What Silicon Valley Doesn’t Get About People

As Silicon Valley, my home and place of work, dreams up what’s next, so, too, does the world dream up the next Silicon Valley.

From the speculation on Silicon Valley’s heir apparent to the slow outpouring of talent and venture capital from the region to Jeff Bezos hosting “Amazon Idol” with American cities competing to win HQ2 and its supposed 50,000 jobs and $5 billion, our competitive advantage over the rest of the world is clearly narrowing.

As new innovation centers arise and potentially surpass Silicon Valley, too few of them, however, seem to be asking what we got—and continue to get—wrong here.

Consider, for example, that 30 percent of Silicon Valley’s public-school students are on free or reduced lunch. Or that rents are 227 percent higher than the national average, contributing to the region’s severe affordable housing crisis. Or that the “awful” treatment of women by our top employers has become infamous. Silicon Valley may indeed be trying to make the world a better place—just not the parts of the world that happen to be located in Silicon Valley.

Our self-imposed limitations on world improvement are due, in large part, to a lack of creativity, philanthropy, and collaboration in building our shared future and disrupting our troubled past.

To be generous is to believe that even Silicon Valley is not immune to the age-old proverb—the cobbler’s children have no shoes. (Or, regionally adjusted, the engineer’s children have no slide rules.) Thus, we can house data at scale, but not people. We can increase uploading speeds exponentially, while our commuters remain stuck in clogged traffic. And we can pledge our allegiance to human-centered design while building inhuman spaces fit only for vehicles.

This failure to create places for people—our logical “target user,” in the region’s parlance—is in part to blame for the soul-crushing, NIMBY-inducing, place-agnostic sprawl we’ve idly cobbled together here. Planning-wise, the city that’s supposed to be inventing the future remains trapped in the 1950s, as Allison Arieff recently explained in The New York Times. The Valley of Heart’s Delight’s once fine agricultural complexion is now forever marked with the suburban scars of endless tract homes, bland office parks, and a dogmatic adherence to California’s transportation motto—“Park Free or Die.”

At our best, Silicon Valley can produce the likes of Santana Row, a mixed-used development in San Jose. “The Row,” the offspring of a one-night stand between a European city and an airport duty-free store, offers an al fresco pedestrian treadmill where visitors can window-shop and stroll in circles—constrained on all sides by parking lots, malls, and an eight-lane road. This, like other developments scattered across our suburbs, may boast a “Live, Work, Play” lifestyle, but the reality is more in line with “Commute, Work, Netflix.”

Poor development and planning decisions don’t just aggravate the region’s housing problem: They contribute to Silicon Valley’s growing empathy gap. In a region built on weak ties and networking, it’s surprisingly difficult to find vibrant public spaces to meet and engage diverse people as equals outside of a Costco parking lot. So, even those seeking to genuinely make Silicon Valley’s world a better place may struggle with engagement in our bumper-to-bumper, disconnected autoscape.

To be less generous about Silicon Valley is to believe that we live in a region of segregated innovation. The new redlining is whether your problem lives inside or outside of the tech campus—a “multi-colored Happy Town in a hermetically-sealed box,” as HBO’s “Silicon Valley” put it. For Happy Town employees, failure is an adorable career enhancement, rules are destined for disruption, and office neighbors collaborate for the benefit of a greater cause, like democratizing juice or destroying mom-and-pop stores.

However, walk to the other side of the innovation tracks from Happy Town into the surrounding bedroom communities of Silicon Valley and such guiding principles might be perceived as blasphemy. Attend a community meeting in Palo Alto or tour the digital commons on Mountain View’s Next Door page, and progress sounds less like, “Yes, and … !” and more like, “Never! Death before affordable housing! Lawsuits before bike lanes! Now, off to my mindfulness class.”

As Kim-Mai Cutler wrote in her thoughtful and thorough overview of San Francisco and Silicon Valley’s housing crisis, it’s simplistic and inappropriate to blame tech alone for the region’s ills. One must use hindsight, says Cutler, to see that “this was simply the result of bad planning and layers of leadership failure.” For decades, these failures helped create the broken planning infrastructure, militant wing of the NIMBY party, and shortsighted leadership, upon which our region’s most recent housing and transportation drama is unfolding.

Still, solving our own problems should, theoretically, be simpler than curing death or colonizing Mars. If so, it helps that we live in the same region where Peter Thiel, Elon Musk and their legions believe that nothing is beyond disruption. Sadly, our mayors and community-based organizations lack similar resources, creativity, and community support to dream up a world where all are housed, fed, and fulfilled.

Given Silicon Valley’s massive wealth and talent, one might assume that nonprofits could step in as intermediaries to help address problems locally. There, you would be mistaken. The Giving Code, which reports on the charitable trends of the 76,000 millionaires and billionaires and 1,146 foundations in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, found that, while overall giving increased 150 percent between 2008 and 2013, the vast majority of philanthropy left our region. Specifically, between 2006 and 2013, 93 percent of all private foundation giving went to causes and organizations outside of Silicon Valley. The result: an underfunded and overburdened local nonprofit sector unable to keep pace with the increasing challenges in a growing region.   

“When we ignore the challenges faced by the most vulnerable among us,” wrote Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO of PolicyLink, in her article “The Curb-Cut Effect” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “those challenges, magnified many times over, become a drag on economic growth, prosperity, and national well-being.”

In Silicon Valley, this translates directly to the attraction and retention of talent, the lifeblood of our success. A March 2017 Bay Area Council poll found that 40 percent of Bay Area residents are considering leaving the region, including 46 percent of millennials, due to, among other things, housing, the cost of living, and traffic. Such statistics suggest “stress fractures,” said Emmett Carson, CEO and President of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, in an interview with the Silicon Valley Business Journal. “And if we don’t fix those … the whole thing comes down.”

Though Silicon Valley is not exactly a one-industry town, one can’t help but make a mental jump to the rise and fall of our cousins in the Rust Belt, home of the Last Silicon Valley. “If ever a city stood as a symbol of the dynamic U.S. economy, it was Detroit,” wrote Time magazine in October 1961, as the city began its long decline. ”Prosperity seemed bound to go on forever—but it didn’t.”

Some here in the Valley may shun that comparison and point to the region’s ability to weather past tech-industry busts. But, as any student of history knows, no empire has conquered time—especially when those fueling the empire’s growth can no longer afford, or necessarily want, to stay there. One wonders if Apple’s earthbound spaceship or Facebook’s social-media salt mine may go the way of the Packard plant in Detroit, which once employed upwards of 40,000 workers; within a few short decades, the vacant behemoth was a ruin-porn star.

Unless and until Silicon Valley’s public, private, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors unite to address the critical and urgent problems, our future of innovation, wealth and talent are in peril.

To date, limited efforts show early promise. The budding California YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) movement has focused attention on the need to build more affordable housing. Y Combinator’s Sam Altman has attempted to start a new political movement in California, pledging to support candidates that will push for a variety of causes around housing, health care, and jobs. However, in the absence of significant, near-term change, companies and their talent will continue to move to cities more affordable, interesting, and navigable than Silicon Valley’s endless string of office parks overlooking freeways.

I hope it’s not already too late for us here in Northern California. And I also implore the builders of the “Next Silicon Valley” to pivot from our broken model in support of a new construct for an innovation hub. Such a place should define equity as more than just stock options, create and encourage a culture of local philanthropy, believe that innovation has no boundaries, and recognize that technology can’t solve all. Moreover, they should seek to build and scale empathy by creating accessible, beautiful, and people-friendly places that instill local pride and encourage diverse residents to be their best selves and neighbors.

And, most importantly, may their guiding principle be one that Silicon Valley preaches to the world, but we have failed, as of yet, to successfully practice in our own back, front and side yards: “Focus on the user—people—and all else will follow.”