May 2, 2020 - “Silicon Valley needs to become more political,” said Mark Lutter, founder and executive director of the Charter Cities Institute, at a webinar hosted by the Lincoln Network on Thursday.
The discussion, “A Time to Build?” was focused on legendary entrepreneur Marc Andreessen’s recent article by the same name. In the piece, Andreessen, co-creator of the Mosaic internet browser and co-founder of Netscape, argued that governments, businesses and other institutions failed to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic.
In Thursday’s discussion, Lutter cited Apple’s $2.5 billion payment towards building affordable housing around its headquarters instead of using lobbyists, which he argued would have achieved the same results with less money.
Apple and other large tech companies need “more political will,” he insisted. He also urged tech entrepreneurs “build movements, don’t build another app,” in his recent article responding to Andreessen's.
On the call, Lutter spontaneously proposed the creation of an an “Andreessen Fellowship” that would fly 10 to 15 policymakers from D.C. to San Francisco for several days to learn creative problem-solving solutions from tech executives. They should be able to use that knowledge to better bolster institutions.
Lutter also contrasted the two cities, arguing that San Francisco has a higher tolerance for failure than D.C. That’s because Washington punishes policymakers more harshly for taking chances than does Silicon Valley.
“What’s the Y-Combinator for the next institutions?” Lutter asked glibly, referring to the startup accelerator synonymous with creative destruction.
Competition policy, but applied to the nation-state
The panelists also discussed the role of competition in building institutions. “Competition matters,” Lutter said, arguing that America hasn’t had a true competitor for past 30 years since the Soviet Union. Even that claim is debatable, he added, since the Soviet Union at its peak only reached half of the industrial output of the United States.
The lack of a clear rival has lowered the stress on American institutions, causing them to pick “all of the low-hanging fruit for technological innovation,” Lutter said. He criticized Washington’s “lack of vision” and proclaimed that “Silicon Valley is the only place that has this bigger vision.”
Marci Harris, CEO and Co-Founder of PopVox, a tech platform for civic engagement, noted that the government’s role in innovation is made more complicated by what she termed the pacing problem.
The pacing problem is the idea that tech develops exponentially while policy develops linearly, forcing Congress to always play catch-up.
Harris suggested that policy wonks should try solving problems the Silicon Valley way: start with the problem they’re trying to solve and then work backward, while comparing and refining their approach. This process “begins to take some of the ideology out of the picture,” Harris said.
Lutter remained adamant that “we can’t separate ideology,” pointing out that it is an inevitable part of how results are interpreted. What’s to stop partisans from blaming the origins of a societal problem on China, healthcare or large government, he asked?
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