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Panelists at the MOAI
Panelists at the MOHAI Seattle 20/20: Innovation and Impact event

The silence was nearly deafening.

After an hour-long panel discussion last week about some of the growing pains facing Seattle, an audience member by the name of Phyllis Lamphere took the microphone during the Q&A portion of the evening and lamented how the city was developing. The 93-year-old Seattle native, a former city council member who ran for mayor in 1977, noted neighborhoods “invaded” by development forces beyond their control, and a city which seemed to have lost its “social conscience.”

The MOHAI 20/20 Innovation and Impact event.
The MOHAI 20/20 Innovation and Impact event.

“It is all right to grow,” said Lamphere, adding that growth must be done in a smart manner. “We have not had the kind of collaboration of what is required to make a livable city. There are a lot of panels about what’s a livable city … but we haven’t discovered a process to bring that about.”

I was moderating the panel discussion at the Museum of History & Industry as part of the Seattle 20/20: Innovation and Impact event when the comment came in from Lamphere, and it immediately got me thinking.

You know, she’s absolutely right.

So, I turned to my fellow panelists — Vikram Jandhyala of the University of Washington; Michael Jensen, Director of the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute; Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association; and Dawn Trudeau, a former Microsoft manager and co-owner of the Seattle Storm — and asked a very direct question.

“Who is going to step up to lead to make this change happen?,” I asked. “Is it going to come out of the political system? Is it going to come out of the tech ecosystem? Is it going to come out of education? Who is the person or group of people leading the charge to make sure that the change in this city happens in the right way?”

That’s when the uncomfortable silence hit.

It lasted a full five seconds before I was forced to jump back in: “That’s a problem.”

Michael Schutzler
Michael Schutzler

The crowd laughed, but the issue reminded everyone in the audience about one of the most troubling aspects about Seattle. It is a process-oriented town where there seems to be a lot of talk, and not so much action.

Things get stuck.

Schutzler finally piped up.

“It’s got to start with the mayor,” he said. “But it is not just the mayor. The mayor has to get a collaboration of number of other players. It is education leaders. It is government leaders, and industry leaders. And it is not just the tech industry.”

The tech industry, however, is having an outsized impact on the city as evidenced by the growth of companies like Amazon, Tableau Software, Facebook, Expedia and others.

And that growth — including the impact it is having on the region’s traffic, schools, housing and neighborhoods — was one of the biggest topics of the night.

Trudeau, the former Microsoft manager and past co-chair of Social Venture Partners, said the city is not doing so well.

“We have de-invested in education for decades now,” she said. “If you look at the statistics, Seattle is becoming male and white, basically because that is who is getting the highest paying jobs, and everyone else has to leave. And, if that’s the way we want to live, then we will allow that to happen. If not, we have to figure out how we really do care about diversity in our community, and giving opportunities to a broad spectrum of people, from the highest paying jobs to the everyday jobs.”

Schutzler added that it comes down to voting, picking leaders who can help maneuver the city through growing pains that many cities would kill to have.

“We are largely a silent majority,” he said. “We are an incredibly influential part of this community, and we do not exercise our most fundamental power, which is our civic duty to vote.” If you don’t participate in civic life, then you’ll get “exactly what you deserve,” he said.

Cranes over Seattle. Photo via Wonderlane on Flickr.
Cranes over Seattle. Photo via Wonderlane on Flickr.

Schutzler said that Seattle is not the first city to grapple with these issues, and the city should take the very best from other cities that have figured out many of these issues. “It is not like we have to invent a new system,” said Schutzler, adding that the most important thing is to get a City Council that has the political will to make the change happen.

Tech leaders are trying to step up to address this voter apathy in their ranks, with a group of tech execs and venture capitalists earlier this week sending a letter to 1,000 tech leaders asking them to engage in the upcoming City Council elections.

That effort prompted a guest post in GeekWire by at-large council candidate John Roderick, who said that Seattle needs political leaders who understand tech but aren’t rooted in the Libertarianism found in many tech board rooms.

Is Seattle going to change? And change in a way that reflects and maintains the best parts of the unique culture of this place?

That’s the billion-dollar question.

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