Tech Will Disrupt Everything — And Then, What?

Having just returned from a trip to the Bay Area, where the NGA CEO and I conducted meetings on behalf of NGA Future, I was struck by a noticeable change in the usual conversations.

It’s hard to not be optimistic about the future of American innovation after a week in Silicon Valley. However, past conversations around technology often seemed divorced from the economic reality for millions of Americans and their growing anxiety over how technology will disrupt their lives. This trip’s conversations were different.

We planned these meetings around a single question: how can governors explain to citizens who have been left behind and who are skeptical of cutting-edge technology that it’s all going to work out — that disruption will end up benefiting many rather than few? We posed this question to the venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, public policy teams and CEOs we spoke with.

Over the course of the week we met with over a dozen companies, ranging from multinationals to ten-person startups. We spoke with organizations that are building robots, growing workforce pipelines, using AIs to develop corporate strategy, investing in the future of work, changing medical testing and revolutionizing payment processing.

While the usual Silicon Valley optimism pervaded much of the talk, now there was also a near universal focus on how to illustrate the value of new technologies, while not being blind to the disrupted and left behind. Perhaps this acute awareness of the downsides was due to the overnight presence of thousands of electric scooters in San Francisco, but it seemed to be the result of deeper reflection.

This reality came up time and time again. The innovators we met with are increasingly aware that their technologies are going to put many people out of work, while simultaneously opening new opportunities for others. This could be in the form of a delivery robot that replaces a human driver, but keeps an elderly shut-in from going hungry, or a new machine learning aided medical test that will replace some medical skills, but will propel breakthroughs in medical technology to help populations in need. A decade into social media, we’re debating the positives and negatives, it won’t take that long for the next new technology to present obvious winners and losers. We must start the discussion now.

This subtle, but important, change in awareness reflects an acknowledgement that the old way of doing things isn’t going to work anymore. Whether we’re on the precipice of a techno-backlash or not, there is increasing skepticism on the part of citizens and government on whether technology is always the answer. This generation of entrepreneurs understands that they cannot rely solely on their zealous belief in disruption. They recognize that not everyone will see it through their lens. They want to work with government from the beginning and government must prepare for these conversations.

The good news is that governors stand ready to work with new companies who are eager to innovate and disrupt. They are keenly aware of the role played by entrepreneurs in building a modern, dynamic economy and they want to partner with companies to promote sustainable growth. Governors, as the CEOs of their states, have a deep understanding of the challenges new companies face and they want to engage innovators in Silicon Valley and in each of their states. This was our message to the companies we met with.

This isn’t about regulating tech or reigning in innovation, this is about developing ongoing partnerships to ensure that the rapidly evolving technology that drives our modern economy is being stewarded in a way that helps to answer the question we started with.

While this trip didn’t fully answer that question, there is a newfound willingness to work together to find an answer. It’s time to meet each other where we are, to acknowledge conflicting realities and partner to realize innovation’s full potential.