Faces were sullen and comments were hard to come by as the parade of tech executives shuffled up to 25th floor of Trump Tower for their summit with the president-elect. Like most who live and work in America’s innovation hubs like Seattle, Silicon Valley and Boston, they were blindsided by the results of the 2016 campaign and unsure of the impact. The underlying message of the meeting, and in many respects the election, was that there is a growing inequality of opportunity has so many Americans feeling left behind in the modern economy.
Snuggled up in the comfy confines of coastal and urban America, the benefits of a globalized, multicultural economy seem immediately obvious to those in innovation hubs. From gleaming corporate campuses, we watch “unicorns” gallop gleefully past billion dollar valuations, and believe that innovation is making the world a better place to live in.
What we missed or ignored along the way to November 8th is that the view from large swaths of America is very different, and that for them, those truths are far from self-evident.
The Uncomfortable Truth
For many Americans, the macro economic benefits of globalization, free trade, and multiculturalism do not sparkle so visibly, and the depressing micro-economic harms of shuttered factories and empty store fronts provide gloomy evidence to the contrary. While many new jobs have been created, the modern economy simply doesn’t provide as many stable, middleclass jobs for men and women without college degrees.
For the incoming President, “horrible trade deals” receive the brunt of the blame, but the uncomfortable truth for technologists is that the double-time march of innovation and techno-fueled efficiency also plays a significant role. While U.S. manufacturing output has been growing since the end of the Great Recession, the increasing efficiency of automation and robotics means it will never be the job creator it once was. In fact, the president-elect’s signature deal to prevent Carrier from moving Indiana factory jobs to Mexico also includes investments in automation technologies that will eventually reduce the number of jobs saved.
At the same time, America’s innovators are rushing to churn out incredible new innovations like self-driving cars and trucks, delivery drones, and other technologies that will eventually replace even more good blue collar jobs. We rightfully point out these innovations will simultaneously create millions of great new jobs, but those jobs may be in different states or require completely new skills. America’s innovators are driving economic growth and opportunity, but the democratizing and empowering potential of innovation has not been realized equally throughout America.
Many are looking to the epicenter of American innovation for answers, but as tech journalist Om Malik recently suggested, Silicon Valley may be ill-equipped to find them. In the New Yorker, Malik argued that Silicon Valley’s biggest failing is its “distinct lack of empathy for those whose lives are disturbed by its technological wizardry.”
Silicon Valley of Saving the World
Regardless of whether there is an “empathy gap,” the simple fact is Seattle is far better equipped to find long term solutions to America’s growing economic divisions. As Nathan Myhrvold explained at the most recent GeekWire Summit, we live in the “Silicon Valley of Saving the World.” Empathy is not our problem.
Combining do-gooder goals with an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset, Seattle pioneered a new approach to philanthropy and societal problem-solving and has evolved into the world’s first philanthropic innovation hub. With the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the center, this unparalleled network includes dozens of foundations and nonprofits like Vulcan, PATH, and Code.org, academic institutions, and even companies like Microsoft and Starbucks that have infused this mindset directly into their businesses. Together, this community has made demonstrable progress on some of the world’s most difficult problems.
While the community may be best known for its work in eradicating diseases and creating opportunities for underprivileged communities around the globe, Seattle’s companies and organizations have also made extensive investments in improving opportunities for communities throughout America. Starbucks is a true innovator here with its community-based programs to provide training and educational opportunities, including its College Achievement Plan which provides full tuition reimbursement for its employees.
The 2016 elections opened our eyes to the growing inequity of opportunity across America. Creating long term economic stability and opportunity for all Americans in the face accelerating innovation and economic change may be the most important challenge our nation faces. It’s a giant, multifaceted challenge that requires innovation, collaboration, and adaptation from all levels of industry, government, non-profits, and our institutions of learning. Based on an understanding of how innovation will reshape our economy and our lives, we must rethink aspects of our education system, labor policy, tax policy, our social safety net and more.
This is Seattle’s moment. The world’s first philanthropic innovation hub has experience bringing together governments, nonprofits, and companies to identify solutions and make lasting change. If the Silicon Valley of Saving the World can direct more of its attention, passion, and innovative mindset to solving America’s inequality of opportunity, I am optimistic this community can lead us toward Making America Great for Everyone.