I recently read an interesting article in Business Week Online entitled, “It’s Always Sunny in Silicon Valley.” This article analyzed the many ways in which Silicon Valley, like Stanford, often finds itself in a bubble, an “alternate reality.” Essentially, author Stone suggests that given the localized prosperity that Silicon Valley enjoys, the region “may lose touch with the rest of the world” and the global financial crisis.
I’d argue that Stone got it right – sort of. The article seems to underestimate the ability and nature of the tech gurus of Silicon Valley to barrage themselves with news and information from around the world using a variety of media sources. It isn’t a lack of awareness that puts Silicon Valley in a bubble, but the difference in actionable priorities. The modern tech bubble (as The Economist has deemed it) seems heavily oriented towards the consumer desires of the upper class and tends to choose redundancy over the risks of innovation.
We see it on campus as much as we see it in the modern tech climate. iPhone and Android app classes are among the most sought-after on campus, and yet only those able to afford iPhones and Androids are able to benefit from their apps. Luxury products and their markets grow out of convenience, rather than necessity or innovation (see examples here and here). Some companies hiring on campus (both student-started and external) spend more time clarifying how their products are different from existing products than explaining how they work or why they’re relevant.
A recent Flipside article, “Friend’s Idea for Start-Up Just Google Docs” was funny mostly due to its frightening resemblance to reality. Viral video “Sh*t Silicon Valley Says” likewise satirized the redundancy trend. ”How is this different from Facebook?” ”Think of it like an Instagram for hamburgers.” ”Think of it as a Netflix for YouTube.” Phrases like these generate nervous laughter and amusement because the start up du jour often uses similar catchphrases. The problems addressed by these redundant apps are invariably something more likely to surface in a “First World Problems” meme than on the UN Millennium Goals task list. Some sources suggest that, “even though technology is more pervasive in our daily lives than ever, it’s stagnating.”
Does modern product redundancy have innovation in a rut?
Department of Redundancy Department?
This isn’t to say that apps are bad in general, or that innovation for the 1% can’t ultimately help the broader public. Many apps provide much-needed services that are revolutionizing the human condition. Healthcare apps “help [patients] better understand their treatment and what’s going on with their bodies.” Sustainability apps help users stay green and eco-conscious on the go. Heck, even philanthropies and nonprofits have new apps to help them with donations and the day-to-day. Likewise, numerous products originally targeted toward the wealthy can ultimately spark innovation in the broader market. One great example of this is Tesla Motors, whose $109,000+ Roadster is inaccessible to most, but whose research and goals are targeted towards “accelerat[ing] the world’s transition to electric mobility with a full range of increasingly affordable electric cars.” In a similar sense, Twitter was originally famous as an over-sharing medium for America’s celebrities, but has since been credited with playing “a pivotal role” in the Arab Spring uprisings.
It’s the non-innovative and redundant products that are the problem. As former MIT Media Lab director Frank Moss claims, “the frenzy over social media is not the wave of innovation we need.” He elaborates,
Meaningful innovation is stagnating in America. Yes, we can access any information, and connect with anyone, anytime from our mobile devices. But if we are to thrive, and not just survive, in the 21st century, we need meaningful innovations that enable people to take control of their health, wealth, and happiness in ways previously thought impossible.”
The School of Engineering summarizes similar goals in on its website: ”we’re pursuing discoveries to solve important global challenges in areas such as human health, environmental sustainability, and economic development.” I have yet to see “an app for that.”
The Low-Hanging Fruit Argument
Adherents of the app-centric mindset might suggest that it’s most convenient, perhaps even most organic, to re-explore avenues (e.g., mobile, shopping, and social media) where the tools and technology are already in place.
But the low-hanging fruit argument can also be applied to the largest humanitarian issues of our time. The moment I realized I had to go to Stanford was at the Los Angeles session of Stanford’s Leading Matters tour, when Stanford mechanical engineer David Evans described the Stanford d.school course “Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability.” In this course, students identify monumental problems in developing nations, which they solve with basic technologies generated on campus. In Evans’ project, adding a metal ring to the outside of a clay cooking surface significantly increased its durability and quartered annual kitchen expenditures in Ethiopia, enabling families to spend more money on food and education for their children. Classes and opportunities like “Extreme” indicate that, when we set our minds to it, Stanford students have the capacity to drastically change more lives more powerfully by tackling global problems.
When you’ve got college kids building solar rechargeable LED lights and baby incubators for reducing infant mortality in developing nations, shopping apps just kinda pale in comparison.
What We Can Do About It
Stanford is fortunate to enroll some of the world’s most qualified and motivated problem-solvers. With such staggering potential at our fingertips, it is a waste of the talent of our students and a disservice to the needs of the world if we choose not to harness this energy for true innovation and the betterment of mankind. With an emphasis on meaningful, novel innovation and the boldness to pursue disruptive technologies, Stanford students truly can be the change we want to see in the world.
Interested in getting involved? The resources on campus eagerly await smart students with a passion for making a difference. Check out the following links for a taste of how entrepreneurship at Stanford truly can and does burst the bubble and change the world.
- Courses offered in cooperation with Engineers for a Sustainable World
- Stanford Engineering Everywhere
- New online Stanford classes
- Join the online education revolution
- International summer projects through ESW
- Class: “Engineering for Good: Save the World and Have Fun Doing It“
- Engage with the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center or the Woods Institute for the Environment