Senator Kamala Harris was selected on Tuesday to be Joe Biden’s Vice Presidential nominee. The daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, she becomes the first woman of color to join a national ticket in American history. Her selection shatters another glass ceiling in place since the founding of our great country – one most Americans are happy to see gone.
Harris is also the first candidate of Silicon Valley. Her rise to power runs parallel to Silicon Valley’s own rise from technology hub to one of the world’s most powerful and influential centers of business. Despite the state’s out sized influence, Harris is the first Californian on a national ticket since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Harris understands the Bay Area and Silicon Valley in a way few national politicians could; having represented the world’s leading innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem for a long time. She understands its extraordinary power to create transformative technology; and its callous disregard for the way those technologies impact society and the human condition.
Right now, America really needs the best that Silicon Valley has to offer. The Bay Area may be the largest congregation of money, technical talent and experienced managers in the world. But that’s not why its so important to the success of our country. It’s the mindset, or ethos, of Silicon Valley, that America needs to apply to its great challenges. We are facing a global pandemic, and we need the best ideas of the world’s greatest center for innovation to end it. We also need a new generation of Silicon Valley startups to help jump start our economy out of crisis, the way Google did in 2001 and Airbnb and Uber in 2009.
What is the ethos of the area Harris represented? Since its earliest days, Silicon Valley has been willing to bet big on risky ideas, regardless of their origin. It has bet on elite entrepreneurs but also those without pedigree or resources who went on to build companies like Sun Microsystems, Google and Intel. Thirty-five years later, no other region has been able to replicate Silicon Valley’s willingness to experiment, fail, and reboot based on the passion of the entrepreneur or the potential of a technology.
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have also had a single-minded focus on scaling up their companies globally. The ecosystem has pathways and models to help early-stage entrepreneurs recruit the right talent, raise money and build the partnerships they need to scale, create global brands and sometimes, transform our lives. The result has been one globally important company after another – HP, Intel, Apple, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Tesla…the list goes on.
Can Harris bring the Silicon Valley ethos of big bets and scale to Washington? We need to support lots of innovative ideas to fight COVID-19 and reimagine our economy. And we need to rapidly scale up successful solutions so that America, and the world, can get back to learning, working and socializing.
Last month, former Vice President Biden put forth an important Made in All of America plan to spur innovation and drive economic growth in America. The plan has some ambitious goals, including $300 billion in increased federal research funding, a $700 billion plan to build infrastructure using American firms, and to finally bring broadband access to every corner of America. The Biden plan also addresses important inequalities in American society in education, banking and workforce training. Overall, the Biden plan includes the expansion of several successful programs launched under the Obama-Biden Administration, as well as new ideas to address the double threat of COVID-19 and the associated recession.
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST) also released an important report advocating for American investment and continued leadership in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum information science, advanced manufacturing and biotechnology. The Council advocates for a White-House led effort to enhance collaboration between the public and private sectors, the creation of new institutes in US federal labs focused on these emerging technologies and a concerted effort to train the American workforce for these “industries of the future”.
As time is of the essence, it won’t be enough for the Biden-Harris team to simply provide more funding to traditional research institutions and experts. We need to be more like Silicon Valley and look for solutions everywhere – from individual inventors to startups and research universities in the United States and worldwide. Traditionally, federal programs use an extensive peer review process that leads to funding for large, well-established research institutes, non-profits or big companies. It is normally a good process that will be far too slow for the challenges of COVID-19, as we cannot afford to wait ten years for a return to normal. Instead, the federal government should use its size and influence to get involved more intricately from idea to scale up. Every agency should be involved because COVID-19 is affecting every aspect of our lives. They should fund lots of ideas all over the country – whether they are from traditional or unorthodox backgrounds.
It also won’t be enough to wait for large telecommunications firms like Verizon and AT&T to promise a fast roll-out of 5G and expand broadband. Rather than wait for private capital and milestone-driven growth, the federal government can provide the proper incentives, like massive funding, coordination across state borders and regulatory change, to reach the 30-40% of Americans currently lacking high quality Internet access in America in short order. The same model can be applied to online education, small business financing and tools to fight climate change.
Fortunately, the US military already knows how to do this. When the Department of Defense needs a new technology for soldiers in the field, they call upon the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to fund lots of research and innovative startups to create the best solution for their needs. The Pentagon then structures partnerships between the startup and a large defense manufacturer to quickly get the innovative technology in the hands of our soldiers. The process is structured so that everyone generally benefits from the collaboration.
In January, the next presidential administration will have to figure out how to scale the Pentagon model for an array of challenges – starting with PPE equipment and COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Ultimately, it may be a model that applies to solving the problems of climate change, which are long-term in nature, but descending upon us with rapid speed. With Kamala Harris on the ticket to complement Joe Biden, we have a chance to fundamentally change how we scale solutions in America – and to finally learn as a nation from the incredible success of Silicon Valley.