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November 18, 2016

For Silicon Valley, It’s Time to Engineer Like It’s 1999

In 1999, I was part of perhaps the most ambitious, audacious – and failed – social experiments ever endeavored. It was called NetAid, a program spearheaded by Cisco and the United Nations to use this new thing called the Internet to connect people in need around the world with the doctors, engineers and social workers offering help.

It failed, spectacularly. But at it’s core its mission mirrored the early lofty goals of the Internet: to bridge the gap between the rich and poor and to make essential services such as education and health care accessible to all. It was a grand dream, and while NetAid failed, it was full full of heart.

Fast-forward nearly two decades, and Silicon Valley seems to some outsiders to be focused on a different agenda: apps that spare the well to do with the chores of parking, for instance. And while that is not at all what Silicon Valley is really about, it is clear to the world that technology seems to have lost too much of its “make the world better” mission.

And it can be tone deaf as hell. Just listening to Alphabet (read Google) Chairman Eric Schmidt’s post-election comments about how great the state of the economy reflects the bubble that tech lives in. Yes, for many on the happy side of the tech economy, the future looks great. But as the election showed, there are millions of people who fear that every year they are losing ground, and tech has a lot to do with it.
So, Silicon Valley has a choice. It can follow the Pied Pipers who want to throw a tantrum with a secession movement, or it can take a hard look at itself and try to get back to it’s roots. Because when Silicon Valley is trying to solve the world’s problems, it’s a sight to behold. When it’s trying to make the rich’s lives a little easier, it’s the ugliest of American: rich, arrogant and oh-so-entitled.
How can Silicon Valley recapture the high ground? Focus on the issues that America worries about the most: Education, health care and our jobs.
On education, the early zeal to make it accessible to all seemed to lose steam. Some, such as venture capitalist Hemant Taneja, have never lost sight of that goal. It needs to become a national effort led by Silicon Valley companies – who with their dollars, their innovative genius and creativity – can develop offerings that make secondary education more affordable. We desperately need credible and free colleges that offer online education to anyone who wants it. It will take a consortium of tech companies to endow and recruit professors and instructors, but it’s doable.
A decade ago, there was great excitement about what technology could do to create positive health care outcomes. We need to reinvigorate that effort, and get our smartest companies to explore whether apps-based health care, outside of the insurance system that drives up costs, can be developed and offered. Second, we need our tech leaders to lead the effort to remove state barriers on offering health care. On that, they will find in ally in President-elect Trump. Tech has led the way in expanding businesses nationally and globally, why hasn’t it happened on health care?
Finally, Silicon Valley has to work with other industries to envision a 20-year-plan for our economy. We know we are heading for change brought on by automation and artificial intelligence. And we already see how digital platforms are changing the future of work. America needs a thoughtful plan that factors in the change and makes recommendations in education, job training, infrastructure and investments.

And instead of just flying over Middle America, Silicon Valley needs to invest time and money there. By doing so, it can connect with Americans and better understand the angst of those who feel that they don’t have the education and skills to compete in a high-tech world.

In short, we need Silicon Valley to reclaim its leadership – not just for the next big thing in technology – but to solve our country’s and the world’s biggest problems. It’s a lofty role, one tech leaders embraced in the early days of the Internet. We need this new generation of Silicon Valley visionaries to thing big, for the country, again.

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