BBC Report: Silicon Valley Tech Takes On Trump

BBC Report: Silicon Valley Tech Takes On Trump

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

In the beginning…there was no word from Silicon Valley tech leaders on Donald Trump’s presidency, despite his kingly proclamations: Let there be Two Pipelines, Let there be a Wall…Let there not be TPP!

But on the seventh day, tech leaders arose against Trump’s dominion over them when his immigration order unleashed chaos for their people. And so, on the 16th day, they filed a legal brief saying the order inflicted “significant harm  on American business, innovation and growth.”

Today in San Francisco a US Court of Appeals will decide oral arguments in the case: State of Washington et al. vs Donald J. Trump et al..

I joined the BBC World Service’s Business Matters last night to report on Silicon Valley’s furious reaction to Trump. Venture capitalist, Jean-Louis Gasse spoke for many in the valley:

The danger with an administration or a president like Donald Trump is that he gives permission to lie…to be offensive, to be homophobic, to be xenophobic. Cultures are nothing but a system of permissions and those come from the top. When you see the President of the US lying – you have to stand up and say: it’s a lie!”  Jean-Louis Gasse, Silicon Valley venture capitalist

Listen to the BBC World Service podcast, (my report starts at 5:15).


Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity) and a longer version of my report:

Fergus Nicoll: Donald Trump says he is pro-business. But a lot of businesses, it seems, are not pro-Trump. They’re certainly not in favor of his attempt to restrict immigration. Almost 100 mainly tech companies have filed an amicus brief arguing that the ban – already the subject of a separate legal process – inflicts significant harm on American business. Who’s signed up? Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and belatedly Tesla. I’ll hand over to Alison in a moment – but first, let’s hear from Emily Dreyfuss at the tech news website Wired in Boston.

Emily Dreyfuss: By some estimates, half of unicorn startups in America were founded by an immigrant. These big companies, Apple, Google, Facebook: they depend on H1-B visa holders. 85,000 H1-B visas go to the tech community every year in America. This is affecting their bottom line. Yes, there is some risk but I think these technology companies are calculating that together they are stronger which is why they’ve signed on to this amicus brief. I think what we’re seeing here is a clash of ideology and business acumen. In this instance, Trump saying he’s pro-business is actually just talk.

Fergus Nicoll: Is that a fair summary then, Alison…the way it’s seen on the west coast?

Alison van Diggelen: Trump is saying that he’s pro-business (and I believe he intends to be), but it looks like his immigration ban has not been thought through… as to the impact it’s going to have on business.  It’s been severely criticized .

I’ve been closely watching Silicon Valley’s reaction to the Trump presidency since inauguration day. When Trump issued that immigration order some Silicon Valley leaders were compelled to break their silence and take action. It’s an issue that’s split the US in two. A CNN poll shows about 53% oppose the ban. But today Trump has said that negative polls about the travel ban are “fake news.” He accused the NY Times of making up stories and sources. So my report explores why Trump is getting under Silicon Valley’s skin via this travel ban and the role of lies and fake news.

The day after he was inaugurated, Silicon Valley took to the streets to protest. Tens of thousands of marchers carried placards saying “Stop the hate”; “Words Matter”, and “Never Again.” I asked Patrick Adams, a local science teacher…What’s your message for Trump?

Patrick Adams SV Trump Protest Jan 21 2017. Photo by Alison van Diggelen

Patrick Adams: Get out of the way…this is a tsunami, this is people who care deeply about what this country really stands for – which is inclusion and love and hope – it’s unstoppable. This idea: that the trickle down economics of neoliberalism and the strange backward thinking of racism is going to lead us to a better world? It’s not, it’s a dead end.

Alison van Diggelen: In the first week of Trump’s presidency, it appeared like “business as usual” here in SV. On day seven, Trump’s immigration order lit the fire under SV.

By day 10, protests had broken out at several tech campuses; and business leaders came out of their bunkers to voice concerns about the order’s morality, not just its economic impact. It was personal: almost 60% of Silicon Valley engineers are foreign born.

I spoke with Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, a company born here in 1939:

Meg Whitman: Our view is that this was a mistake. We are a nation of immigrants and a broad-brush sweep of seven countries, of Muslims in those seven countries, is not what America is. So I hope that the president rethinks…

If you think of the innovation that’s been done in the valley over the last 75 years, much of it is from people who came here from someplace else … that’s an economic engine of the country and an economic engine of the world…

Alison van Diggelen: Alphabet’s chairman, Eric Schmidt even described the Trump administration actions as “evil” but many responses were muted.

I contacted companies, from oil to solar; from startups to Fortune 500, but many declined to talk, even LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman who was an outspoken critic of candidate Trump. Why the silence?

Is it the prospect of Trump unleashing his Twitter followers? Kevin Surace, CEO at Appvance, a software company, sums it up:

Kevin Surace: No one wants the current leader of the free world to unleash something against them. And frankly as a CEO of a corporation, it’s your duty to your shareholders to not have the US government hate you…the last thing you want is the president saying: I’ve had it with your company, I’m going to slap tariffs on you…

Alison van Diggelen: Surace emphasizes that the stock market is up over 8% since the election and the Dow hit the symbolic 20,000 point milestone last month. Trump even hosted a “cordial” tech summit with many of the valley’s leaders. Three juicy carrots are now dangling their way: the prospect of infrastructure investment, a corporate tax cut and a huge tax break for the repatriation of $2.5 Trillion in corporate profits lying offshore.

Kevin Surace: If that all comes back to the US, it’ll be the biggest boom to the US economy, possibly ever. For the next 10 years, the economy will be on fire.

Alison van Diggelen: Nevertheless, venture capitalist, Jean-Louis Gasse addresses the disquiet in Silicon Valley. He points to H1-B visa concerns as well as a flood of uncertainties:

Jean-Louis Gasse: The stock market is up, up, up right now which we know could turn around on a dime…

It’s not good for biz to have too many uncertainties on immigration, on trade wars, on interest rates, on spending, on building a wall with Mexico…

Alison van Diggelen: Gasse was Steve Jobs’ right hand man when Apple first expanded into Europe. I asked him to sum up the Valley’s reaction to Trump:

Jean-Louis Gasse: They’re waking up to the fact that just like you need clean air and clean water… you need clean information for society to be healthy. It’s an issue of conscience for the people in tech to get up and say we’re going to fight fake news – especially the ones that stem from the top. The danger with an administration or a president like Donald Trump is that he gives permission to lie. … to be offensive…to be homophobic, to be xenophobic… Cultures are nothing but a system of permissions and those come from the top. When you see the President of the US lying – you have to stand up and say: it’s a lie!


Check back soon for part II when we discuss:

Elon Musk’s role in Trump’s economic advisory council and why his decision to stay is so controversial, especially after Uber’s CEO stood down.

And Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s CEO Carl Guardino’s advice to Trump.

BBC Dialogues: How are Silicon Valley Tech Award Winners Changing The World?

BBC Dialogues: How are Silicon Valley Tech Award Winners Changing The World?

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Last Thursday, I joined a special BBC World Service program hosted by Fergus Nicoll in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We began by discussing the large community of Vietnamese in Silicon Valley and its connection to Vietnam’s growing tech hub. Listen to the BBC podcast (at 21:00 re. Silicon Valley-Vietnam, and at 31:00 re. The Tech Awards)

We discussed my latest interviews in Silicon Valley on the BBC Business Matters program. Here’s a transcript of our dialogue, edited for length and clarity:

Fergus Nicoll: Alison, you’ve been talking to some of the winners of the Tech Awards in Silicon Valley. What kinds of things are they coming up with and what could Vietnamese developers seek to emulate?

Alison van Diggelen: I spoke with three young entrepreneurs who’re doing incredible things: Tricia Compas-Markman is founder of DayOne Response. What they’ve built is a 10 liter backpack – it’s very low-tech in fact. It provides clean drinking water on day one in a natural disaster. They’ve deployed it in places like Nepal after the earthquake; and what they want to do is pre-position it in places like the Philippines that are subject to natural disasters. It’s a wonderful way for families and individuals to collect and treat and get clean drinking water in disaster areas…

Tricia Compas-Markman DayOne Reponse Tech Awards 2015, Photo by Nhat Meyer/Bay Area News Group.

Fergus Nicoll: We were in the Philippines last week…we could maybe put them in touch with Senator Loren Legarda or the Red Cross in the Philippines? They would be very keen to hear about that kind of initiative. What else have you been hearing about?

Alison van Diggelen: Let’s do that for sure! The other winner is called Open Pediatrics and it’s an online community for pediatricians. It’s almost like a Khan Academy for pediatricians: an online learning community connecting the cutting edge technology of first rate hospitals like Boston’s Children’s Hospital with rural clinics in developing countries, so they get the same expertise. It’s a wonderful, simple idea and there are some top people involved in that. I talked with Traci Wolbrink, one of the key people (pictured at the podium, above).

Nick Lum, BeeLine Reader, Photo by Nhat Meyer:Bay Area News GroupAnd the last one I want to mention is a very simple app…It’s called BeeLine Reader, founded by Nick Lum, a corporate lawyer who’s become a tech humanitarian. This BeeLine Reader allows people to read on screens much more easily. If you’re suffering from dyslexia, or vision problems, you can read using a color gradient. So if you can imagine reading a line, and the color of the script changes from blue to red to black but it wraps around, it guides your eye so you can read faster or more clearly. This is available for either a dollar a month or $5 to buy the app.

There’s wonderful creativity going on…

Fergus Nicoll: Absolutely…

The Tech Awards in San Jose on Thursday November 12, 2015. (© Photo by Jakub Mosur)

The Tech Awards in San Jose on Thursday November 12, 2015. (© Photo by Jakub Mosur)

Alison van Diggelen: All these entrepreneurs were given a good load of money to take it to the next level. It was very inspiring to see that not all techies are out to make a buck. Some of them want to change the world…make the world a better place.

Fergus Nicoll: Brilliant. That sounds fantastic.

Find out more at Fresh Dialogues

What is Tech Award winner Jeff Skoll doing to change the world and make it greener?


BBC Report: Silicon Valley’s Sad Underbelly

BBC Report: Silicon Valley’s Sad Underbelly

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

If you’re a techie in Silicon Valley today, chances are you have a six figure salary and a pretty comfortable living situation. But what if you don’t work in tech? What’s it like being in Silicon Valley when you have to struggle to make ends meet and you see twenty-year-olds with million dollar mansions?

Zoe Kleinman, a presenter for the BBC’s Business Daily asked me to explore the “underbelly of Silicon Valley” for the BBC World Service. I found some some people who experience the underbelly of glamorous Silicon Valley every day, and others deeply resentful at being forced to leave the “Valley of Heart’s Delight.”

“I resent the people that got lucky and got to just go to college, get a job, buy a house, be rich instantly and by the time they’re 30, they’re super rich.” Radel Swank (school teacher)

You can listen to my report at BBC Business Daily (starts at 11:00 in the BBC podcast). The program aired on November 3rd, 2015 on the BBC World Service and San Francisco’s public radio station, KALW.

“When I first moved out here 23 years ago, if I’d’a bought a place then at $140,000 I would’a sold that place and been long gone. I’d’a been on Easy Street…” Bruce (lives in a Silicon Valley trailer)

Here’s an edited transcript of the program and report (plus some bonus material from the most articulate cop I’ve ever met).

Zoe Kleinman: We gave Silicon Valley journalist, Alison van Diggelen the difficult assignment of popping out for a drink in the local bar, to find some people not in the tech sector…Some less than enthused residents of Silicon Valley…

Sounds of Britannia Arms Bar, San Jose (includes bar hubbub and cursing when beer is spilled on a precious iPhone by a tech worker )

Alison van Diggelen: I’m here at a popular watering hole in SV to explore the economic and social impact of the tech boom on the local community. It’s a tale of two communities: the haves and the have-nots; the techies and the non-techies. When I speak to people working in tech, they have no complaints. Life is good. Biz is growing, and there’s plenty of money flowing. Yet for those not in tech, like teachers, police officers and the service industry, life in Silicon Valley is not so rosy, especially if they can’t afford to buy a house.

Home ownership is the great divider in SV. With house prices growing to an average of $1M this year, most homeowners are sitting pretty with a healthy nest egg for retirement. Those forced to rent are feeling the pinch.

Here’s Bruce, a longhaired Grateful Dead fan, who lives in a trailer in San Jose. He works in the sports industry.

Bruce: I live in a trailer, it’s pretty cheap. Costs me about $2200 a month.

Britannia-Arms-interviews-by-Alison-van-Diggelen-for-BBC-tech-boom-report-June-2015.jpgvan Diggelen: That a lot for a trailer, is it not?

Bruce: Yeah, but I heard there was a trailer in the Hamptons that sold for a million dollars…so I thought that was a pretty good deal.

van Diggelen: So tell me: why do you live in a trailer here?

Bruce: Cos it’s the only thing I could afford. When I moved out here in ’93 I shoulda bought a place…. By the time I decided I was gonna stay it’d went through the roof. I couldn’t afford it, so I just rented. Anything that we woulda wanted woulda been about $650… $700,000. It woulda been $5000 a month, so we bought a nice little frickin’ trailer in an over 55 (years) area. Works great for me.

When I first moved out here 23 years ago, if I’da bought a place then at $140,000 I woulda sold that place and been long gone. I’da been on Easy Street…

van Diggelen : For others like Radel Swank, a teacher in her 50s who recently lost her job and her home and plans to leave SV for good, life is a daily struggle.

Radel Swank: If you’re one of the lucky people and you’re in the tech groove, everything’s great. You’re making great money, you’re riding the wave. It’s great. But if you’re not in the tech groove and you’re a teacher or a waitress, you’re unlucky. I resent the people that got lucky and got to just go to college, get a job, buy a house, be rich instantly and by the time they’re 30, they’re super rich. I feel like luck is part of it.

Right now I’m renting a room in a house… It’s just weird after having my own place and my own space for 10 years, to be in a little room, sharing a bathroom with some guy I just met yesterday.

Alison van Diggelen: Does part of you wish you were in the tech community, ride the tech wave?

Swank: I am a little envious. My roommate, the one who owns the house. She obviously has an awesome job (in tech) because she owns a beautiful house and she’s in her 20s. I’m a little resentful and envious that she is that young and that successful. When I was that age, I was waitressing and working my way through college. How do some people get so lucky?

Anyone who’s not in this tech environment can’t afford to live here any more. SF rents are like $2500 for a studio. You can’t live on $15 an hour and pay that kind of rent. It’s out of line with reality…a lot of people who’ve been in SF a long time are being pushed out…unless you bought your home 30 years ago, then you’re OK.

If you’re someone like me in the middle you can’t make it here…I’m really in a pickle.

van Diggelen: With SV rental rates averaging $2300 a month and growing faster than average incomes, it’s putting a squeeze on many residents in SV.

Even those with a steady job are feeling the pinch. I spoke to Officer Nabil Haidar who’s been with the SV police force for almost 20 years and has witnessed the seedy underbelly of “glamorous SV.” Even inside million dollar mansions, he’s seen real suffering. For some, Spam Valley might be a more apt description of Silicon Valley.

Officer Haidar: When I started 19 years ago, we didn’t have the homeless population that we have now…because everything is getting more expensive and the economic situation is pushing people onto the streets.

van Diggelen:So they’re getting priced out of the housing market?

Officer Haidar: Priced out of everything…Me? There’s no way I can afford to buy a house with my salary…we make good money but it’s not enough. You’re talking about small apt going for $2500 a month, or small condominium going for six, $700,000. That’s ridiculous.

Everything is going up, homes prices are through the roof, rents is ridiculous, even food. Everything is expensive.

van Diggelen: Officer Haidar is concerned about the disconnect between the haves and have-nots in SV.

Officer Haidar: I see the poor and I see the rich. I go to (emergency) calls…rich people getting involved in domestic violence and I go to poor people who cannot even afford to eat. So I see it all.

van Diggelen: What do you think would wake up the tech community to the plight of people less fortunate? They’re so focused on the next tech gadget.

Officer Haidar: They need to go out on the street and start walking around and opening their eyes and seeing the homeless. I’m here in SJ…I talk to people on the west side, they’ve never been to the east side. They have no reason to be on the east side, but that’s where the poor, the hardworking, the blue collar people live there. If they just had the time to drive down on the east side and see really what’s happening, maybe that would be a wake up call for them… I hope that my interview will wake up some people.

There is disconnect between the rich and the poor and from my experience, as law enforcement, I realize that 80% of the problem going on in SJ has to do with financial. A lot of people they went and they bought homes…all their money going into the homes and they cannot really afford it.

Some people, they work two jobs, even three jobs.

Alison van Diggelen: And in their efforts to keep up with their neighbors and their million dollar mortgages, the impact of the tech boom on families can be fatal.

Officer Haidar: You get drugs, domestic violence, people get depressed. The peer pressure. People want to catch up to the Joneses. And then they stretch themselves too much and realize they’re over their heads with bills and money. Then they go to things against the law: fraud, theft…it’s all like domino effect. When you are desperate, people do desperate things.

People get depressed, suicide. People get ashamed that what they did. Some people use drugs to cope, some people are in denial. That’s SV: there are so many things behind the scenes no one knows. As a police officer, I’ve seen it. I’ve dealt with it.

van Diggelen: You feel some in SV are neglecting their families, their kids to make the big bucks, to make the big mortgage?

Officer Haidar: Of course. I see it all the time. They’re just catching up to the Joneses, but the problem is, they don’t know that the Joneses are also having a problem. It’s very sad story. They want to pay that million regardless of what expense. 


Here’s Rachel Massaro, a senior researcher at Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a local nonprofit. (Interview took place in July 2015)

Massaro: 40% of SV renters are technically burdened by housing costs. Which means they spend more than 35% of their gross income in housing. And because of that, they’re really struggling. One third of our young adults 18-34 are living with a parent and 10% of SV residents are living in poverty.

If you look at all households in SV, about a third of them are not self sufficient, which means that they rely on public or private informal assistance, like living with a friend or a family member, free babysitting, food from food banks, other services from churches and others.

Housing prices are high…in some places (in SV) homes are selling for 200% of more than the national average, rental rates are as high as 185% of the national average, but also the cost of goods and services is higher here by about 6%

The top 5% earning households in SV make over 400,000 (dollars) more than the bottom 20%….Income does include stock options and interest on investments.

The top 5% of households in SV make more than 31 times the income of the bottom 20%.

Find out more about the less glamorous side of Silicon Valley from Joint Venture Silicon Valley’s latest report on Income Inequality

Check out the KQED Radio Sereis “Boom Town” featuring reports by Rachael Myrow and her colleagues

BBC Report: A Peek Inside Hyperloop Technologies

BBC Report: A Peek Inside Hyperloop Technologies

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Ever since Elon Musk released a white paper outlining the sci-fi Hyperloop, excitement among the tech community has been immense. This futurist ultra-high speed form of transport has inspired hundreds of university teams and two fiercely competitive LA companies: Hyperloop Technologies, and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT). I went to LA to find out what progress has been made.

HTT’s CEO, Dirk Ahlborn wasn’t ready to open the doors to the HTT studio to reveal the sights and sounds of progress. He and his small team were only available for phone interviews. One of his crew told me that all I could record, anyway, was the sound of fingers on keyboards at this point. A crowdsourcing experiment harnessing a reported 400 part-time global contributors, the HTT effort has produced some fancy looking Hyperloop station and capsule scale models, but the hard engineering appears to be happening only at Hyperloop Technologies. It was there I arrived September 16th with my trusty audio recorder to capture the sound of the Hyperloop potentially becoming a reality.

Here’s my latest assignment for the BBC World Service. Listen to the BBC podcast (Hyperloop starts at 14:00) and find out more here. The report is due to air this evening on BBC Business Matters 6pm PST (1 am GMT, Friday Oct 30th)

Hyperloop Tech crane & tube, by Alison van DiggelenI’m at the Hyperloop Technologies Headquarters in downtown LA to find out if this sci-fi project is for real. In 2013 Tesla’s Elon Musk published a white paper, describing what he called a “5th Mode of Transport.” He describes it like:

“A cross between a concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table.” Elon Musk

A “hyperloop” comprises passenger or freight pods that are shot down a near-vacuum tube from one city to another, at over 700mph.

The prospect of traveling on land between SF and LA in 30 minutes has some people salivating, and skeptics shaking their heads in disbelief.

Hyperloop Technologies’ CTO, Brogan BamBrogan explains:

“Elon absolutely inspired us…his fingerprints are all over this. The system architecture that Elon came up with is what inspired this whole team to get together and go after this bold project.” BamBrogan

BamBrogan and his cofounder, Shervin Pishevar, have assembled over $10M in funding, and a 50-strong team of expert engineers. They’re creating what they call an “energy elegant” transport solution, with a potential freight market of 150 Trillion dollars over the next 20 years.


Here’s venture capitalist, Pishevar:

“The idea itself can have a deeply transformative effect on our planet, and on our lives. It brings the world closer together. Think about the impact of the Wright Brothers’ invention of flight, and their Kitty Hawk moment, what a pivotal moment that was.” Pishevar

Hyperbole for the Hyperloop? Maybe. But like Elon Musk, Pishevar has a record of proving naysayers wrong.

Alison van Diggelen records Hyperloop Tech's levitation test rigHyperloop’s test engineer Cassandra Mercury explains:

Ambi – atmos of air whooshing, rotor spinning.

Cassandra Mercury: We have this rotor moving….running at 10,000 rpm, it’s a linear speed of about 750 miles an hour. We’re testing the levitation possibilities at the speed we’d be using on the actual hyperloop.

van Diggelen: Elon Musk described it as like an air hockey table. Is that accurate?

Cassandra Mercury shows off Hyperloop Levitational Rig camera, by Alison van DiggelenMercury: That’s a really good analogy. It’s just some air and a light gap between the air bearing and the track.

van Diggelen: So the idea is: the pods of people and freight will levitate like a puck on an air hockey table?

Mercury: Exactly!

The team is targeting global freight as well as passenger transport. Numerous opportunities exist to connect high-traffic city pairs like LA and SF, that are less than 900 miles apart.

Here’s Hyperloop Technologies’ Director of Operations, Erin Kearns:

“We definitely see the benefits of transporting cargo…ports being too small…ships are sitting offshore 5 miles…we want to streamline the process, make it a lot more elegant, a lot cleaner for the environment.” Erin Kearns

Stanford Prof Mark Jacobson, photo by Alison van DiggelenI ask Mark Jacobson: what could derail the Hyperloop? He’s a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University.

He starts with comparisons to California’s High Speed Rail project, which has already broken ground…

Jacobson: I’m sure the Hyperloop is much more expensive… Like any large construction project, issues of zoning, trying to get rights of way… There’s always going to be a political fight for trying to site something like this…

And then he lists the technical challenges…heat build up, leakage from the vacuum tube, keeping a uniform distance between the pods and the tube.

“You’re gliding along at 700 mph and hit the bottom of the tube…I wouldn’t want to be the first person to ride in the train!” Jacobson

BamBrogan has this response to naysayers:

Brogan: I say: Wait a year, we’ll have a working prototype.

Cam Close tests Hyperloop Tech's windtunnel, by Alison van DiggelenI ask him how they’re going to avoid the political nightmares that’ve slowed California’s high speed rail. Brogan smiles and says they’ll route their LA to SF hyperloop in the ocean.

BamBrogan is channeling Elon Musk in driving his Hyperloop team forward and he’s bullish about securing $80M more in venture capital, and overseas commercial contracts very soon.

“The team is trying to operate on a timescale that is of Elon Musk ilk…By 2017/18, we’ll have shovels in the ground in a couple of locations,” BamBrogan 

Meanwhile, rival company Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (or HTT) boasts it will start work on a 5-mile demo track in California next year. Despite partnerships with UCLA and key industry partners; this rival team of 400 –mostly part timers – is not yet funded. 

Back with BamBrogan’s team, they’re hiring aggressively.

“We’re aiming for the end of 2016 to have our Kitty Hawk moment: a full scale, full speed system that’s operating,” Bambrogan


Coming soon at Fresh Dialogues: an interview with HTT’s Dirk Ahlborn. Why does he insist that crowdsourcing the Hyperloop is the better approach?











BBC Report: How will El Nino impact CA drought, water conservation?

BBC Report: How will El Nino impact CA drought, water conservation?

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Anticipation is building that El Nino will bring much needed relief to drought stricken California this winter. But will it end the drought? And how will it impact the Golden State’s impressive drive to conserve water?

In my recent report for the BBC’s Business Matters, I explored the, um, creative ways in which the water conservation message is being spread and how things might change when the deluge arrives.

However you can reach out to consumers in their language, that’s how you do it, so if sex is the way to reach the end user and it achieves a good societal goal, I have no problem, because this is a crisis. Gary Kremen, Chairman Santa Clara Valley Water District

The report aired on the BBC World Service last Thursday (Listen from 16:45 in the podcast). Here’s the original report and a transcript of the program, edited for length and clarity.

Fergus Nicoll: The last month has seen some pretty freaky extremes of weather across the U.S. We reported on the drought in California and the flooding in South Carolina…bursting dams that have been caused by torrential rain in different parts of the state. Well maybe California can expect more of the South Carolina treatment?

I’m going to bring in Alison van Diggelen of Fresh Dialogues for more on this. Set the scene for us…it seems, partially at least, down to El Nino?

Alison van Diggelen: Absolutely. The experts have called it a “Godzilla” El Nino. An enormous one is building in the Pacific right now and experts are predicting record breaking rainfall this winter. As most people probably know, we’re in our fourth year of drought (in California) and things are getting pretty desperate. But people have been pretty good about water conservation…so I wanted to explore how authorities are getting this water conservation message out and how things might change, once the rain does start falling.

I interviewed Elizabeth Dougherty. She’s the founder of Wholly H20, a nonprofit in Oakland that wants to make water conservation, as she calls it, “hip and sexy.” She says it’s not a supply issue but has to do with our relationship with water.

Elizabeth Dougherty Wholly H20 Photo by Alison van DiggelenHere’s the piece:

Ambi: Sound of bucket being put in shower, tap turning on…water running, shower hitting tub

Dougherty: I keep a bucket in the shower…you can use that water to flush the toilet, water your outside plants, give water to your animals….

“Extreme water saver” Dr. Elizabeth Dougherty says her phone has been ringing off the hook with people looking for rainwater harvesting and graywater systems for their homes. Her California non-profit “Wholly H20” aims to make water conservation “hip and sexy.” Dougherty, an anthropologist, wants us to explore our relationship with water.

Ambi: Sound of running water in sink…

Dougherty: The water crisis in California, the world, is not a crisis of supply; it’s a crisis of connection. We are so disconnected from water, we don’t even know where our water comes from, how much we use every day.

And this crisis has produced fertile ground for water and landscape consultants. Water maybe scarce in CA, but it’s boom time for water related “green jobs.”

Dougherty argues that it’s normal to ask: where does my food come from? The energy for my home? So why not ask: where does your water come from? What’s “on tap” in your home?

Dougherty: We want the hipsters in Downtown Oakland to be thinking water conservation: Wow, hey….so where do you get your water?

This Fall, Wholly H2O is partnering with Burning Man artists on community interactive water features; and is launching a series of crowd-funded video shorts to get the message out via social media. Dougherty has Hollywood connections and hopes to get “green” celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow to take part. Is California’s Governor on her list?

Dougherty: (CA Gov) Jerry Brown skips a shower for the day. I’m thrilled, I’m glad. Would I hold him out as one of my hip and sexy people? No I wouldn’t. I’d like to see Batman…how about Michael Keaton? Let’s see you bucket your heat-up water from your shower and dump it in your garden!

Dougherty’s mission to make water conservation hip and sexy has been adopted by the San Francisco Public Utility Commission. Here’s one of their video ads:

SFPUC Video: (Sultry baritone like Barry White, sound of tap running) Conservation can feel, ohhhh, so right. Turn off the faucet while soaking those…oh so dirty…hands. Get some efficient fixtures for your kitchen and bathrooms…screw them on…yeah! Beat the drought. Hetch Hetchy water is too good to waste.

This summer, the commission spent $300,000 on billboard ads with provocative demands like “Go full frontal, upgrade your washer!” and “Nozzle your hose, limit outdoor watering.”

Love them or hate them, the water conservation message is sinking in. In July, Californians reduced their water consumption by over 30% (compared to 2013 levels) in response to a state mandated reduction of 25%. But with dramatic El Nino conditions building in the Pacific and predictions of an unprecedented deluge of rain hitting drought-starved California this winter, will the “save water” mantra evaporate as the first raindrops fall?

Fifty miles south of SF, in Silicon Valley, Gary Kremen, board chairman of Santa Clara Water Valley Water District, is taking nothing for granted.

Kremen: Water districts are conservative. We have to assume it’s not going to happen. We have a comprehensive education enforcement campaign to make sure one raindrop doesn’t cure the drought. The good news is people in Santa Clara Valley are pretty educated, they can hold two thoughts at the same time: we’re in a drought, you have to conserve, and you have to prepare for flash floods.

Wholly H20 shower Photo by Alison van DiggelenWhat does he think of SF’s sexy water conservation efforts?

Kremen: However you can reach out to consumers in their language, that’s how you do it, so if sex is the way to reach the end user and it achieves a good societal goal, I have no problem, because this is a crisis.

And he predicts the crisis could get worse as climate change produces a “new normal.”

Kremen: What climate change could mean to us is more volatility: more floods, more droughts.

I ask Wholly Water’s Dougherty what one thing we all can do to end the water crisis. Her answer is surprising. She’s not pushing low-flow toilets, rain barrels or graywater systems…instead she says:

Dougherty: Go and sit next to a river and not talk, but simply watch the river for half an hour.

For Dougherty, the anthropologist, it’s all about strengthening our connection with water and thinking of that river every time you turn on the tap.

Ambi: sound of tap going on, water hitting sink.

Fergus Nicoll: Very nice piece, Alison. Thank you.

It’s going to be a bit of a culture shock if California goes from drought to heavy rain?

Alison van Diggelen: Yes, it’s going to be a major shocker, but as Gary Kremen from the Water District says, they can’t rely on the El Nino conditions coming. It’s been predicted before and it didn’t materialize, so we may get floods but they’ve got to store that water and make sure that it’s available for future years.

Fergus Nicoll: All options still to be considered. Great to have you with us.

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