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7 February 2014

Society: Index outlines Valley’s social ills, panelists address others

Speakers emphasized traditional Valley values as a way to remedy the region’s ills.

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Chris Kelly, the former Chief Privacy Officer for Facebook, emphasized the importance of simplicity in approaching political and social challenges, at the State of the Valley conference on Feb. 7. (Jessica Haro/Peninsula Press)

By Marianne LeVine and Emiliano Vazquez

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Although inequality remained a pervasive theme of 2014′s State of the Valley conference, panel speakers emphasized traditional Silicon Valley values as a way to remedy the region’s ills.

A talk, titled “Can Silicon Valley Solve Social and Political Problems,” largely skirted around concrete solutions to the issues posed by the index, instead underlining Silicon Valley’s potential to arrive at innovative solutions for a range of social and political challenges.

Despite their disparate areas of focus, the speakers rarely strayed from the Valley culture doctrine of disruptive innovation.

Chris Kelly, the former Chief Privacy Officer of Facebook, emphasized a Valley mainstay; finding effective paths to simple solutions.

“Franklin Roosevelt took a nation that needed a different approach, and we were able to get incredible things done in that period,” Kelly said. “He talked about bold, persistent experimentation — we have that in the Valley right now.”

Kelly’s 15-minute talk drove home ideas that he said he developed while at Facebook.

“The simplicity of looking for identity allows for the building of a trust infrastructure,” Kelly said. “Bitcoin is distributed trust infrastructure. It’s a simple idea at the end of the day—people need to be able to trust and link.”

Divya Nag, founder of StartX Med and Stem Cell Theranostics — and one of this year’s Forbes “30 Under 30″ — emphasized the importance of an innovative mentality in another area: public health. Zeroing in on lengthy and expensive drug R&D, Nag said that Moore’s Law could be applied to the field if clinical trials were streamlined. Her solution? Personalized stem cell clinical trials.

“The tech we’ve developed allows us to take your skin cells, turn them into stem cells, and then convert them into beating heart cells for clinical trials,” Nag said. “We can give access to medicine sooner, and make it a lot more affordable for people all around the world.”

While Kelly and Nag emphasized the importance of maintaining the Silicon Valley mindset, Michael Santos elaborated on how the Silicon Valley mindset could be used to address one of the region’s thorniest issues: mass incarceration and reintegration into society.

“If you have a job to offer, contact me,” Santos said, addressing the room. “People who want to live as law-abiding citizens need to be given a path.”

Although Kelly, Nag and Santos discussed the importance of the Silicon Valley mindset, keynote speakers from earlier in the day emphasized the need for a more direct policy approach, particularly when it comes to the widening income gap.

Joint Venture Silicon Valley President and CEO Russell Hancock hammered home statistics that demonstrated a widening disparity between Silicon Valley’s technical elite and the rest of the Peninsula’s population.

“The only people who can enter this economy are high-earners,” said Hancock. “In Silicon Valley, we are seeing the constant erosion of our middle class. We used to be characterized by those professions. Now we’re the classic hourglass economy.”

Dr. Emmett Carson, founder of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, echoed this sentiment, running counter to the traditionally libertarian sentiments of the Valley.

“To address income inequality, we have to have intentional public policy,” Carson said. “It doesn’t just happen because the market is growing. Economic growth alone will not fix that problem. It’s been existing and growing for the last four years of our economic success.”