I've seen a lot of hand-wringing from techies in San Francisco and Silicon Valley saying "Why are we so hated?" now that there's been a more vocal contingent of people being critical of their lack of civic responsibility. Is it true that corruption and NIMBYism have kept affordable housing from being built? Sure. Is it true that members of the tech industry do contribute tax dollars to the city? Absolutely. But does that mean techies have done enough? Nope.
First, some perspective: The leaders of the technology industry in Silicon Valley are among the richest people who have ever lived in the history of the world. That's some crazy shit right there. And I know firsthand, from living in New York City where we have an egregious, unacceptable and immoral level of economic inequality that these are difficult problems to face. But the two biggest reasons techies in New York don't face the same blowback are because 1. We have the finance industry to shield us by being more disgusting than tech in almost every regard and 2. Our local technology community has a very strong ethos of community involvement, with the expectation that people who work in tech will also be involved in their community to solve bigger problems. It's just that simple.
So, what can folks who work in tech in San Francisco do to defuse the widespread resentment of their impact on the city? Here are a few simple suggestions:
- First, people in tech should use their voices to push the leaders of their companies and industry to do the right thing. It is just as easy for a CEO to ask the city to accommodate affordable housing as it is for them to demand tax rebates. And if a CEO believes their employees expect this kind of request, most tech company execs will do anything to keep their engineers happy. If Google is the symbol of entitlement in San Francisco right now, Larry Page could simply and consistently amplify the voice of those already working on housing solutions and make a huge impact.
- The employees who ride the buses could put up simple signs at the stops: "[X] out of the 300 people who ride this shuttle each day have pledged to volunteer once a month at a city shelter or facility, and to support labor rights when they vote & shop." People in the neighborhood could watch the number go up as the riders pledge, and the sign could proudly announce the name of the people's employer, instead of hiding it in secrecy as a source of shame.
- At a more structural level, startups which provide deluxe on-site benefits could extend their daycare, meal and on-site walk-in health care to people who have WIC or EBT cards and can show that they live in the neighborhood. The bonus here? You can meet actual people in your neighborhood. The cafeterias could charge a fair price for those extra lunches, or even better, simply talk to the people who come in to see which ones would make good employees. One hire from the neighborhood talent pool would more than pay for the cost of six months' worth of free lunches.
- People who care about these issues in technology could draft a simple platform of social goals and civic initiatives which they want to help with. (Just use a Google Doc for this; Don't overthink it.) Once that's done, people could simply indicate their support for the platform by liking it or putting a little badge/overlay on their avatars. Pick a nice name or logo, and it'd be perfect to put on a pin on your fanny pack or to silkscreen onto your startup hoodie. Then you'd be publicly declaring your commitment to your city and community — I promise a bus full of people wearing those pins won't get anything thrown at it, if it's a meaningful symbol of real engagement with the community.
The ridiculous thing is, these ideas, while nowhere close to real solutions, were meaningful first steps that I came up with in five minutes after a friend raised this issue in frustration. As far as I've seen, none of even these simple initiatives have been tried yet. The reason techies are getting a hard time in San Francisco is because they haven't done even the first steps. Now, to be clear: We need to get our shit in order in New York City, too. While most of our startups aren't big enough to have the infrastructure to do these things, and we don't have commuter shuttles, there's no reason we couldn't adapt versions of these initiatives. But already, disaster-related hackathons like those around Sandy have helped our neighbors, hosting Mayoral forums that raise substantive issues has contributed to our political discourse, drafting meaningful public policy suggestions has driven the dialogue about how we best serve all our citizens, and volunteers across the city put their tech skills to work serving the needs of their neighbors. All of these things are just as possible in San Francisco.
I'm not saying these take the place of real, substantive, long-term engagement and investment. They obviously do not. But these could be useful bits of progress if they lead to people in the technology industry approaching their civic institutions with humility and respect, listening to their neighbors honestly and openly, and making commitments instead of demands. I joke around a lot about San Francisco as a New Yorker, but having lived in San Francisco for years, I know it can be a great city. So act like it, and be worthy of it.