Can Regions Define the Times?

California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom took the stage at the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership’s (MBEP) State of the Region event last week like an energetic Matthew McConaughey. His enthusiasm and self-reflective humor quickly dispelled any doubts the audience might have had that he has become a political wall flower in his under-tasked, vice president type role in state government.

 “Ask yourself, what time am I living in?” he urged the crowd, going on to explain that our world is changing exponentially fast and that successful individuals and communities must take advantage of the technological trend lines. His argument included the facts that 10 years ago, “Facebook” wasn’t mentioned once in Thomas Friedman’s book on disruptive technology, The World is Flat; that the Virgin Megastore in SF, which he remembered opening while he was mayor and thinking he would take his grandkids to, is now vacant; and that AirBnB will probably be the first company in the history of the world to operate in every country on the planet (once it gets into North Korea and Syria settles down that is). He described his experience riding in a self-driving Audi that flew around the race track at 110 mph and navigated obstacles with hair raising accuracy. “But if you think the last 10 years were wild, hold onto your pants,” he warned, “because these trends are just getting started.”

Newsom highlighted the opportunity in this paradigm for regions to lead. While gridlock plagues our political system at the state and national level, regions, with their sense of identity and community, might be able to move more nimbly to shape the future. Then again, regions are not immune from the pitfalls of politics. Both sides of the coin, the opportunities and the pitfalls are clearly visible in California’s Monterey Bay region.

On the opportunity side, the Monterey Bay has a thriving entrepreneurial community. The MBEP conference made clear that the possibilities for collaboration are nearly endless. Every skill set imaginable is represented in our community, from app developer, to organic food distributor to early childhood education specialist. Together, the region can create any disruptive service that they can dream up in Silicon Valley. Indeed, the region’s community values probably make it a better place to innovate in such areas as education, sexual health, and food than the more “quick hit” valley culture.

On the challenge side, the region is not immune to politics and “provincial” superstition. For example, while Santa Cruzans may be appalled by red state politics and science-ignorant climate deniers, PGE has faced major opposition in the region to SMART meters on the basis that locals think the wireless transmitters give them headaches and brain cancer. There is no scientific evidence of this whatsoever. SMART meters are foundational technology to distributed renewable electricity generation (think a solar panel on every home).

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UCSC Marine Science Professor Gary Griggs did a good job of reminding the audience why locals might have a certain mistrust of newcomers with big ideas. In the 1960s – ‘90s the region stopped a nuclear power plant in Davenport AND Moss Landing, a deepwater cargo port in Moss Landing, a 35,000 residence “village” development on Wilder Ranch, a hotel conference center at Lighthouse Field, and the list goes on.

But might the region also be acting “once bitten, twice shy”? Could past victories over thoughtless development be hindering a technology empowered positive vision of the future? Look at the local political standoff over the old rail corridor – many want to revive rail service, seeing the opportunity as a hard-won victory against a thoughtless automobile culture. But this rail vision ignores the technological trendlines Newsom talked about: bikeable communities, lightweight electric vehicles, and self-driving cars on our roads.

If regions are going to rise, the Monterey Bay Region included, they will have to overcome the same political challenges that our state and nation face. The opportunity is that a stronger sense of connectedness at this level could win out and the community could define a positive vision for the future that embraces the best of all of it’s values and know-how. Only time will tell. In the mean-time, thank you Gavin Newsom for reminding us that the times, they are a changin.

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