We Must Save San Francisco

Brandon Nelson/Lombard street, San Francisco

Hike up San Francisco’s Twin Peaks and you will likely hear more than one enthusiastic pitch along the way. The experience reinforces the city’s reputation as an innovation highway bustling with ideas, offering a steady stream of iterations, improvements, and disruptions of the status quo. Conforming to what is, as opposed to trying to change it, is an attitude as misplaced here as it could be anywhere. San Francisco seeks out problems as exciting opportunities. They are itches that provoke the most invigorating aspects of this place: generative minds taking action.

Contrast this spirit of human dynamism with what you will find after descending down into the city’s BART public transit system on a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon: the smell of urine and feces, the shouting of threats, and the stinging absence of even one sane soul. These are sensory bites of a surreal parallel world—one that merely loses its intensity when you re-enter the safer havens found above. In the surface world, the marks left on the ground are no longer heroin needles, but rather the $9 Matcha-Latte receipts of a seemingly post-money society. Then, you turn a corner and encounter one of the city’s proliferating tent mazes that act as fast-growing portals to decline.

There is a stark dichotomy here between the abstract, futuristic ideas that excite and occupy the brightest minds and the actual building of a glorious city with tools and processes we already possess. Nowhere else in the country can really match the surreality. Roaming the frontiers—such as trying to construct AGI or moon telescopes, work whose outcomes are undefined and whose participants are leaving their footprints on previously uncharted territory—is inherently more exciting than dusting off the plans of a 20th-century construction technique. But an overemphasis on the former and total neglect for the latter leaves us with the absurd situation we find ourselves in now: an intellectual elite residing in a city in which the proliferating number of portals to deterioration are increasingly difficult to evade. While not directly commensurable, reported property crimes in 2020 even surpassed Covid cases in total number.

In the middle of all this, one cannot stop wondering about the obvious and increasingly asked question: why can’t the global hub of prosperity and software innovation halt its own deterioration? The ills befalling the city are plentiful, but one thing is certain: the crisis of sclerotic institutions, misgovernment, and bizarrely skewed priorities exceeds San Francisco’s borders. It is a national and even hemispherical trend. Responding to it by mobilizing a machine to fix one of the few remaining hubs of U.S. productivity is one of the highest impact problems we could take on. The fruits of success are nearly incalculable. Whether contradiction and decline or organized renewal, the future is still being made in San Francisco.

The Case for San Francisco

The importance of a well-functioning local government spans both the low and high levels. Walking the streets of San Francisco’s downtown district, even as a visitor, I was always surprised by the comparative emptiness of its streets. San Francisco is a relatively dense city. Yet where were all the people? But within a few weeks, the surprise faded. As residents experience the city’s decline on a daily basis, this impression strongly shapes their actions.

Before interacting with a city in meaningful ways, its inhabitants need their basic safety needs covered. Abandoning the car for a spontaneous stroll to one’s destination, taking the kids out for ice cream or shopping on Market Street, or even letting them roam unsupervised in the neighborhood requires trust that those streets are not the hotbed for drug use, untreated mental illness, ongoing verbal threats, and physical violence. The use of security crews in front of restaurants, as is now the practice in the Tenderloin district, is emblematic of the constant lingering fear of burglaries and assault. This fear severely restricts the space of activities San Franciscans feel willing to participate in.

Even when that fear is not on at the top of one’s mind, the lack of confidence in the city’s safety leaves its mark. The scope of activities is limited to those which can be done through A-to-B Uber rides—cars themselves equipped with the all-too-common plaque stating the absence of any valuables to be burglarized. Importantly, the fewer interactions that happen with the city, the stronger the residents’ sense of detachment grows. The city becomes more of a temporary residence than a place to call home. This results in further alienation from any desire to be an active participant in shaping the local community. No strong emotional ties sprout from isolation from one’s environment.

San Francisco has long been a congregation point for the weird, smart, energetic, and optimistic. Strong ties between startups, venture capital, an intellectual scene, and countless social events made possible a level of sophistication that is not found in other innovation ecosystems. Much has been written on the synergistic relationship between bright minds: a collective genius seems to emerge from these many spontaneous social bonds. This phenomenon is arguably responsible for many of the great breakthroughs of the past. Individual knowledge is transmitted through tight-knit circles whose members inspire and build upon each other’s ideas, often in informal ways.

But precisely because of the multitude of destinations that San Francisco’s exiles choose, this synergy fades when they leave. A network dispersed to Miami, Austin, and New York won’t be as tight-knit as it had been while centered around a 7-by-7 mile radius. As tech is one of America’s few remaining sectors of real productivity, breaking up this collective and scattering it across the country will be a great loss.

But thinking at scale—a Silicon Valley favorite—perhaps the most important reason to fix San Francisco is for its effect on our collective narrative of what the U.S. can accomplish in our current age. What happens to a person’s mental image of their nation if one of its most prosperous cities deteriorates right in front of them? One does not even have to witness this decline directly as a resident; faraway headlines increasingly reflect it as well. How can we process the surreality of the city’s decline against the backdrop of unicorns and IPOs?

San Francisco is becoming a prime example of hypernormalization. Berkeley anthropology professor Alexei Yurchak coined the term to describe the paradox of a society knowing its system is failing while nobody can imagine any alternative to the status quo. Politicians and citizens alike “[reign] to maintain the pretense of a functioning society.” This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the delusion is accepted as the norm. As in the hypernormalization experienced by the late Soviet Union, an official belief in ongoing progress stands mostly unaffected by an increasingly stark reality of decay.

The decline witnessed in every negative daily interaction with the city evokes institutional sclerosis and further pessimism for the state of governance in the U.S. overall, not to mention our technical competence. Why can’t we build the highly advanced visions of the future that were once the status-quo expectation at home and are realities elsewhere on the globe? Taking a further step back, why can’t we even maintain our basic public transit system, find a better way to manage our homeless population than consigning them to a violent life on the streets, and keep our sidewalks free of literal human waste? 

This rightly collapsing faith in the possibility of the future is exactly opposite to what we require to maintain U.S. competitiveness in industry and culture alike. It’s like the broken window principle, but for the future; if we see highly visible reminders of entrenched decay, we’re less likely to do our part to keep things working. San Francisco, like it or not, is the vanguard and symbol of America’s future; fixing it concerns not only its inhabitants but America overall. Fixing it would be a powerful testament that America can still tackle political and social crises and improve its public sector. If a city with this many challenges can improve itself, struggling cities elsewhere in the U.S. can accomplish the same. To supply a pessimistic and backward-looking nation with a new vision, San Francisco should be the embodiment of the innovation that happens within it: a glorious tech capital living up to its potential, overcoming its problems, and symbolizing the dynamism of the American spirit.

The flipside of this possible positive example is that if San Francisco fails to reform despite its wealth and importance, it will be damning proof that for all our bluster, the rest of America seems set to decline in the fundamentals too.

One root of the problem is a general notion of neglect and even dismissal of our institutions. This has been a salient attitude that I observed in many of the city’s most brilliant technologists. The world of startups is fundamentally different from that of politics. High-salaried jobs in futuristic offices with snack bars and bay views, or scrappy, yet promising startups with lofty missions are inherently more attractive than stuffy rooms in city hall that cut one’s wage in half. Tight schedules for shipping out software updates, iterating on a product, and altogether keeping operations lean stand in stark and rewarding contrast to the years it can take for a proposition to be crafted, introduced, voted upon, and possibly rejected. The legislative process as it stands is the polar opposite of the “move fast and break things” mantra of tech.

Of those technologists who do not altogether neglect the upstream system under which they live, many prefer to believe that their work will somehow change the regime from the bottom up. But it is hard to see how the next SaaS company, or any project in the usual tech space, might resolve an increasingly dysfunctional, growth-averse Board of Supervisors or make San Francisco’s streets safer.

A lot of agility is possible in the private sector, where rules are not as overbearing as in the political arena, and disruptions to legacy systems can be greatly rewarded through the market. But our political sphere does not lend itself to as much flexibility; this was a feature, not a bug as far as the U.S. founders were concerned. A laser focus on one’s own mission through the agility that private ventures permit only works up to a certain point. While everyone can hack away at building new perks or solving problems internal to an industry, the upstream system within which we act cannot be discredited or ignored into oblivion. If taxation, regulation, and institutional culture become hostile enough, and if safety concerns become too overbearing, the issue of dysfunctional government will undermine and disorder all other activity until someone finally addresses it. As appealing as abandoning the project and starting from scratch might sound, it is easier to scrap code than to do away with a complex sphere of social institutions and settlements. Considering how rare a city with the natural beauty and technological might of San Francisco is, abandonment is an outcome worth fighting to prevent.

Escaping politics only goes so far. Two and a half millennia ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles pointed out, “Just because you do not take an interest in politics, doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” Institutions matter and improving their efficacy in a city towering as San Francisco is one of the most high-impact things one can do. Counteracting institutional sclerosis targets the upstream possibilities under which all the rest operate.

Building an Effective Machine 

Improving upon our sclerotic institutions does not happen overnight. But given the stakes, we need to start to concretize what it would take to build out an effective machine that could compete with the current one.

Understanding the Base

In a city characterized by the starkness of contrast and lack of communication between its parallel worlds, we can easily forget that the tech sector really only makes up a minority of the city—by a generous definition, roughly one-fifth of the population. While election results cause outrage on part of many vocal technologists, nothing can substitute the need for dialogue with the broad voter base outside of tech. Twitter feeds us a spew of disbelief in the face of new election results, but this does not help to change the status quo. While polling is part of any career politician’s electioneering toolkit, those entering the stage through tech might not have considered their advantage in understanding human behavior—after all, they do this at scale and in incredibly precise ways every day.

As long as we lack comprehensive, robust data on opinions and preferences that go beyond the mere statistics of party adherence, we don’t know why people vote a certain way. Many people simply look at the high voter turnout and the anti-tech rhetoric spouted by many San Franciscans, shrug their shoulders, and assume all is lost. But why take these explanations at their word, especially when so much of the frame is controlled by entrenched political factions and a pliant local media? A more detailed survey addressing the reasoning behind voters’ stances on housing, land use, and criminal prosecution, is precisely what we need to carefully design a framework that addresses and appeals to a possible majority of San Franciscans, beyond just tech. 

Fortunately, the paradigms used in startups transfer well to the polling process: the voter is the consumer, the polling process is performing UX research, and the product is the city’s governance. Silicon Valley data science expertise could allow for a much-needed more objective overview of voter motivations than the anecdotes and caricatures painted by opposing Twitter camps. This objective overview of the justification for local attitudes, which would also reveal easily-corrected common misconceptions, is a prerequisite to the construction of any promising reform movement.

However, mere reliance on data does not win elections. At best, it is a starting point in a much broader effort.

Importantly, the investigation can’t stop at existing voters: although the already-high voter turnout in San Francisco causes pessimism among those looking to change the system, it is open to the efforts of live players to determine how many could be flipped to new loyalties, and how many unregistered inhabitants could be moved to become active participants and potential followers of a reform movement. Previously-formed alliances aren’t set in stone. An appealing reform movement with competent coordinating institutions could break up and reform them. The current activist machine need not be tied to the NIMBY constituency, for example. A new platform with the right visions and compromises could also win over many who already regularly cast a vote.

Charismatic Leadership

The most vocal voices that make up the Twitter feed of local politics tend to embrace ideological extremes, but the average middle-class accountant or homeowner is not a die-hard ideologue. What is more likely is that many moderates are preoccupied with their daily lives and only vaguely and nostalgically ideological. Regular professionals are making a living in a city that is increasingly expensive thanks to a chronic shortage of development and increasingly dangerous thanks to the flaccid governance of its public order. They have little time to spend digging into the weeds of some given proposition or staying up-to-date with analyses of Board candidates.

Detangling the actions of political actors in the city, backed up by clear data showing who is responsible for the failure to solve the city’s many crises, is critical in any effort that reaches normal people. Easy-to-understand, succinct information can demystify the key players in the city’s deterioration, overturning the role of tech as the scapegoat that it has long been for local media and politicians.

The greatest challenge is finding the right voice to transmit the message and mobilize a popular base to turn away from the failed status quo and toward new leadership. Years of hostile press and real issues that remain unresolved mean that many don’t trust the technology sector. While engineering circles might not appreciate it, the fact is that personality politics matter in governance. Discounting charisma is not an option. Ideas must be presented by a charismatic leader who stands in the center of the Venn diagram, uniting technical competence with some comforting familiarity and the ability to read a room, craft an inspiring message, and deliver it effectively to people.

The back-end of the machine, a growth team for a reform movement, would need skilled engineers who are strong on quantitative tasks like optimizing reach, but the front-end must champion a charismatic leader. Fortunately, products already require an effective story constructed around them and every successful venture raise implies the creative and convincing presentation of an idea, so potential candidates are bound to exist. It’s not too far of a hop from hustling a new startup to championing a new political era.

Loyalty and Narrative

Addressing crises implies the need to acknowledge them as existing. This is where a reform movement could perhaps most significantly distinguish itself from the prevailing government, which has hesitated to acknowledge the decline of the city to its full extent.

Rather than any focus on tech leadership as such, the core label around which to organize a movement reaching beyond the technology sector could be that of a government biased to action, taking the steps to bring into existence a city capable of internal renewal. We need the vision: beautiful and plentiful homes that young families can actually live in, peaceful streets that allow young people to congregate and children to play, and a nurturing economic environment that leans into San Francisco’s strength as America’s hub of intellectual and technical and innovation. Such are the circumstances that can produce a lasting heritage beyond the appeals to a past era or useless griping about political opponents.

Judging from history and common sense, the human desire for security and prosperity can dominate any strict party adherence. Almost one-third of San Francisco’s voters are registered with no party preference at all, the second-highest percentage in any California county. If the reform movement can craft a message that focuses on solution-oriented, pragmatic governance with a bold vision of what progress would mean for San Francisco, their standing as a more moderate and optimistic choice in a sea of the failing status quo would come as a relief to voters who have been witnesses to an absurd show of decline. 

For the long-term, such a movement must not be reactionary. Rather it must establish its own positive brand: solution-oriented, data-driven, vigorous, optimistic, and open-minded instead of a mere negation of the present. Movements need a political philosophy that supplies their members with visionary fuel even after they have accomplished the most immediate task—in this case, staffing the Board with effective alternatives.

Cooperation with a moderate base beyond tech or any other single sector, developed through more interaction with the local population at Board meetings and political events, is crucial. Any successful effort to establish new candidates has to not only consider the upcoming election, but the ones after as well: politics is a long-term game. A well-constructed political machine has to build a loyal voter base by shifting attitudes for multiple election seasons to come.

Bright Visions

There is a lot of low-hanging fruit that is yet to be plucked in the sphere of local politics. Building capability by conducting robust polls, interacting with the local population, and deploying a targeted, concise information campaign would be important exploratory first steps towards affecting change in the years to come.

One cause for optimism is that a dedicated minority can dominate a market or a political space, so it only takes a few virtuous people with courage and skin in the game for society to function properly. The deciding factor is whether individuals deploy their will to contribute to an effort of bettering local politics. Much can be done outside one’s main occupation to still participate meaningfully as an inhabitant: presence at meetings, knowledge of recent propositions, and support of the directed movement through one’s technical skills all help to advance in the right direction. 

We can make great progress toward a day when people retain their smiles at dusk descending down the stairs of BART and families stroll comfortably on Market Street, knowing public order is kept. 

In a hub where the brightest are regularly grappling with what is technically possible, it is worth noting that we are not confronting the limits of physics. This is not a frontier where any and every human mind could be fuming, yet not leave a dent of difference in universal laws. The social sphere is malleable. We have yet to try many strategies of reform to move San Francisco toward the glorious tech capital it should be.

In the tumultuous years that followed the Second World War, the philosopher Max Otto—himself rallying his peers toward political participation—explained the following lesson about political action:

“Indecisions of indifference or timidity, or the calculating indecision which is the hope to gain whoever wins or loses, are, all of them, decisions—decisions to step aside.[…]

 

If we lose, it will be by default.

Lea Degen is an Emergent Ventures Fellow focusing on the history of technological and scientific progress. She hosts the podcast Frontiers and tweets @lealeata.