September 22, 2015

By Thane Kreiner, Originally posted on San Jose Mercury News

This week’s historic addresses by Pope Francis to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations General Assembly represent a stunning convergence of moral-spiritual and ecological-economic imperatives. The convergence should serve as a clarion call to Silicon Valley that the “ecological debt” Pope Francis cited in his recent encyclical is now due, and we are its primary debtors.

The pope’s recent encyclical accurately notes, “Developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future.”Also, “Developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of nonrenewable energy and by assisting poorer countries” to deploy sustainable solutions.Meanwhile, the U.N. is preparing to adopt its Sustainable Development Goals. The 17 objectives include reducing inequality within and among countries; taking urgent action to combat the impacts of climate change; halting land degradation and biodiversity loss; eradicating poverty and hunger everywhere; and ensuring affordable and sustainable energy access for everyone on the planet.

So what does this have to do with Silicon Valley?

By any measure, Silicon Valley is the world’s most successful entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem. Individually and collectively, we are huge beneficiaries of the technological innovations we helped to create — and contributors to the ecological degradation called out by secular and religious authorities. We can decide to direct our creative energies toward achieving the U.N.’s goals and repaying the “ecological debt” that Pope Francis outlines.

The idea of applying innovation toward the common good is embedded in the DNA of Silicon Valley. Bill Hewlett and David Packard’s “HP Way” began with the view in the 1940s that their company existed to make technical contributions for the advancement and welfare of humanity.

Some Silicon Valley companies already invest in green technologies that can help repay our ecological debt. An example is Tesla’s Gigafactory, which aims to significantly reduce the cost of energy storage while increasing production volume. Companies including Google and Yahoo reportedly have major research projects dedicated to finding better ways to feed the planet’s growing population.

But we can and must do more.

We all know about Moore’s Law and its exponential increase in integrated circuit density and decrease in cost. But Moore’s Law isn’t a law of physics; it’s an astute observation that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Microprocessor designers pushed themselves to be innovative and to keep pace with the Moore’s Law predictions.

In a similar vein, the call by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to ” … before this decade is out, (land) a man on the moon and (return) him safely to the Earth” pushed NASA to be innovative and achieve this daring goal.

As you hike through the beautiful, drought-stricken hills (climate change, anyone?) of Silicon Valley or drive your electric or hybrid car through the streets, give some thought to what kinds of investments in innovation you and your companies might make to improve the lives of the people most affected by climate change — the global poor — and halt the degradation of natural resources.

Perhaps you can even envision an inspirational BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal, as coined by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras when they wrote and taught in Silicon Valley) on a par with Moore’s Law or Kennedy’s summons to the moon. A goal that can marshal and focus Silicon Valley to apply our innovation and wealth to help the planet and its poor inhabitants. Not because it feels good or assuages our wealthy-world guilt, but because it’s an ecological debt that must be repaid.

Thane Kreiner, Ph.D., is executive director of the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University.