I came to talk about first principles and communities that I love — especially East Palo Alto, California, which is full of amazing people. It's also a community that's oddly separated by the 101 freeway that runs through Silicon Valley. On the west side of the freeway in Palo Alto are the "haves," on just about any dimension you can think of: education, income, access to water. On the east side of the freeway are the "have-nots." And even if you don't know East Palo Alto, you might know the story of eastside disparity, whether it's the separation of the railroad tracks in East Pittsburgh or the Grosse Pointe Gate in East Detroit or East St. Louis, East Oakland, East Philly. Why is it that communities on the social, economic and environmental margin tend to be on the east sides of places? Turns out, it's the wind.
If you look at the Earth from the North Pole, you'd see that it rotates counterclockwise. The impact of this is that the winds in the northern and the southern hemispheres blow in the same direction as the rotation of the Earth — to the east. A way to think about this is: imagine you're sitting around a campfire. You've got to seat 10 people, you've got to keep everyone warm. The question is: Who sits with the smoky wind blowing in their face? And the answer is: people with less power.
This campfire dynamic is what's playing out in cities, not just in the US, but all around the world: East London; the east side of Paris is this way; East Jerusalem. Even down the street from where we're sitting right now, the marginalized community is East Vancouver. I'm not the only one to notice this. I nerded on this hard, for years. And I finally found a group of economic historians in the UK who modeled industrial-era smokestack dispersion. And they came to the same conclusion mathematically that I'd come to as an anthropologist, which is: wind and pollution are driving marginalized communities to the east. The dominant logic of the industrial era is about disparity. It's about haves and have-nots, and that's become part of our culture. That's why you know exactly what I'm talking about if I tell you someone's from the "wrong side of the tracks." That phrase comes from the direction that wind would blow dirty train smoke — to the east, usually. I'm not saying every single community in the east is on the margin, or every community on the margin is in the east, but I'm trying to make a bigger point about disparity by design. So if you find yourself talking about any cardinal direction of a freeway, a river, some train tracks, you're talking about an eastside community.
Now, the wind is obviously a natural phenomenon. But the human design decisions that we make to separate ourselves is not natural. Consider the fact that every eastside community in the United States was built during the era of legal segregation. We clearly weren't even trying to design for the benefit of everyone, so we ended up dealing with issues like redlining. This is where the government literally created maps to tell bankers where they shouldn't lend. These are some of those actual maps. And you'll notice how the red tends to be clustered on the east sides of these cities. Those financial design decisions became a self-fulfilling prophecy: no loans turned into low property tax base and that bled into worse schools and a less well-prepared workforce, and — lo and behold — lower incomes. It means that you can't qualify for a loan. Just a vicious downward spiral. And that's just the case with lending. We've made similarly sinister design decisions on any number of issues, from water infrastructure to where we decide to place grocery stores versus liquor stores, or even for whom and how we design and fund technology products.
Collectively, this list of harms is the artifact of our more primitive selves. I don't think this is how we'd want to be remembered, but this is basically what we've been doing to eastside communities for the last century. The good news is, it doesn't have to be this way. We got ourselves into this eastside dilemma through bad design, and so we can get out of it with good design. And I believe the first principle of good design is actually really simple: we have to start with the commitment to design for the benefit of everyone. So, remember the campfire metaphor. If we want to benefit everyone, maybe we just sit in a horseshoe, so nobody gets the smoke in their face.
I've got to make a note to the gentrifiers, because the point of this image is not to say you get to roll into eastside communities and just move people out of the way, because you don't.
But the point is, if you start with this first principle of benefiting everyone, then elegant solutions may become more obvious than you assume.
What are the elegant solutions to close this gap between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto in Silicon Valley? I've got to like the odds of starting with EPA [East Palo Alto]. It's in the middle of Silicon Valley, the epicenter of innovation and wealth creation. If we can solve this problem anywhere, it ought to be here. And if we can solve the problems for EPA, we could apply those solutions to other eastside communities. If you think about it, it's actually a massive investment opportunity and an opportunity to drive policy change and philanthropy. But at the core, it's this fundamental design principle, this choice of whether we're going to decide to take care of everyone.
And it's a choice we can make, loved ones. We've got the capital. We've got technology on our side, and it keeps getting better. We've got some of the best entrepreneurs in the world in this building and in these communities right now. But the fundamental question is: What are we designing for? More haves and have-nots? More disparity? Or parity, the choice to come together.
Because the reality is, this is not the industrial era. We don't live in the era of legal segregation. So the punchline is, there is no wrong side of the tracks. And all I'm saying is, we should design our economy and our communities with that in mind.