Techno-Optimists Celebrated In Silicon Valley Visionary Awards

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Above, Steve Blank, left, next to Deborah Magid, Chair of SVForum, and Ray Kurzweil, at Visionary Awards press conference.

One of my high points of the year is attending the SVForum Visionary Awards because it’s a chance to spend time with some of Silicon Valley’s aristocracy in a relaxed summer party setting that brings out some great stories.

This year’s winners represent some of the leading US tech-optimists but are not necessarily Silicon Valley’s own. There was a strong showing of Singularitans, including their leader Ray Kurzweil, who recently moved here from Boston, taking a job at Google to be closer to his son who works as a VC.

Over the past few years I’ve noticed more and more Singularitans in Silicon Valley, in its companies,  and at various events. That’s certainly been true at SVForum (formerly SDForum) where every year I’ve been meeting more people associated with “The Singularity.” It describes a future utopia where humanity has transcended the age and health limits of its biology and is living in a world where reality is indistinguishable from man-made worlds.

Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil were each honored with a Visionary Award – both are co-founders of the Singularity University, (and both are not from here, or much associated with Silicon Valley unlike past honorees.)

Businessweek reports that followers of the Singularity “have turned Kurzweil into a quasi-religious figure. He’s the grand prophet.” I was told it was just a coincidence that two Singularitans were chosen — fair enough.

The two other Visionary Award winners are:

Steve Blank, one of Silicon Valley’s best examples of a successful serial entrepreneur ( eight startups over 33 years) and who spends extraordinary amounts of time teaching and mentoring other entrepreneurs.

He’s also developed a new approach to building startups described in his book “The Lean Startup.” The “Lean” development processes are having a huge impact on transforming large corporations.

- Padmasree Warrior, Cisco System’s Indian-born CTO, who masterminded the acquisition of 15 companies in 15 months, and has such an enormous list of achievements, talents, and hobbies, that I thought it might be endless when VC Ann Winblad mentioned them all in her long introductory speech for the “Innovation Warrior.”

I loved what she said about the nonsense in finding a balance between work and life. She talks about integration because balance implies opposition in equal amounts and that’s not realistic.

Last year’s recipients (former Visionaries?) were Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX); Salman Khan (Khan Academy); journalist David Kirkpatrick; and top dog VC Jim Breyer (Accel Partners).

The real Silicon Valley

There was a pre-event press conference for the small group of media and much was said about how great Silicon Valley is and what it represents to other nations.

Mr Kurzweil said that he travels a lot and people are very proud of their local innovation centers, and they are usually described as the “Silicon Valley of India,” or “The Silicon Valley of Israel,” or whatever country he is in, each one has its own “Silicon Valley.”

Mr Kurzweil said,”But only we have the real Silicon Valley and it’s a potent symbol of inspiration to the rest of the world.”

Very true. I pointed out that since it is such an important symbol shouldn’t Silicon Valley make sure that its communities, its public schools especially, are extraordinary?

We can’t keep saying we’re changing the world when locally nothing much changes. Silicon Valley continues to suffer from terrible public schools and broken communities such as East Palo Alto — a violent urban ghetto in every sense of the word – smack-dab in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Mr Blank said that there were bigger problems, that people were stepping over dead bodies in India. Well, people are stepping over dead bodies here, too.

Here’s a recent news story from the SF Examiner: “Two weeks ago, eight people were shot in eight days in East Palo Alto. Among them was a 15-year-old boy, killed in what appeared to be a gang-related shooting.”

Change the world, ignore the neighborhood…

I’m of the opinion that learning how to take care of yourself is the best way to learn how to take care of others. Silicon Valley needs to learn how to take care of its local communities so that it can use that knowledge to enable change on a global scale.

Let’s start with making all of our schools showcases. It’s a hard problem, but as Peter Diamandis said at the event, “I believe there is no such thing as a hard problem that can’t be solved.”

He managed to jumpstart a multi-billion dollar private space industry with the promise of a $10 million prize. It attracted many multiples of that $10 million in research and development investments as teams competed to win and in the process created a thriving business sector.

The genius of Mr Diamandis was further revealed at the event, when a colleague of his said, “He didn’t have any of the prize money.”

He took a gamble that when the time came to award the prize sponsors would come forth and stump up the money. Why can’t we do the same for public education?!

A $20m Silicon Valley XPrize

I have some ideas, I know other people do too, it’s time for a Silicon Valley XPRIZE for public education. Let’s increase the prize money to $20 million.

If half that amount can get a rocket ship into space then twice that amount should yield a great payoff in sparking innovation that transforms public eduction.  If we can fix it here we can probably fix it elsewhere, too.

What are you doing about it?

At one point in the press conference, Mr Blank understandably grew a little irritated at my insistence that Silicon Valley fix its schools and neighborhoods, and asked me, ”What are you doing about it?”

I told him “This. This is what I’m doing, hassling people like you.”

I’ve been doing it for years, harassing the the influential, the people with access to resources, the great Captains of Industry, to pay attention to what’s under their feet and next door. To ditch the hypocrisy of changing the world and change Silicon Valley into a place where all its residents benefit tremendously from the incredible visionaries in our midst, and the world-changing technologies created by our local companies.

Silicon Valley envy

Every nation envies Silicon Valley, every government including our own looks to Silicon Valley to help it create new jobs, and to solve difficult problems. But why? What benefit is there for the San Francisco Bay area to have the original and genuine Silicon Valley?

Our local schools are basket cases instead of showcases, and our local cities struggle with the same problems of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and decaying infrastructure as any city anywhere.

This hypocrisy has to end. Silicon Valley can’t claim to change the world for the better when it’s unable to change even a small part of the world here in Northern California.

Muckraking…

My contribution is to try to shame the rich and powerful to do something about it. It’s what newspapers used to do: muckraking, pointing out blatant hypocrisy and campaigning for the improvement of their communities.

I’ve challenged John Chambers, CEO of Cisco on these points in the past. About six years ago when we were both on the same Silicon Valley panel, he told me, “Tom, we tried to improve public education here  but it just can’t be done.”  I was shocked that he gave up so easily.

Techno-optimism without activism

The Visionary Award winners, Steve Blank, Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, Padmasree Warrior — all spoke glowingly about their techno-optimism, and their books about techno-optimism.

I’m a techno-optimist too but I believe technology doesn’t create the future – people do. To ensure we get the right kind of future you have to work for it, not wait for it.

Techno-optimists have to be techno-activists and I don’t see them doing much except pointing to their Amazon links. Every armchair techno-optimist is getting a free ride on the exponential growth in the game-changing technologies developed by others. Yet they claim the credit.

Techno-optimists have to be social activists in every sense of the word to ensure the future turns out right.

People are noticing that Silicon Valley’s talk should match its walk but that it doesn’t. George Packer, an award winning journalist currently working for The New Yorker, says that Silicon Valley companies should shut up about changing the world because they aren’t.

Let’s make Silicon Valley into an example of what a potential future might be like for everyone on the planet, by showcasing the tremendous benefits of technology when it is used the right way.

Predicting the future of technology is easy — figuring out how to live in that future is much harder.