Commentary Upfront Blog

What about a Silicon Valley of politics?

Silicon Valley wasn’t really just about technology. It was America’s ideas factory. It was about problem-solving. Technology simply happens to be the most powerful and effective means to that end. 

TOMATO FARMER WIM PETERS EXAMINES ROMA TOMATOES IN A GREENHOUSE IN SOMEREN, NEAR EINDHOVEN, IN THE NETHERLANDS.
MICHAEL KOOREN/REUTERS/FILE
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There’s no denying that this week’s cover story by staff writer Eoin O’Carroll is a fun read. A paper-thin smartphone that can be folded and put in your pocket? Gee-whiz tech stories bring out the James Bond in all of us. 

But the 18 big ideas laid out in Eoin’s story also speak to something more profound: the nature of progress. 

News so often seems negative because it is the way we, as societies, work through problems. When something is broken, the wheel of news starts squeaking loudly. And those problems can seem unsolvable because, well, we haven’t solved them yet!

But Eoin’s story offers snapshots of how solutions happen. We end up with cheaper, more effective water purifiers and firefighting sound waves (two examples from his story) by connecting society’s advances with its problems in new ways. Often, that requires an initial mental leap. 

The Netherlands, for example, would hardly seem to be a prime candidate for an agricultural revolution. The tiny, densely populated country “is bereft of almost every resource long thought to be necessary for large-scale agriculture,” according to a National Geographic report.

Yet it’s behind only the United States – which is 270 times as large – as a food exporter as measured by value. “How on Earth have the Dutch done it?” the report asks.

The answer is that they radically reimagined agriculture. To look at the 200-plus acre greenhouses or the high-tech broiler houses that humanely hold 150,000 chickens in the Netherlands is to see agriculture almost totally divorced from its rural heritage and approaching a visionary idea. At the center of the effort is Wageningen University & Research, which has positioned itself as the hub of “Food Valley” – the Netherlands’ agricultural answer to Silicon Valley. 

In the time I spent as the Monitor’s Bay Area correspondent, I was struck that Silicon Valley wasn’t really just about technology. It was America’s ideas factory. It was about problem-solving. Technology simply happens to be the most powerful and effective means to that end. 

In that way, there should be countless “Valleys” across the world. Food Valley simply chose to address the problem of food production. 

What might a “Politics Valley” look like? 

So far, technology has been an enabler of the bad in politics: fake news and a Twitter-fied discourse, writes Ben Rattray, chief executive officer of Change.org, on Medium.com. “But well-designed technology also offers the best chance of creating the political system needed to respond to these challenges: a more participatory, responsive, and informed democracy. It just hasn’t been built yet.” 

For example, when politicians responded directly to petitions by video or text, Mr. Rattray notes, “the results were striking.”

“What’s encouraging is that in many cases government is actually doing much more than citizens realize on the issues they care about, and a short video delivered to someone’s smartphone in direct response to their most acute concern can make people feel authentically heard,” he adds. “It’s much more difficult to be angry with government and see it as a distant and faceless bureaucratic institution when you are receiving personal responses on the issues you’re passionate about.”

That kind of thinking might not have made it onto our list of 18 big ideas. But it’s a taste of what can and will change the world. 

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