The State of Golden State Innovation

At “What Makes a Great California Idea?,” Panelists Discussed the Big Ideas—Good and Bad—That Originated Here

The State of Golden State Innovation | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

From left to right: Joe Mathews, Anousheh Ansari, Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, Ian Klaus.

At the opening night of the inaugural CalMatters Ideas Festival, a two-day event in Sacramento dedicated to discussing solutions to the Golden State’s greatest challenges, Zócalo convened a panel around what’s long been a point of California pride: innovation.

But as Zócalo’s California columnist and democracy editor Joe Mathews, who moderated the event, reminded the audience, the ideas that come out of the state aren’t all good. Sure, some are “earth-shatteringly great”—like the earthquake early warning system—but others are “apocalyptically dangerous”—American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer spent many years at UC Berkeley and Caltech before developing the atomic bomb.

XPRIZE Foundation CEO Anousheh Ansari, Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) president and CEO and retired Chief Justice of California Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, and founding director of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace California Center Ian Klaus joined Mathews on stage for the conversation, which was co-presented by CalMatters.

XPRIZE, the nonprofit that organizes multi-million-dollar competitions to support scientific innovation that benefits humanity, is itself a California idea, Mathews pointed out. He asked Ansari to speak about the inspiration behind the XPRIZE.

Back in 1994 when the first XPRIZE for space exploration came together, the idea was to set a bar for innovators that was “audacious but achievable,” said Ansari.

It took 10 years for Mojave Aerospace Ventures to win that first $10 million purse by being the first private organization to reach space on a reusable, crewed spaceship twice within a two-week period. But it proved to be an industry game changer, and “reduced the cost of access to space exponentially,” said Ansari.

Moving on to Cantil-Sakauye, Mathews asked, what does PPIC do? “Produce ideas? Inspire ideas? Refine ideas? Keep the crazy ideas off the road and keep them from ruining the state?”

“All of the above,” Cantil-Sakauye answered.

But are we too eager to fail—do we push ourselves too far with our ideas?

“I call us a research think tank-plus,” she continued. “We do a lot of outreach. We do a lot of public events. We do a lot of convening of diverse voices. We like a good civil rumble in a safe space to find out what are the issues, [and] what should our researchers look at?”

Finally Mathews turned to Klaus, who explained what the oldest think tank in America dedicated to international peace is up to in California. Peace “isn’t a California idea,” Klaus said, but “it’s one that resonates here.”

The panelists then discussed what’s in the water in California that inspires so many bold ideas.

There’s a notion here, Ansari observed, that failure is not a bad thing. “Experimentation happens and that’s where you have innovation,” she said. “That’s why you get some unique, extraordinary ideas coming from California.”

Cantil-Sakauye echoed Ansari on Californians’ lack of “fear of failure,” adding that California’s great diversity contributes to this trait as well. There’s “no fear of speaking up and trying ideas and not being so self-conscious about being out there and being who you can be because it’s so diverse,” she said of the state.

Klaus concurred, adding, “The movement of ideas and the movement of people and the movement of goods is something that we’re all engaged with. That leads to a comfort in being wrong. With things that are different. And having to be on the edge.”

But are we too eager to fail—do we push ourselves too far with our ideas? Mathews asked the panel. He pointed to the artificial intelligence boom coming out of Silicon Valley today as one example.

“It comes down to whether we choose to be responsible about how we innovate,” said Ansari. She called for more regulation to help create the guard rails the tech industry needs for healthy innovation.

“The guard rail for me is litigation,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “I worry that our policymakers, our courts will never catch up with technology.” She recalled a time “when courts had computers and didn’t know what to do with them and put them in corners because they just didn’t want to plug them in and figure them out.” But she was optimistic that California’s love of intellectual property and regulatory action might act as meaningful guardrails for A.I.

During audience questions, the panel was asked about Hollywood films that have inspired great ideas. Mathews spoke about the impact of the film Born in East L.A., inspired by the true story of an American citizen who’s deported to Mexico, on the state’s concept of immigration.

They also discussed California trends they’re looking toward for innovation. “I’ve seen a boom in climate tech and conservation tech,” said Ansari.

One of the final questions of the night began with an observation: A lot of innovation comes from so-called outsiders, like people with disabilities. But these same people can often feel alienated and unengaged from big conversations. “How do we do a better job engaging and harnessing those voices to be part of the solution?” the audience member asked.

“In my experience, belonging is local,” said Cantil-Sakauye. “It’s neighborhood- and community-based.” We need to start civics education and engagement in elementary school, she said, and bring together “diverse groups of students on projects with adult volunteers in the community,” like working together to clean up a park. “It starts small,” she said, “but that’s where agency comes from. And that’s where inspiration together comes from.”


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