the different impacts that technology had, certainly on the US election, and I’d love to take a few minutes to look at these, but on the point that you’ve just made, one worry is that the tremendous growth of the innovation and technology economy, it’s astounding, the valuation of companies and the wealth that’s being created, but the worry is how narrow the band is of people who are actually benefiting from that economic explosion. And to your point, I think the question is, not only how do we actually make those economic gains broader, how do we expand that bandwidth, but how do we communicate to people that that indeed is a laudable and important pursuit of what comes out of places like the Silicon Valley?

Absolutely. In terms of communicating that value, I think there is a huge need for us to get better sources of data and ways to measure the impact of the knowledge economy. Right now, we still think about economic progress in terms of GDP and a lot of the metrics that were developed specifically to measure an industrial model of the economy. How do you quantify the economic value of the gains in productivity and the ability to collaborate much more closely, which come from, for example, social networks? Those are things which don’t necessarily get reflected in that value. But certainly, I think there is a need, as well, for us to build tools that are serving the needs of folks who don’t live in the Bay Area, don’t live in New York, don’t live in the major urban centers, and to begin by thinking, “How can we solve challenges in those communities first?”

Products like faster grocery delivery, the ability to carry out chores in your local community, better ways to access restaurant reviews or recommendations through an app, these things often start by benefiting folks who really live in very small, urban, prosperous communities. They aren’t necessarily the kinds of things that would work in rural communities where there aren’t these surpluses of services, and Silicon Valley should be playing a part in thinking, “How do we actually begin developing the overall ecosystem for growth there?” Not just solving the needs of places which already have well built-up infrastructure and ecosystems.

It’s a great point. I want to ask one last sort of political question that I’d love to tie to the work that you are doing, that you have moved to.

We are still just in the aftermath of the election and one of the things that folks have pointed to is the rise of social media having such a huge impact on political activity now. That is to say, it seems to be a central way that people are getting information and sharing information, but the challenge is that because the nature of these applications are so self-affirming, there’s a worry that social media is just contributing to our tribalization. To getting us into our own camps and keeping us there. I’m wondering if you agree that that’s a challenge that needs to be addressed.

I think it’s something that we should pay close attention to and I have yet to see any good research that has been done in any recent time which actually tries to quantify whether the filter bubble exists and is real. I have, on the other hand, seen great research in the last few years which suggests that the filter bubble, at least on Facebook, is something that is exaggerated. And on Facebook everyday, people are really exposed to a lot more diversity of content and perspectives than they might sometimes even think themselves.

I think part of the recent backlash against Facebook after the election is driven by the fact that people right now really are just stunned by the results. They are casting around furiously, trying to find simplistic answers to what are pretty complex questions. Why did people ultimately vote for Trump and why did people, in many cases, seem to vote against their own self-interests? And it would be really great if we could blame all of our troubles on something as simple as an algorithm.

The fact is, what this election has communicated so strongly, is that there are deep-seated social and economic problems in many communities which have been overlooked by successive governments, and that unless we actually get to work on solving them and tackling the root cause of polarization, we will continue to see this drift away from a more open world. And that is not a thing that can be solved simply by tweaking an algorithm or by making changes to a product. That would be the absolute worst misinterpretation of what happened and we really would reaffirm that Silicon Valley is disconnected from the rest of the country.

Yeah. We really do have to think about cause and effect, right? And I think that it’s a good time to reflect upon that.

Well, listen, let me turn to then, you did famously leave your role in corporate America. You’ve moved on and have founded a new organization, Onwards. I would love for you to tell us, what is that and what do you hope to accomplish?

Absolutely. Onwards is a non-partisan effort to try and tackle the root social and economic causes of polarization in communities in the United States. And I want to stress that this is something that is very different than the vast and rapidly proliferating set of grassroots organizations that are working specifically to fight back against Trump-ism through the Democratic Party machinery.

This is not an effort that is tied to one party, and frankly, Onwards is something that I’m working on with both Republicans, Democrats, and folks who voted for neither party to develop. And I think, here’s the challenge, communities across the United States are increasingly polarized and we are seeing the effects of polarization in the fact that people no longer feel capable of having debates about the sensitive social, economic, and political topics that are most divisive.

This whole election, if you’ve ever had a debate during this electoral cycle with somebody who disagrees with you, that experience can be incredibly fraught. You wonder if a disagreement over politics is going to become an existential threat to your relationship. I think if we want to make progress as a country, if we want to start finding practical solutions to the problems ahead, we need to learn how to talk to each other again, and to talk to people we don’t necessarily agree with. And so the first set of programs I’m working on are designed, really, to give people the tools to have conversations in their own lives and their own communities with their friends, their families, their coworkers, through town hall meetings, however they’re engaging with the political process, and to actually begin working to find common ground with people that they may disagree with vehemently.

Are these tools … sorry-

Sure.

-really quickly, are these digital tools, are they online, are they in the context of online or social communication, or are these just plain old getting people to be able to understand and talk with one another tools?

I think that it’s a combination of both and communications and conversations are taking place both online and offline. We need to have tools and programs that can help people communicate in both ways. It will probably rely on both a combination of online training and facilitated conversations in person, in communities. Small group sessions, listening sessions, and town halls.

And really, these are based on the proven set of models that have been developed in societies everywhere from Northern Ireland to post-apartheid South Africa, where folks have developed expertise on how to bring people together around a table who may feel that they have nothing in common with each other. And I think that’s really something that hasn’t been tried, or at least done at a large-scale way in the United States and I think there’s a huge utility which will come from that.

Wow, fascinating. So you really are drawing upon your time at the United Nations.

You’re talking about the types of extremely difficult, seemingly almost intractable, cultural, political difference in places around the world where organizations, NGO organizations and others, had intervened to try to bring about dialogue and conversation. You’re really talking about that scale.

Absolutely. And you know what? For the last decade we’ve heard politicians talk about how we should try to create a less-partisan form of politics, and then they’ve gone about doing exactly the same old stuff, the same old way, and made absolutely no effort to actually try and change that. I think there are actually practical things that we can do, which will shift the conversation, and we need to do them and I think this is something that is long overdue.

It’s not the only thing though, and so the other set of activities is really around, “How can we engage with the jobs problem?” And I think unless we can get to the root cause of the economic factors leading to polarization, then it will just be a lot of talking.

The other part of the challenge will be, “How can we work with folks in Silicon Valley and beyond to equip more people with the skills to find jobs, to get the skills they need to apply for jobs which don’t require a college degree, and to get the support to create businesses as well?” And these are things that all can draw on the huge wealth of resources, but also the existing tools that are available online and through internet services to really build something new. The ability to create a business today is easier than ever, but a lot of folks still struggle with that and it really is something that’s tremendously difficult if you’re starting out down that path-

Sure.

-and having support and giving people the tools to set that up and put them on the right path of success, I think will be really really important for creating the next waves of jobs and growth in communities where traditional industries and manufacturing have declined.

Well, as we wind up, I wish we had more time and I’d love to continue this conversation perhaps down the road, but I guess my last question is, what do you think is the inclination of people in the Silicon Valley to engage in this kind of work? A lot of what you’re saying feels like it would need to be governmental or at least NGO-type of activity. It isn’t traditionally the obligation or even the inclination of private businesses to engage in the type of work you’re talking about and yet, you seem to be optimistic that people will plug into this effort.

I am optimistic and part of that is just the enormous number of folks I’ve had conversations with over the last few weeks coming from companies all over the Valley, entrepreneurs from all types of backgrounds, who are really concerned about the future.

Somebody asked me the other day, “Do you think the Trump administration will be hurtful to innovation?” And I said, “Well, look. If the world goes to war, that’s going to be bad for everyone. If the world ends, that tends to take everyone with it.” We are in a situation now where we’re far from the end of the world, but we are in a situation where the social and economic challenges are rising to the water’s edge. And if we don’t work to address those challenges now when we have been given such a loud and increasing set of warnings, then those challenges will imperil all of the progress in society which innovators depend on.

Openness is a set of conditions that is not just whether I can get access to funding or whether I have access to academics at local universities. Openness is something that absolutely depends on having a national and a global framework for peace and prosperity, and those are things which should deeply concern Silicon Valley innovators who want to serve humanity. I think the good news is that a lot of folks who come to Silicon Valley really do honestly care about serving humanity and they do see technology as something that is inherently connected to social ends. I think we will continue to see folks speaking up and standing up for communities that are imperiled and to deal with the challenges ahead.

Well, it’s an enormously inspiring message, and clearly amongst all those folks that have come to the Silicon Valley to pursue amazing ends and tremendous achievements, clearly you, Dex Torricke-Barton, are one of those people and we’re grateful you’re bringing your talents and capabilities to Onwards, something that seems incredibly worthwhile that we’ll continue to watch. We appreciate you sharing part of your day with us on A Step Ahead.

Absolutely a pleasure, thanks for having me.

You bet.

City Permitting Is Complicated. Technology Can Make It Easier.

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.

Listen to the full interview below:

Like what you hear? Subscribe to A Step Ahead on iTunes.

Just Like Olivia Pope, But Without The White Dress And Affairs: Justin Knighten Helps Folks Maneuver Sacramento

The world of Sacramento is its own ecosystem. Beyond politicians and lobbyists, there are people like Justin Knighten, vice president at Lucas Public Affairs, who work with businesses and interest groups to navigate the sometimes tricky paths to influencing policy.

“Think of us as Olivia Pope [from Scandal] but without the white dress and affairs,” Knighten joked to CALInnovates Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan during a wide-ranging interview.

Businesses, especially tech companies, are getting more involved in policy in California, and they’re signaling to the next generation that this is just part of doing business — especially for tech companies that are looking to disrupt industries. Inevitably, those disruptors are going to want to be heard on policy decisions, and that’s where Knighten comes in.

He’s helping companies understand that their reputations, which play an important role in how they are welcomed in Sacramento, are not forged by accident. It’s an ongoing thing, and businesses have to be aware of who their audiences are and what they’re saying to them.

Government has to be aware of its audience as well, and as a millennial, Knighten would like to see government reaching out more to younger people and making itself more relevant to digital natives.

“As young people think about what they want their impact on the world to be, I’m a big advocate for going into government,” said Knighten. “It’s a great platform.”

Listen to the full interview here:

Like what you hear? Subscribe to A Step Ahead on iTunes.

A Step Ahead: Justin Knighten

Hey, everyone. Kish Rajan, chief evangelist at CALinnovates. Welcome to this edition of A Step Ahead, the CALinnovates podcast. This time we’re with Justin Knighten, who’s Vice President of Lucas Public Affairs which is one of the more successful and well established public affairs firms in Sacramento working on public policy in the state capitol.

You’ll hear Justin is a very thoughtful, insightful, young professional who understands politics, understands policy and business, where they intersect and how all that is changing, given how technology and innovation is fundamentally changing the way we all learn and communicate. For businesses out there that need to think about how to engage the new world of public policy, Justin has tremendous insights and I’ll hope you enjoy the chat that we have.

All right, Justin Knighten, Vice President at Lucas Public Affairs. Thanks for joining us.

Justin Knighten: Yeah, this is great, thanks for having me.

We appreciate you being here on A Step Ahead, the CALinnovates Podcast. This is great.

This is great. This is cool.

Cool. Well, you and I have known each other for a number of years and you are one of the key people at Lucas Public Affairs, one of the most well established and well respected public affairs firms in Sacramento. Tell us about that. Tell us about what does Lucas do?

What does Lucas do? We specialize in high-level reputation management, crisis communications and issues campaigns. What that means is we don’t really work with elected officials. We don’t really work on initiative campaigns like voter campaigns and we don’t do consumer PR, consumer outreach. We’re kind of in the space where it’s really politics meets policy meets business.

Interesting. Are you lobbyists? Do you lobby?

We do not lobby. We 100% do not lobby. We work with a lot of lobbyists. We help think through big picture strategy and game plans with lobbyists and other experts but we do not lobby.

Yeah, it’s interesting. You know, for most people who are not on the inside of how these things work at state capitols, whether it’s Sacramento or Washington DC, it’s hard to discern. But there really is an ecosystem of different types of businesses and disciplines. I suppose that ultimately adds up to how laws get made or don’t get made, but lobbying becomes this catch all term that is not accurate, right? What you all do is quite distinct from that.

We hear about lobbying all the time, right? We usually hear about lobbying in the worse case scenario, when a scandal breaks or something unethical happened, whether it’s in DC or here in California. So we hear about those things a lot more and when people think about the role of government, they think about policy makers and the press and then the third house, the lobbyists. We kind of get grouped up into that. Which is fine a layman’s terms but when it comes down to what you’re actually doing and what your function is in that space, there is a hard line. You know, we’re not picking up the phone, we’re not calling actual elected officials, we’re not meeting with them. We’re not having conversations with them. We’re helping to create the communication environments and the conversations around them.

Yeah, those narratives.

Absolutely.

Those conditions that ultimately create some of the parameters and shape how these outcomes can happen from a legislative or regulatory standpoint.

Absolutely. I kind of see it like we’re like Olivia Pope, right? But we’re in California and we don’t have white suits and we’re definitely not having any affairs with elected officials so we’re good.

But white suits aren’t a bad idea in Sacramento in the summertime.

I agree. It’s hot up there. I can attest to that.

But let’s talk about this because our audience, or a big part of our audience are businesses. Most businesses, at least this is my experience and I’d love to hear yours, this is all very mysterious, they know very little about the political process, it’s intimidating and it’s scary because they understand that at some level the government can have a lot of influence and impact over their business opportunities but they don’t exactly know how to shape it. Is that why, ultimately, businesses hire you all or what are they looking for when they hire you?

They’re not looking for us to help them sell something that’s going well. Usually it’s a problem or they have to fix something or there’s a huge challenge and they need help grappling with it. So we really come in and help build this partnership with them and really talk through…what is that thing you’re looking to achieve? What does that success look like for you? Whether it’s trying to do something to react to something that’s happening in the policy space that may have a negative impact on your company or operation or the issues that you care about. Or…

Playing defense.

Playing defense, exactly. Or you want to really mix things up and be a part of the conversation and help drive the agenda that is not only good for you and your company and your self interest, but you think will have bigger implications for the industries and the environments that you operate in because it’s something that’s new and that you think you could really add to that conversation.

Yeah, I want to talk about that. You know, my father worked at Levi-Strauss, that’s how I ended up in California.

That’s fantastic.

And they were a pioneering firm. This is 34 years ago when he first joined the firm and worked there for a long time. He used to use this phrase Corporate Social Responsibility that I ‘A,’ didn’t understand or ‘B,” it sounded kind of made up. But, actually, it turned out, with Levis, it was very sincere, it was very real. They had a recognition, perhaps being a San Francisco company where, as we’re sitting here in the heart of San Francisco having this discussion, it’s a very progressive place. It occurred to Levis at that time that to be a successful company in a community like this and then nationally, that genuine commitment to understanding what their social responsibility was was a big deal. Now it seems that that discipline and that approach by businesses has grown quite a bit.

I think that is definitely the ethos of San Francisco. You have a lot more companies that have more of an authentic ethos of their mission and their purpose and what they’re trying to achieve and I love when that jumps over into a Sacramento, kind of, policy space because that makes me really excited to be able to help someone or a company to do something that is that grand and big. I think that that mentality is definitely jumping to different parts of the state and different industries. I think that the companies and the groups that have been the most successful are those that don’t look at government and Sacramento as this really crazy space, let’s just get out of your way and lets you avoid it. We don’t need it. Let’s just deal with it when there’s a problem versus the companies who have really made it an integrated part of who they are and, you’re seeing that more and more, you know, with energy and healthcare and other industries that are really starting to bring this in.

Tack and, I think, innovation are doing it more than they ever have before and I love when I hear about new companies, startups, the heart of San Francisco where all the startups are really emerging, thinking about the government space and the policy implications and the legality of what they’re doing from the very beginning.

Yeah, I think it’s really interesting, you know, we certainly see our members at CALinnovates and we see it more broadly and you’re right, there’s both established industries: legacy, traditional businesses, and then, of course, there’s this new era of all kinds of new disruptive, whether they are disruptive or not, they’re just new innovative companies. But it seems that our experience, I’m wondering what your experience in Sacramento is, is that both of those types of companies are recognizing that constructive, positive engagement in the public policy realm, it’s important. It’s going to help them in the long run in their own self interests, quite candidly, to shape a reputation that helps them work towards more favorable policy outcomes but it also is a win win where not only are they advancing their self interests, but they’re promoting a broad interest. We sense a momentum. Are you seeing that type of momentum in Sacramento as well?

I am. Whether they’re finding there’s an issue or topic that directly impacts their business or again, with part of their ethos as a company like I mentioned before, whether it’s education or childcare issues or other things that directly impact their employees and the future of their companies, I am seeing that more and I think it’s very exciting. I wish it was happening far more. I still see some disconnect.

Yeah. It’s early.

It’s early. It’s early. I think when we see the big players in the tech space having established more of a credible reputation and more of a hand in the policy world, I think it’s telling the up and comers that this is important.

Yeah.

That we’re going to have to make this a priority down the road so why not start now? But let’s build something that maybe avoids a lot of the complications or issues down the road.

It’s a really fascinating thing. I feel the same way. Especially, you and I were talking a minute ago about the changing political dynamics and as we sit here recording this conversation, we’re only a week away from the national election, which we will talk…that’s a whole other podcast to talk about. We’ll have you part of a…

Post mortem.

Yeah. Hopefully not post mortem.

A celebration. Because hopefully it’s a celebration.

But looking at the political dynamic, this election, be it on a national level and we see it, certainly, in California, how these elections are happening, how the conversations are happening, how issues are being talked about or not being talked about, how sloganeering is or is not happening. It’s very different from a technology perspective today than it was, even five years ago, but certainly 10 or 15 years ago. The audiences and the general public and policy makers are engaging in very different ways, it seems to me and I’m curious to see your point of view on that.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially these last 10 months and looking at how communications and these narratives have really shifted, and this is something that isn’t going to stop now. It’s going to keep going, it’s going to keep evolving, it’s going to keep going and pushing the boundary. But if you look at it in the last eight years, it’s like two bookends, right? 2008, a revolutionary election that changed the game on so many fronts as it relates to the use of social media and tech and digital platforms to engage, not only younger audiences, all audiences.

Right?

Elections were won that way, obviously, looking at key battleground states. But from a communication standpoint, it was monumental. There is no one who will ever really debate that. It was significant. The bookend of this year is, maybe, how some of those platforms could go wrong or maybe some of the negative impacts of some of those things if they’re not managed correctly, right? Emails. You mentioned before, Twitter. Things that if they aren’t managed correctly or looked after or considered, could have negative implications for you.

Absolutely.

So I think if you’re looking at those as the two bookends, it’s like, wow, it was new, it was innovative, there were no rules. I think eight years later, there are some rules.

There’s no question. I want to continue this thread that we’re having about…it’s fascinating to me how there seems to be this intertwined situation where we’re talking about digital communications, what your digital reputation is in a political context as candidates. But it’s very much aligned with your corporate reputation or individual reputation inside of a corporate context. These things seem to be coming together where they’re influencing one another, both in the private sector and in the public sector or in the campaign world.

Yeah. You can no longer silo it. You talking as a leader of a company, the head of a campaign, you’re talking to all audiences at the same time. There’s no more divide, there’s no more lines. You can’t put yourself in a box. If you want Facebook live, if this is on Facebook live now and we push it out to the folks that are following us, whether it’s family members or people we went to school with or colleagues at work, they’re all seeing it. They’re all reaching it. So I think for CEOs or political leaders or other experts who are, maybe, jumping from an LA to a San Francisco into a policy space, they might have had amazing success with what they say in the corporate space, in the world of getting VC funding and all the other things they’re doing as the leader of their company, right? Building morale, building aspirational environments for their employees. Whatever it is that they’ve been doing to have success, they now have to figure out what is the connection and the thread to pull that in to parlay that in the policy space.

Those are all such great points. I mean, what you said is so vital and I want to drill into that for just a minute which is, your corporate reputation, what starts from your corporate leadership, your CEO or whoever your C levels are, all the way through your entire organization, and then what the brand and the reputation of your company is, it’s one thing and now there’s just multiple audiences that will experience your reputation and your brand and react to you based on that. So that’s policy makers, your own investors, your own customers, the communities that you serve, it’s all one thing. I think it’s a really big challenge for companies to iterate their approach to communications in a way that recognizes that new reality.

And we always say that reputation doesn’t happen overnight. Reputation isn’t by accident. Those are things that are built or you feel at the end of a particular period, right? Whether it’s someone who’s starting an initiative and sees it from beginning to end or is a good actor in the business space for many years or it’s an ongoing thing. It’s something that’s a living, breathing thing. Your reputation can take a hit instantly and it changes that narrative. The good news is that if your mindful of all those audiences and your approach and how you communicate to them and have that conversation, especially now, especially as so many of your customers and employees and citizens in the places where you work, politicos and others, can have a direct conversation with you. It’s increasingly more important to be mindful of.

I think you’re right and I think it’s only going to move more steadily and clearly in this direction. At CALinnovates we spend a lot of time…you’re a millennial and you’ve been a great contributor to our millennial conversation and bringing that perspective which we really appreciate. But when you look at the polling and you engage with millennials and you sense how millennials are deriving their own opinions, communicating with one another, establishing their own expectations, it certainly seems to me but you tell me, that the imperative to businesses for their success is only going to intensify over time about developing this reputation and communicating it in ways that can reach these millennial audiences, if the businesses want people to work there or to buy their products.

Absolutely and I think that is something that the government space is grappling with as well. How is government touching a younger audience? I would even say that’s not even the focus. It’s how are we touching all audiences in a different way, in a way that’s in line with where the world is today and to give the credit to the folks in Sacramento who are doing this work. It’s a big job, right? I think the beauty of being out in San Francisco or LA or other, bigger markets is that it is more flexible and fluid and cutting edge with market trends. That’s the expectation. A place like government where you have to consider all the audiences, you have to consider so many other stakeholders and what their needs are, I think sometimes those bigger sweeping changes might seem overwhelming but that’s not to say that they shouldn’t happen. But simply to say that there’s a lot of good work that is happening. How are people touching the things that we interact with with government all the time. Whether it’s the DMV or…

Your healthcare.

…being a juror. Healthcare. Things that we touch government on more regularly, how are we connecting with those things that makes sense from where we are on our phone, in a digital space? Something where we don’t necessarily have to go into a brick and mortar to make something happen. So there are those conversations happening. I, to be the hammer now, is to say that I think those things need to happen a little bit faster.

No doubt.

I think we have to be a little bit more comfortable in the discomfort to actually start to move in this direction because at the end of the day, what I see as the goal and the purpose is to make sure that we’re not losing the potential of this whole generation that will definitely breathe life into these systems moving forward.

There really is a legitimate worry, is there not, that an entire new generation, new era, whole generations will follow that just completely disconnect from government because they can’t get their brain around how to engage it, right? I mean, I, as a Gen X-er, we talk a lot about how we’re this bridge generation. I grew up before cell phones and now I’ve adapted my entire life to see that millennials are digital natives and so I can see the transition that’s been made. I also am someone who, having served in government, can see how old school it really is, from a technology and as you’re sort of describing it, consumer experience perspective that if we don’t break through this, how can you expect younger generations to engage it when they don’t even understand, at all, how it works or what its culture is.

Absolutely and its so funny that you mentioned your background and being connected to this. In junior high, I would leave my friends from the bus or whatever, and be, like, see you later, go into my house and instantly jump on, like AOL Instant Messenger and we would chat all night. So we never really lost contact. I didn’t really understand what that meant. So, yeah, to your point being a digital native, I think that is the world that we are in. We don’t see it as this separate, new emerging thing, it just is, right? It’s just what is. And I’ve always been a huge advocate of younger people, like myself and certainly others who are just leaving college or trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, even leaving high school, thinking about what is it that they want their impact in the world to be. Which is very much a millennial thing. I’ve always been an advocate of going into government and public service and the world of politics because I think it’s such an incredible platform to really have an impact on the issues and the topics that impact all of us.

Yeah.

And to your point, if we don’t have the systems and the processes in place to have a more digital focused component or even to know how we’re talking, how we’re engaging this new demographic, I do think that that potential will slip away. I do think there’s the potential for that. And look, it’s disheartening but it’s also an uplifting thing to think about because it presents a great opportunity.

Well there’s no doubt and there is, you can see change happening in that political leadership world of who can then create policy that can push to modernize government? We recently had Evan Low, assemblymember …

He’s fantastic.

A millennial, he’s 31 years old, he served in local government, now he’s in the assembly, chair of the Innovation and Technology c]Caucus. He spoke really eloquently about the criticality of modernizing government. We’ve also been really fortunate to have Lt. Governor Newsom who was a pioneer at City Hall in San Francisco and has talked a lot about modernization of government at the state level. So at least we see a new generation of leaders who perhaps, with more motivation and more support can work on the big job but the necessary job of the way government functions.

And I think, just those two leaders, I’m a huge fan of both of them. I think what they’ve done is incredible and I think their likely impact in the future is going to be a benefit to all of us and I love the fact that they are very much on this digital space and they are advocates for the opportunity that it presents. I think just that visibility and that narrative is incredibly helpful and goes a long way to reaching those younger audiences who are kind of figuring out, what does government and policy and politics mean for me?

Yeah.

For all of those who aren’t already, like the guys like us, the political, wonky nerds who love reading about polls and issues, right? It’s those that are passionate about what happens to their future and their community’s future, and they do care about the status of, you know, society, right? Californians, what happens? How do we bring them into the process?

I think it’s a big challenge and I think it’s a big opportunity in front of us for sure and then, maybe, just as we wind up, to bring this back around to business for a moment. As those policy makers, this new generation of policy makers are coming in, I said to you as we were walking over here from our last event, one of my favorite photographs, speaking of Evan Low that I saw this year is a picture of him, of Assembly Member Jimmy Gomez, who’s a young assemblymember from downtown LA and Lorena Gonzalez, a young assemblymember from San Diego on the Assembly floor, Evan taking a selfie and them all having a fun moment. That picture, I think, perfectly represents certainly the present but absolutely the future of the state government. To the extent that that’s true, businesses in California are going to have to understand how do they position themselves to be able to react to this new core group of folks that will be setting state policy for the foreseeable future.

I love that example and I think it’s very indicative of the future legislatures we’re going to start to have more of in Sacramento which is very exciting for people like me to help businesses, you need to hire me.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea. I’ll say it.

To really break it down to a very tangible example of how businesses, at least those who are savvy, are adapting into this new world. Politicians, political leaders care a lot about their constituents. What their constituents say, do and think, they care about a lot. Traditionally, a lot of really successful campaigns have deployed grassroots efforts where you get a lot of constituents to either write letters or make phone calls to their elected leader. Do these things that demonstrate visibility on whatever issue or topic or concern that they have. Always very effective, right? Volume matters in those types of approaches. In the digital space, we’re seeing this happen more on platforms like Twitter because they are on their phones, taking selfies on the floor of the assembly. They are on their phones scanning what’s happening on Twitter and Facebook while they’re voting on big issues and topics. They’re doing these things simultaneously.

It’s how they’re checking in with what popular opinion looks like because at the end of the day politicians want to be popular but they also want to be legitimately responsive to who they represent.

Totally. So in creating this communications campaign, to support whatever work or effort or challenge you have in Sacramento, a tangible example is how can you use Twitter as the new platform for grassroots campaign where instead of letters, instead of making phone calls, meeting the people where the are, how can you create infrastructures where they’re using Twitter or other things to communicate directly to their member and not only their member but their staff and other places where they can talk to those who they’ve elected into office. That has more immediate and consistent and direct impact. Not to say that the traditional format…

Will go away all together but …

And I’m and advocate for how can we create a campaign where we can bring both together, right? How can we use digital media and traditional media. How can we use these new platforms, and what we’ve known has always worked in communicating and driving a narrative. I think that’s where the power is.

I think you’re right. I think for both political campaigns and engagement for the average citizens to be involved and politicians, but also for businesses that are now charting a new course for their own success, for their own self interest but how can they reach beyond that and make a contribution, it’s a very dynamic time and understanding all of these new frontiers is a big deal. A good way to understand that is certainly to continue to talk to folks like you. So Justin Knighten, Vice President of Lucas Public Affairs, thanks a lot for joining us on A Step Ahead, we appreciate your time.

Thanks for having me. This is great.

You bet.

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