Can we replicate Silicon Valley of the 90s in the internet era?

The reading I’m responding to is Regional Advantage by AnnaLee Saxenian, specifically Chapters 1 and 2.  Since this was written nearly 20 years ago (1996), I have a few questions:

  1. Is the entrepreneurship and spark of collaboration seen in the Valley still there with companies like Google and Apple dominating?
  2. What is the next Silicon Valley? Not in computing but in paradigm-busting innovation.
  3. Do Google and Apple, like IBM before them, run the risk of being eaten alive by groups of hungry start ups?

It is interesting that Apple and Google are studied for their unique work environments that seem to keep the feeling of the scrappy youth of Silicon Valley.[1] They have brought the external collaboration that identified the Valley within their walls.  However Google seems to be more open and collegial than Apple.  Apple is well known for its secrecy to the outside world and peer review is more checks and balances than open collaboration.  Information about the working atmosphere is only from people who no longer work there[2].  Google has even pollinated east[3] and works to create the same atmosphere in all of its offices around the world.[4]

Searching for “the next Silicon Valley” – yes, I Googled it – has various cities vying for the interest of tech-minded companies and employees: Chicago, Orlando, Miami, Las Vegas.[5]  But in the push to be next, the highlights are about the infrastructure support and local amenities not the corporate culture, or lack thereof, that created the valley in the first place.

Where are the upstarts now?  Who is fighting to be David to the Goliaths of tech?  There are many small specialized groups and often there is collaboration but it is mostly virtual.  The myth of the pen, napkin and a beer to create the “next new thing” is based in truth.  Even when no alcohol is involved, your brain shifts and is freed when you are in a social environment; something you can’t get in an office or through video chat.

It appears that the grownups of Silicon Valley have a comfortable seat but disruption will happen and it will be interesting to see what collaborative culture will come with it.

[1] http://www.businessinsider.com/heres-what-employees-really-love-about-working-for-apple-2012-6?op=1

[2] http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2013/10/10/apple-employees-dish-secrets-quora/

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/16/business/at-google-a-place-to-work-and-play.html?_r=0

[4] http://www.kaushik.net/avinash/10-insights-from-11-months-of-working-at-google/

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/05/upshot/what-is-the-next-next-silicon-valley.html?abt=0002&abg=1

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Thoughts about RGGI

In 2009, 10 states ratified the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative which caps the GHG from power generation in these states and puts on the market the fees collected for those 25 MW or higher power plants. NJ left RGGI in 2012 and the cap was reduced then and in 2014.

Critics of the program, like Americans for Prosperity branch in NJ, framed the whole plan as a cross-border state tax that fueled “an unachievable, utopian vision of a 21st-century economy powered by expensive and inefficient solar panels and wind turbines.”[1] Opponents have quickly forgotten how broken the fossil fuel system was in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and even “inefficient” clean energy would have been better than the gridlock of no fuel or power caused when supply was cut.  Clean energy would have brought NJ back online almost immediately.  Of course, efficiency of solar power in particular has made amazing strides and anyone who has lived through this particularly brutal winter would have appreciated any alternative to the high cost of fossil fuel for home heating.  Even on the coldest days, sunshine makes a massive difference to how much fuel is needed to heat homes.  Anyone who has raised their face to the sun to soak it in while shoveling snow understands this.

I choose to focus on are the success stories. State and local budgets are slashed year after year, particularly for schools, so the proceeds from a market based approach are a windfall for communities to build new infrastructure of energy-efficiency and independence for old, weather beaten buildings.   The power created by clean energy projects funded from RGGI reduces costs for citizens and businesses that would be taxed to build new fossil fuels power plants.

RGGI is not the final solution to GHG emissions or conversion to renewable energy economy. It shows what can happen at the State and Regional level, how efficiency can be driven by the market and that penalizing the inefficient and fossil driven to pay for renewable can upgrade communities and drive state and local economic growth.

[1] http://www.courierpostonline.com/story/opinion/columnists/2014/08/10/commentary-reject-push-nj-rejoin-rggi/13836589/  – COMMENTARY: Reject push for N.J. to rejoin RGGI

The True Cost of Education

Over the past few months, I have been increasingly frustrated by the rhetoric in the press and government debate around science in the context of climate change and natural resource scarcity. It comes from all sides and even, insidiously, from “supporters”.  The National debate, on this and other topics, has been reduced to slinging sound bites of rhetoric from all sides.  Our citizens do not critically assess their points of view or the data being shared on the national stage.

Therefore, I was pleased to hear the announcement of the “Free Community College” plan from President Obama during the State of the Union.  I understand the long, difficult political road a federally funded education plan is on.  At the elementary and secondary level, 87% of education funding comes from non-Federal sources.[1] There is precedent for the Community College program in Tennessee but it is funded at the State level and the funds are a gap filler, after Pell and other grants, for students carrying a 2.0 GPA or higher and who do community service.[2]

The GOP is opposed to any additional federal spending on general principles.  In the Libertarian response to the State of the Union, Arvin Vohra, vice chair of the National Libertarian Committee, states that making community college free to all would cheapen the market value of such an education and “without subsidies and costly mandates, competition will force colleges to decrease their tuition or go out of business…Massive student debt would be a thing of the past.”[3]

I don’t have such a simplistic belief in the power of the market.  The dynamics of technology advance make Associate Degrees in technical fields even more important to increase the home grown talent for corporations and small businesses alike.   In fact, a scarcity of technical trained workers will drive corporations to sponsor education for their employees and put small businesses at a competitive disadvantage.  The unintended consequence is a market for skilled workers which does not operate under the conditions of perfect competition required for a truly “free” market.

There is historical precedent back to Thomas Jefferson – the Libertarian Founding Father – for federal funding of education.  In Jefferson’s Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, and in Ordinances predating the Constitution, educating the citizenry was seen as the responsibility of the federal government to “promote the general welfare” and to have voters that can make adequate assessments at elections.[4]

There are more powerful reasons to make community college education available to all.  For many, pursuing 4 years of college is a financial fantasy.  I was one of those students: bright, motivated to work, but not willing to go into massive debt that would follow me even after I entered the workforce.   A technical Associate Degree provided me with highly skilled employment at low cost and my employer subsidized the remainder of my Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering.   A larger financial consideration is the high attrition rate of college freshman who enter a program they are unsure of and waste time and money to learn they don’t want to be there; a debt with little to no ROI or employment as a means to pay it off.

Dogma from the economic right is predicated on removing government funding that interferes with the market so that the natural economic forces can do the job of stabilizing our democracy.  However the crises facing our society – food and energy supply, waste management, water availability, lack of jobs at a living wage – also interfere with a truly free market and are at a stage where intervention from government and businesses are necessary for solutions.

[1] From the U.S. Dept of Education website

[2] http://www.governing.com/topics/education/gov-state-responses-community-college-plan-obama.html

[3] From the Libertarian Response to Obama’s SOTU Address January 20, 2015

[4] See A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge (1779) and the League of Women Voters website “The History Of Federal Government In Public Education”

Financial Genius of Place

One of the underlying principles of Biomimicry is the Genius of Nature and that, as Janine Benyus is often quoted as saying, we need to quiet our intelligence and let Nature tell us what it knows.

When I first watched the Shaffi Mather TED Talk “A New Way to Fight Corruption”, I didn’t have a positive reaction to the idea.  Paying a service so that you don’t pay a bribe?  Can’t that level of corruption just be dealt with?  But I was reacting with my suburban New England background and understanding of “how things should work”.  When I thought longer about it, I realized that it was beating the corruption by empowering citizens with tools to fight.  Having to pay for this service was valuable because the research was done and they had a representative to help them stand; more empowering than charity.  I needed to listen to those that are suffering in that community come up with a brilliant and innovative solution to free themselves.

Similarly, the idea of Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (roscas) and other community based microlending (Biggart, 2001) is the community building something that works for it based on the social constructs that they have.  Formal lending institutions are constructs often based on colonialism and don’t fit the cultural norms of the communities they are supposed to be serving.  Female based microlending groups are a primary example of this because, even though they run households and businesses, they can’t participate in formal banking except through their husbands.

Sometimes the best way to help a designated “underserved” community is to listen when they describe the solutions they already have created and amplify them.

Reference:

Biggart, Nicole Woolsey, “Banking on Each Other: The Situational Logic of Rotating Savings and Credit Associations”, Advances in Qualitative Organization Research, volume 3 pages 129-153, 2001.

A Living Wage?

For my Political Economy class this semester, we need to write 2-3 paragraphs each week based on our readings.  This is the first of 8.


“Poverty is about more than not having enough money.  It’s about not having hope” – Jennifer Garner

I’ve been watching A Path Appears, a documentary by Nick Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn and this week’s episode was about living in poverty and a few solutions that have been created.  Ms Garner’s quote is a great summary of the themes that ran through the film and through the articles that we read this week.

The reality of our country is that there is a large group of people living on a financial precipice:  One unexpected car expense, one cold snap where the heat and electrical goes up and they are falling into the pit.   There is little view to getting out of the hole, climbing out via a sandy, crumbling wall.

Throwing money at the problem isn’t the full solution.   Education and skill building are the way to get out and get up.  A controlled study from the state of Pennsylvania, paying for preschool educational programs in at risk communities, there was a 59% reduction in arrests at age 15. The cost of the education is lower and it can break the cycle of poverty.  The cited study suggest a savings of $100MM per year in Pennsylvania.

Even if the intervention is later in the cycle and incarceration or other damage has occurred, skill building and providing alternate housing can reduce recidivism and be less expense.   The roots of recidivism are in poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Knowing this, I was shocked and frustrated to see that in the Living Wage tables, Community and Social services jobs do not pay a living wage in CT.  How can we expect these workers to have hope for their clients if they are unsure how they will pay for their own future?  Maybe it’s time to look for new solutions because the old ones just aren’t working.