At 33, Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) is one of the youngest members of the California legislature. A Silicon Valley native, Low sees things slightly differently from his fellow legislators in Sacramento. He views the world as one that is rapidly changing thanks to technology and as a place where government is struggling to keep up.
Before some of his co-workers even knew what Uber was, Low was pushing to get the government to work with the disruptive company instead of fighting back against it. Low sees the possibilities and promise of innovation but he acknowledges there is a tension between how fast technology is moving and how slowly government tends to move.
“We are a capitalist society, we want competition to thrive,” says Low. “But how do we put in place a regulatory framework to make that work?”
These are the kinds of questions Low struggles with in his effort to give back to his community through political service. In a wide-ranging conversation, Low talked with us about the sharing economy, getting more young people involved in politics and whether the state’s balloting system (there are 17 state-wide initiatives up for vote this year) has overwhelmed voters.
Listen to our full interview below:
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A Step Ahead: Evan Low
Hi everyone. This is Kish Rajan, Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates, and along with our Executive Director Mike Montgomery, we welcome you to the new CALinnovates podcast where we’ll be sitting down with elected officials, policy advocates, and other thought leaders to discuss issues of critical innovation, technology, and public policy matters that face California and the country. We’ll be talking to guests of all kinds, and we’ll be broadcasting this regularly and we hope that you’ll join us for this important series of discussions about the future of our state and our country.
This time we’re talking with assembly member Evan Low. Evan is the chair of the California innovation and technology caucus in the legislature. He represents the Silicon Valley, and as you’ll hear he’s got a great personal story and a really great appreciation for issues of innovation and technology, the advancement of the economy, and the important balance we have to strike between business and public interest issues. He’s a thoughtful and wonderful guy, and I hope you’ll enjoy the chat that we had.
Assemblymember Evan Low. Hey, thanks a lot for being with us on the CALinnovates podcast, A Step Ahead, that’s our title.
Evan Low: Very good to be here, of course.
Yeah, well we appreciate it. So listen, you’ve had a wonderful career for someone young of age but you’ve achieved a lot in public service. You were a council member and a mayor in your hometown and now in the assembly. What drew you to public service?
Well you know growing up and being born and raised in Silicon Valley it’s important that I had sense of giving back. And my father who’s an eye doctor said, “You should become a doctor too,” but I said, “I think I’m going to choose a different path.” But he said, “Well as long as you give back in some form or fashion, that’s what’s important.” And so I did that as much as possible. Just growing up, I was very active in volunteering with him. He was president of his Lion’s Club, he was president of the Chamber of Commerce in the city of Campbell. And so naturally I met family, friends, and politicians, community leaders alike. So it was a lot of fun. It was just something innate in nature.
You know it’s interesting, I had a similar background, right? My father came from India, I don’t know, was your father from the United States?
Oh that’s great. My father came here from India. My mother is an American, and so a similar thing. Grew up in the East Bay and just kind of organically being part of the community and understanding how important community institutions and how important people are to keep those communities strong. For some of us, it just became embedded in the way that we think.
Oh sure, absolutely. To continue on that type of tradition is important. We would have fundraisers at our homes. I’d say to myself, “Who are all these strangers? Why do we have to dress up and talk to these strangers. They are in our house.” Fast forward to where we are today, I’m quite aware of the purpose of the events.
What did you like about serving at the local level?
All politics is local, I’m sure that you can appreciate that too given your service on the Walnut Creek City Council. That you are able to make a difference in a very localized way. That you saw neighbors in your grocery store and at the farmer’s markets and you are able to make some significant change. Whereas in a larger setting like the state legislature, it’s very broad. California is very large, not only in geography but in population and interests. That becomes, then, in and of itself.
There is no doubt, and we’ll talk about that in a little bit. But staying at the local level for just a minute, you also were…Well a couple things. The first is you are right, all politics is local, but the decisions that you make, they are so tangible. They are so bread and butter. I trust that you derive some sense of satisfaction from being able to solve problems and being able to point to those solutions, they are so readily apparent when you are at the local level.
That’s right. My city of Campbell, there were five counsel members. We all lived relatively close to each other, but we could count to a magic number. Having a conversation with individuals to make sure that we have three out of five of individuals who supported an initiative or project was important. That’s how you got things done. There is a deep passion, and it’s very community oriented.
Yeah. You also, of course Campbell is there in the peninsula, right in the heart of the Silicon Valley. For our lifetime it’s been on this incredible trajectory in terms of the economy overall and of course the innovation and technology economy. What was that like to grow up there? What were your impressions? Were you aware that you were in this epicenter of the global technology economy where you were growing up?
Sure. These were all household names. Tandem was a name back then where many family friends worked in, and now it’s very different to what you see here today. Apple had a different connotation than it does today. You see these types of advancements which are very exciting. Growing up I just thought we were on our own little island in Santa Clara County in the state of California.
Whereas now when you travel the world, folks know about Cupertino, Campbell, Silicon Valley area, San Jose areas. It is sort of a unique experience to be able to come from a location which was home, and a small town feel, whereas now it’s on the global map. What does that mean in terms of the talent, in terms of the challenges that also exist there?
I definitely want to get into that, but I gather that’s a good transition to your work at the state. What made you want to go to Sacramento?
Well I just wanted to become a teacher. I was studying political science at San Jose State, went to De Anza College in San Jose State, so public education all the way through. Just wanted to teach, but it was the last senior project that I had at San Jose state, which was to analyze the city counsel race in the city of Campbell. As you can appreciate, we sort of looked at how many votes did the winner need to win an election. Who are the key stakeholders? From which community groups do they need support from? What did the newspaper say? Who were the contributors and supports?
Doing analysis there sort of gave me an insight in saying, “Okay, I would like to participate in this process.” Particularly looking at the demographics of the city of Campbell. There was not this type of young representation. The system of governance and politics typically does not support younger people participating in the process, due to a number of factors. Which include that it certainly isn’t full time pay. The networks are so important to be able to participate.
Young people, millennials today, are struggling, even with full time work, sometimes two jobs. They are struggling to make ends meet. Many of these occupations, particularly in elected office, require you to either be independently wealthy or retired.
So a question, it’s a big challenge, isn’t it? You and I were talking before, just before we went on air here, about trying to encourage people to participate as we must, because we want to have a diversity of folks. Different perspectives, ages, genders, walks of life, careers, and inputs. You need that, because you want the government to be representative of the communities that they serve. But it is as a practical matter, it’s very difficult to get young people to be able to have the time and the resources to participate. That’s not always good for government if you don’t have that kind of diversity.
That’s right. In fact when you take a look at the voter turnout, and you look at the voter turnout percentage between ages 18 to 35, it’s significantly lower than that of those who are 60 and up, for a number of different reasons. Younger people, millennials, are struggling to just make ends meet as I mentioned earlier. But also, they don’t feel as invested in the process. How do we ensure that there is a sense of ownership, a sense of duty, a sense of civic duty?
I’ve often times talked about the challenge. You look at some best practices in other countries. Here in the United States and in California, when you turn 18, you are considered a productive member of society. Which is to say that you are free to do whatever you want. Where as in other countries, when you turn 18, individuals are often times enlisted in mandatory service of two years. Whether it be in the army or supporting their country and/or communities. I think it’s important that we continue to have this conversation about sense of duty to each other. When we become 18 years of age, we should talk about how we are interconnected. Particularly in this globalized world, we are more connected than we are different. How do we ensure that we are doing our part to help the society and continue to be part of the community.
I think it’s a great point. At CALinnovates, we’ve been talking to millennials a lot. We’ve been talking to them directly, we’ve been doing surveys, we’ve been trying to have our organization be a vehicle or a platform where millennials can express themselves and talk about politics and talk about issues. Because as we’ve seen as we are recording this, we are just a couple of weeks away from the national election.
It seems that one of the themes from our point of view, inaccurately but nevertheless, the narrative that seems to be settling in nationally is that millennials are disinterested, they are aloof, they think they are too good for the political process. We certainly have found that to be quite the opposite. I’m wondering, in your travels and your experiences, what you are seeing out there?
Sure, as a millennial.
Your peers I should say, that’s right.
I talk to other individuals about this process. But there is a number of different factors, I don’t think there is a silver bullet to this issue. Which is to say that on this November ballot, there are 17 statewide measures in addition to the local measures. If you are here as we are, recording here in San Francisco, there are a number of local measures. Imagine on top of those things the candidates. It’s no wonder that there becomes analysis paralysis and voter fatigue in terms of democracy.
At one point we talk about the importance of grassroots democracy. At what point does democracy become too much? Do we really want the general individual and the voter to go through all these different issues? Or, do we want to empower our elected representatives to make these decisions for us in terms of the trustee notion. Of delegate versus trustee, and empowering individuals in this democracy.
Well that’s a huge issue, it’s been a huge issue in California for some time. We’ve been a trailblazing state in terms of direct democracy. Hiram Johnson, right, going back 100 years ago and the initiative process. Which has a lot of virtues to be able to go directly to the people and give them a voice and authority to make decisions in self governance. But, and now as a legislature, you understand how much we’ve encumbered you all as our elected leaders in Sacramento, through the myriad initiatives, amendments to our state constitution that we’ve made over the years.
I am curious now that you are in the state legislature, what is your view of that, and how far we’ve gone in direct democracy? Which again, it’s a good notion, but what does it really mean in terms of the ability to govern the state in an effective way?
Sure. I think we are continually adapting to try to find a “perfect” sense of democracy in its true form. I think we continue to evolve and adapt. Certainly I think when we think about direct democracy in California, the initiative process, we want to allow average citizens to come together and coalesce around an issue, and that everyone should be able to put something on the ballot in a state like California with over 40 million people. But the reality, in terms of practicality and practice, is one needs to raise significant funds to be able to put something on the ballot, to collect enough signatures.
There are specific special interests who have bypassed the legislature, and are helping to do our jobs. It’s not helpful to see this bypass the legislature in this realm. Let me tell you, I sort of try to figure out, how do I get to the average person and get a sense of what is really going? What do the average Californians think? I don’t need to go that much further than going to a coffee shop, or going to the barber shop where I get my haircut. As I’m sitting and I’m getting my haircut, the hairstylists and different individuals are talking about elections. One person pulls out their ballot, and one person says, “Well I know that you are in the legislature. Why aren’t you doing your job? Why are there 17 measures? I’m so confused. No means yes, yes means no. You are wasting all these trees in my mailbox.”
Yeah, my voter pamphlet is 200 pages long.
They say, “Well this is ridiculous. The average person is not going to be able to come up to understand what this all is. Can you just tell me, what is your position on all these propositions?” I will be very straightforward with them as well too. I don’t even know which proposition numbers are in accordance to what the issue is. I’ll have to look at it and read it, and once I know, and take a look at it, then I’ll have a breadth of understanding. But it would be disingenuous for anybody.
I consider myself someone who is up to knowledge on some of these issues …
You are above average in terms of your connection to these…
Well at least understanding some of these issues.
But to say, 17, statewide measures, and to really have a deep dive into these issues, it’s very complex. So yes, direct democracy is important, but in practicality and in practice, how is it really being used?
Well I agree, and you are right. I feel the same way. I feel like in our system of elected representatives, elected leaders, that’s what the citizens want. They want to elect good people like you, and then they want to hold you accountable for whether you are doing a good job or not. If you are not, then they vote you out. But in the meantime, they want you to make decisions, not farm out all the decisions to them. They are saying, “What did we elect you for if I’ve got to make all these choices?”
Exactly, that’s right, and if that was the case, why even have the legislature? Because you could just put everything on the ballot and have everyone decide. But these are very complicated issues. I oftentimes even give a story of when I went to a classroom. I oftentimes go to teach about civics and talk to different classrooms.
I ask a class of individuals, “Show me by raise of hands, how many of you like vanilla ice cream?” Half of the class raises there hands, then I say, “How many like chocolate.” Half of the class raises there hands. I say, “Okay, this is a clear illustration that you have two different competing sides with generally the same amount of individuals on different sides, how do you come to an agreement? Imagine a much more complicated, complex issue, and coming together in a democratic way, how does that occur?”
The swirl of course.
Well then other people say, “What about strawberry?” I say, “Well that wasn’t a choice, and to your point … ” What choices are available and which is not available?
Well listen, talking about getting people engaged, when we’ve talked to millennials, and now that you are in the legislature and you’ve been there for a bit and you’ve established yourself as a leader in a couple of ways, one of the things that we see is that the language of government, the tools of government, the culture of government, in many ways is so outdated and it feels very antiquated. There is a real cultural disconnect between what we see in government and what younger folks, digital natives, people that don’t know anything different than using mobile phones and other types of innovative tools as part of their everyday life. There is a really significant gap there.
One of the things that you have spearheaded in the legislature is a new caucus of your members, the innovation and technology caucus. Let’s talk about sort of broadly what you want to accomplish, and how that maybe could be a mechanism whereby we get younger people to recognize where government is going because it’s becoming more modern.
Sure. Well let’s make this clear recognition that Silicon Valley is not an island on itself, and we need to make sure that California maintains it’s economic competitiveness in terms of innovation, and then the United States can continue to be a leader in this realm too. But this is a globalized world, and we do not have a monopoly on the truth. We continue to compete in many different ways. How do we recognize that we want to create an environment where we have competition flourish, and provide an environment where innovation thrives?
Often times we see the recognition of government in terms of the regulatory environment, we look at the protections for the consumer protection side of things. Looking for the public safety and the public interest. At the same time, how do we foster that type of innovation? By default though, innovation is disruptive in this way, and so government tends to be slower by default. Therein lies the natural clash. Therein lies the natural conflict. Which is to say that the innovation where the consumer and the technology has gone, has left the regulatory environment.
How do we ensure that we have subject matter experts within the role of government to identify ways that we can have the framework of the regulatory environment while also protecting the public interests? That is a very difficult challenge at hand, because I’ll tell you, as I introduce a bill related to the transportation network companies and the shared economy, I was lobbying a senator urging their support. I was explaining the bill, the senator stopped me and said, “I’m sorry, what is Uber?” They did not know what the application was.
I had to pause and say, “Okay, well in 2015, we may still have to explain some of these things to.” We have additional conversations that are required on many of these different areas. How do we engage in this thoughtful conversation where government is seen as a partner, rather than an adversary on the tech community, on the defense, and not working in partnership?
Yeah, well I think it’s critically important. Of course that’s the name of the game for us here at CALinnovates is to try and help be an organization that can be a bridge between these innovations. You’re right, three years ago, I didn’t know what Uber was either, or four years ago. These things are happening incredibly quickly, and the spread of ride share as one example, but there is countless examples of brand new technologies, brand new innovations, that have incredibly rapid adoption.
Government, to your point, by design, is not intended to move, it shouldn’t move that fast. There are fundamental things that government has to do. We have to look out for public safety, for consumer protections, for just doing right by the communities that government serves in all kinds of ways. There is a real tension there. But to your point, trying to find mechanisms or venues where those gaps can get bridged really is the name of the game, isn’t it?
That’s right, and so when you have job displacements or different challenges that exist, the innovation economy can often times fill that void. Having engaged in conversations also with other stakeholders, let’s be very real. We are a capitalist society. We want competition to thrive. When different innovations come to market, often times there will be different stakeholders fighting over the share and where the consumer is. In terms of the regulatory environment, how do we make sure that we can provide the framework where there is ample competition that exists, but then also protects the consumer?
A perfect example of this is with, for example, the shared economy, or whether you say the drone industry. The drone industry innovates so quickly, but then we don’t have the regulations in place that regulates commercial versus personal use. To how many feet away from a residential area, to which price point does a drone need to be registered so in case there is an accident, that we can trace back that drone in case there is a problem with this too? The innovators, the founders, don’t necessarily think in terms of the regulatory environment, because they’ve often times said, “We are so busy focused, looking for our next round of funding, marketing, sales, engineering, we don’t really have time to focus on the regulatory environment.”
The challenge that exists then is that they innovate so quickly that they will eventually come up against government in terms of the regulatory environment, because the innovation does not fit in a nice little box. The industry then finds itself on the defense, rather than, “Hey, let’s partner in this.”
Well we see that every day too. We see that with our members, and we talk to businesses all the time about, “Listen, if you are going to do something that’s disruptive… ” To them, their eyes get big because they see it as a big business opportunity. It may well be, and that’s very exciting, and we want to see those positive opportunities unfold, for businesses to grow. Growing this economy is critically important, but we do advise them, “Look, you are going to have to understand, if you are disrupting things, there is very likely to be at some point a regulatory response.” And hoping that you can avoid that all together. It’s not practical in the long run.
I think again, it works both ways. It’s not only up to government to find ways to be more responsive, but certainly around here we preach to businesses that you are going to have to find ways to constructively engage in the communities where you are operating and understand that government does have a role that matters.
That’s absolutely right. The other aspect to it is, for example in the area of automated driverless vehicles …
Yeah, no kidding.
What happens if you, let’s say a few years ago, if you were in this space? Who do you have a conversation with at the DMV? Because I will tell you, when many of the different companies approach the DMV, which is a state agency, the DMV does not have the authority to have a conversation in this way, to have the framework, because it’s not in statute. So unless it’s the legislature or the governor giving direction, it should not be the bureaucracy or the state agency that helps to push in this way. Which is why it’s important for the industry to be involved and engaged in our democracy.
So that the representatives, the governor and the elected side, can say, “Okay, we believe that this is important for the vision and the future of California. And, oh by the way, other states have said, here is the red carpet. We will not only role out the red carpet and have the framework for automated driverless vehicles, we will also provide you with tax incentives as well.'” Let’s be real that we must also do the important job amongst ourselves within state government to provide the framework to allow this type of atmosphere to occur, and be proactive rather than reactive.
Well you are bringing up a great point and we’ve just got a few more minutes. I want to turn to what you are sort of touching on, which is California, we are a great place where these technologies and companies are invented, but there is a real question about the extent to which those economic benefits and opportunities are being presented broadly to our people. When I worked in the governor’s office, I talked very openly about this sort of bifurcation of the California economy.
That is to say that those who are participating in the technology economy by and large are doing pretty well. Those who aren’t connected to the technology economy too often are in periods of real struggle. California as you know is in this really amazing place where we’ve just become, I think again, the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world, but we are also leading the nation in real poverty. It’s an extraordinary challenge at the state level to think about how do we create broader opportunities and prosperity that’s consistent with the technology capacity that we have. It’s an enormous challenge.
Right, absolutely. Again, how to be proactive in allowing for the framework and environment for us to continue to support these different areas too. I will tell you, I’ve had conversations with a number of executives who have headquarters in other places outside of our state. They say that California is a very expensive place to do business. High in taxes. But let’s be very clear, California is open for business.
There is a reason why we have more venture capital than any other region in the United States, in Silicon Valley, which is in the state of California. How do we continue to foster this environment? That requires then that we have the adequate skill sets for these companies for the future in the long term. Are we pumping into the pipeline educated Californians who have the skill sets for the workforce for the future that matches up with what we see in the digital space, in the shared economy, in manufacturing technologies and all these different areas?
Is that something that you guys are going to take up as part of the innovation and technology caucus? Talking about workforce development, skill set development, preparedness for participation in the economy?
Absolutely. One of the things that we see in terms of the statistics, it takes longer to graduate within our institutions of higher education. Recognizing that piece, how do we ensure that we are adequately funded? But not only that, making sure that they are adequately equipped for the subject matter, expertise that is required for the workforce in California in the short term and the long term.
Well that’s certainly a great endeavor. We’ve got to find new pathways for prosperity for people, because I don’t think at the end of the day there is any stopping this technology economy, so we have to help figure out ways to help folks participate. Another thing that you were very active in in the last session, I think along these lines was legislation you were advancing to try to help promote the modernization of telecommunications networks in the state. Which really is the backbone of the innovation economy. Tell us about that, what you were trying to accomplish, and maybe what yet is to come in that area.
Well imagine over the past decade, or even five years the insatiable appetite for the consumer to use their mobile devices for streaming, for videos and what not too. The infrastructure does not adequately support that. What we want to do is provide the framework, the areas of opportunity for the digital economy. Ensuring that we have that type of infrastructure in place. The bill that you referred to as a utility modernization bill, which would allow many of our companies to invest to where their consumer is, to making sure that we have that type of technology that exists.
I’m fortunate in Silicon Valley where many cities who have fiber, have gigapower and our able to look at the framework for that as well. But we want to make sure that we have that, not only in Silicon Valley but in other places in the Central Valley and in places throughout the state of California where individuals can have the opportunity that exists for tapping into that type of technology.
There is just no question, this notion of a new digital divide. We talk about a digital divide 2.0 that’s happened. While there is lots more accessibility to broadband than there was 10, 20, or 30 years ago, and we’ve made progress, but again, the rapid pace of change is so dramatic that your point is so spot on. We have to be vigilant, ever vigilant, in ensuring that all of our Californians have access to the latest and greatest networking, because that’s really their connection to the modern economy.
That’s right, and again, when you look at best practices in other countries, and in some other areas, their governments have invested in this area. We need to partner with individuals like yourself and CALinnovates to ensure that we have public private partnerships all the way through, that we are holding each other accountable, and have high expectations for each other.
It’s indispensable, right? You think about the biggest public systems that we have, whether it’s water, whether it’s energy, whether it’s transportation, healthcare, on down the line. All of these things are fundamentally being renewed as we speak, and being disrupted and we’re seeing great new technologies, but if we don’t have the infrastructure to support and sustain those transitions, and reach all of our people, that would be a terrific shame, wouldn’t it?
That’s right, definitely.
Let me close by asking you, kind of where we started, I mean you as someone who for whatever reason, it was born into you or you had this realization, that serving mattered. It mattered in your local community, and then because of obviously your ability and your hunger to do more you went from the local level up to Sacramento, and who knows where you’ll be in 10 or 20 years, we’ll be following. But talk about why it’s important to serve, and why it’s important to get other people, what examples you are seeing of others who are sort of gravitating to this notion of service, and why that’s so important to you.
Oh sure. Well you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to turn on the TV or radio or watch your newsfeed about what’s going on in the political narrative. If we deeply care about the future for ourselves, that we are interconnected, it’s important that we are engaged and involved in some fashion. Not everybody needs to run for office, but in some way, how do you continue to be engaged in your community? By fostering conversation, and being part and invested in some way. That’s what is so important for us to be able to do and I just hope to be one part of that.
Yeah, you clearly are. And we are seeing you inspiring others, we are seeing people in technology companies, people that are connected to those things, they are bringing that subject matter expertise. They are engaging which is encouraging to see.
Absolutely, I am so fortunate to see that a lot of our tech executives in Silicon Valley and throughout the state of California are engaging, saying, “We have a wider responsibility, to just simply our profits, but that we have a community responsibility, and that we must be engaged in social change.” They have a responsibility not only for the public interest, but for public education because we care about the workforce and the development for our future longevity, but we must be engaged.
Well assemblymember Evan Low, you are clearly an inspiration I think to your colleagues and to people in business and other walks of life that understand that we have to be involved, that we have to engage. Thanks a lot for your leadership and for inspiring others to follow suit. We appreciate it, and thanks for joining us on our program.
Thanks for having me.
Thanks a lot, great to see you.