The annual State of the Valley Conference is always a highlight of our year, and this time was no exception. Now in its 16th year, the event featured renowned journalist Dan Rather as the keynote and  a series of inspiring speakers ranging from urban planning thought leaders to leading tech experts.

Regular attendees of the event have grown accustomed to a presentation of Joint Venture Silicon Valley Index delivered by the organization’s CEO and President Russell Hancock. The Index covers a wide array of indicators that collectively provide a point-in-time snapshot of the overall economic and societal health of the region. The takeaway? Silicon Valley — which includes Southern Alameda County as well as Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties — has continued to have a record-setting run of economic growth; however we are also up against several systemic challenges that will require big ideas and political will to tackle.

First, the good news: unemployment remains at a record low 2.1%, with over 29,000 jobs added in 2019. Notably, fully half of these jobs came from just one sector — technology — unprecedented in large, established economies. More than one quarter of all jobs in the region are now in tech, with 130,000 tech jobs added since 2010. Notably, biotechnology (Fremont’s largest sector by number of companies) saw major job growth at 9.5% year-over-year; healthcare occupations increased by 7,500 jobs over the same period. Economic output per employee in the region now stands at $241,000 per worker, the equivalent of $116 per hour and 66% above the national average.

The index also quantifies our region’s challenges around income inequality, housing affordability, and congestion. For example, the divergence in median earnings between service occupations such as teachers, health care workers, and retail employees and technology-related occupations has led to staggering income inequality. In Silicon Valley, the top 13% of households now own 75% of the region’s wealth with the bottom 53% owning just 2%, respectively. This reality is most visible in housing costs, where half of renters spend more than 30% of their gross income on housing. High housing costs have pushed many workers to more affordable areas, and as a result, Silicon Valley now has over 100,000 mega-commuters, defined as those who drive an average of over 3 hours daily for work. Lost productivity resulting from congestion is an astounding 81,000 hours each day.

The numbers put into view the staggering dichotomies of Silicon Valley’s great economic strengths and its structural challenges around housing and transportation, which according to the conference speaker Peter Calthorpe, require the region to “think big.” His proposal: redevelop the 45-mile stretch of El Camino Real from San Jose to South San Francisco into a mixed-use transit corridor.

Calthorpe, a prolific urban planner who founded the Congress for New Urbanism, proposes that the mostly auto-oriented, low-density development of El Camino has enough development capacity to add nearly 250,000 units of low-to-medium density housing, enough units to reduce much of the housing supply deficit afflicting the region. Moreover, the compact and linear nature of El Camino would allow for more efficient transportation — including the use of autonomous people movers being developed in Silicon Valley — to shuttle people to work and recreational locations between the residential and commercial clusters along the corridor.

Another interesting perspective was provided by Margaret O’Mara, Professor of History at the University of Washington and author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America. Her premise: Silicon Valley was traditionally “an entrepreneurial rocket ship with a big government launchpad.” Citing examples of iconic Silicon Valley companies such as Lockheed Missiles & Space Systems and Fairchild Semiconductor that got their start from public sector contracts or investments, O’Mara posited that the Valley’s embrace of libertarian ethos has led technology companies to become the targets of fierce regulatory scrutiny and public criticism.

Along a similar note, a panel consisting of Google News President Richard Gingras and Sally Lehrman of The Trust Project discussed the difficult balance between technology platforms allowing for free expression and preventing the spread of misinformation that has garnered widespread attention of late. For Lehrman, in the age of the internet, the work of The Trust Project to develop transparency standards to help assess the quality and credibility of media outlets is key to ensuring that accurate and impartial information is being disseminated through technology platforms — often at light speed.

The panel segued quite well to Dan Rather, the celebrated journalist with a career spanning six decades. He believes that news is as valuable as ever even in the age of social media. “Technology advances much faster than human evolution. We still have a need for news. Digital communication is still communication; we still seek to understand the world around us.” While acknowledging the expectation that tech platforms self-select news outlets is a challenge, Rather urged that more must be done. “Even the oil barons of the early 20th century could not change the pipelines of information at the speed that companies in Silicon Valley can do today.”

While Rather critiqued Silicon Valley for not being considered the unmitigated good and representation of progress as it once was, he also recognized that the issues are more complex than some present them to be. As for his take on social media? Rather says he has realized that on balance it allows him to reach a wider audience than ever before without needing to reduce his character count or sensationalize his coverage. “It’s here to stay, let’s use it the right way.”

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