The Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy recently opened at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo. According to its web site, the "mission of the non-partisan, interdisciplinary organization is to develop practical solutions to societal issues by informing and driving public policy through advanced technology."

Photo: http://www.iatpp.calpoly.edu/

Photo: http://www.iatpp.calpoly.edu/

Senator Blakeslee earned a reputation as one of the most thoughtful, deliberative and even handed members serving in his time. In an era when the Legislature was considered to be hyper-partisan, Senator Blakeslee was someone who was respected by both sides of the aisle.

After serving his six years in the Assembly, including being elected as the Republican Leader, he was elected to the State Senate. And then he did something unexpected; he chose not to run for reelection. In a business and political climate where everyone is seeking to serve as long as possible, and often campaigning for the next office just as soon as the get sworn in, Senator Blakeslee chose to step away.

I served with Senator Blakeslee when we were both in the Assembly, and worked closely with him when I chaired the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Commerce, a subject matter that was of keen interest to both of us. Recently I interviewed the Senator about his decision to step away, why he founded the institute, and what he hopes to accomplish.

What made you decide to create the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy?

After serving eight years in the California State Assembly and Senate, it became apparent to me that California suffers from a lack of innovative ideas that are needed to address real world policy problems. Although California has been a national and global leader in energy, higher education, infrastructure and transportation, we’ve watched this advantage significantly and consistently erode as California has become more partisan and less professional in devising legislation. Legislation that goes before the Assembly and Senate provides, at best, incremental solutions, and at worst, advantages for partisan or special interests designed to help the constituencies that fund their work.

A few reasons for these problems includes: term limits which have significantly weakened the capability of those who became subject experts over time; hyper-partisanship which has made it difficult to produce centrist solutions and compromises; and the rise of the special interest class who are more focused on providing benefits to their employers than to the larger electorate.

It’s in that context that I began to ask the question: What would it take to put together the best and brightest minds in California to devise non-partisan, yet pragmatic solutions that are dissimilar from the types of legislation that typically comes out of Sacramento?

As I sought to answer that question, I began exploring the opportunity to create a very special kind of institute at Cal Poly. One that took advantage of all the capabilities, talents and skill sets that exist among non-political professionals while also providing the overlay of a political worldview that is informed by my eight years in the legislature as a moderate working with both republicans and democrats on large issues including tax reform spending, energy, and infrastructure.

What is the purpose for the Institute?

In the Legislature I observed firsthand how public policy is developed with little insight or understanding of the potential transformative benefits of emerging technologies. At the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy, we explore the most complex challenges in the arenas of energy, the environment, agriculture and government transparency with the goal of identifying and developing new ways of using emerging technology to influence public policy. The Institute is a pragmatic, university-based think tank. The Institute is unique in its approach – rather than just writing reports or issuing whitepapers, it is building and deploying prototypes and pilot projects, and crafting model policy. This practical hands-on approach will connect the best and brightest minds at Cal Poly with the real world politics of Sacramento.

At the institute, we bring together students, faculty, industry and government leaders to the table to craft effective, real-world solutions ripe for implementation.

As I inventoried think tanks around the country, I found that that each saw themselves producing different types of product for different types of consumers. In some cases, the products interns to be placed in government offices. In other cases, we found Institutes that specialized in producing seminal research work on over-the-horizon problems – research, which could take upwards of a decade to culminate a final set of proposals that could be in a book. Others we saw were driven by trying to provide intellectually sounds arguments from ideological perspectives to push the political system in the ideological direction. And others that brought awareness and attention to issues through high quality earned media and social media.

Because we seek to be pragmatic, we decided that our products aren’t white papers, press releases, or forums – ours is designed to be real world work product. Our deliverables are prototypes and proposals. They are working demonstrations of new solutions to old public policy ideas that can be demonstrated in the real world to actually work.

This different approach to the deliverable is highly informative because it means that whatever we devise must be deployable, collaborative, and work in a real world setting. For most research-centric think tanks, if they create an intellectually sound argument that supports their position, they consider their work to be done. We have a higher test – we must not only come up with an intellectually sound, robust approach that informs our perspective, but we have to bench test what we do, create products to go out in the real world and prove that they not only work, but they make things better.

Given that we live in a state with so many outstanding universities (including SLO), why did you choose SLO as the location? As opposed to something in Silicon Valley, or near the capitol?

Given Cal Poly’s premier position in the CSU System as a comprehensive polytechnic university with nationally recognized credentials in math, science, technology, engineering, and a unique Learn by Doing tradition of applied academics, it was the clear choice for this new type of Institute. Cal Poly is on the cutting edge of uniting STEM and the social sciences in a diverse, highly professional academic environment that excels because of its emphasis on real world, high impact problem solving.

What is the long term vision for the institute? Where would you like to see it in 5 years, 10 years, 25 years?

My hope is that in the long term the Institute will be a model for how this multi-disciplinary, prototype-centric approach to problem solving can work within a university setting. I would like to see this practical approach produce a dramatic uptick and increase in the number of private-public partnerships that exist in California in ways that will not only help students and faculty excel, not only help government create new and better policy, but also lower barriers to entry for new and advanced technologies so that California can not only be the incubator developing these technologies, but early adopters, which ultimately will be good for the environment and economy.

I believe there’s a real opportunity to create virtual institutes and networks of institutes that can engage on public policy problems as teams as opposed to separate silos. It’s lovely that there are a number of institutes, but there certainly are opportunities for collaboration and work in a concerted effort in private, public, and academic institutes to tackle a particular problem in a particular time frame. Almost a Manhattan project type of problem solving where you pull everyone together, you know the objective, and you work as a team to attack a problem.

There’s a real need and opportunity for institutes to not act as islands, but appreciate and see the potential leveraging that comes from collaboration. There are instances when you need both pragmatic, prototype solutions that we’re working on but also be able to connect with a think thank that is more academic and theoretical and a think tank whose approach is largely media or communications driven. The idea of creating teams of institutes to work on challenging projects is an exciting next frontier.

What has been the biggest challenge in setting up the institute?

Of course, the biggest challenges in starting anything new is helping people understand what you’re trying to do. Most people will try to put you in a box that’s defined by what they already understand. And whether you’re working in Sacramento or the Silicon Valley or the University system, there are lots of preconceptions regarding what a think tank does. But we are seeking to create something very different in the think tank space.

The second challenge is, of course, pulling together the initial funding to get projects off the ground. Any operation is only as capable as the resources it can bring to bear to achieve its mission, and it took us a good solid six months to find the funding to turn this into an ongoing enterprise. Thankfully, these challenges have already been met, and we’ve overcome them, and now we’re seeing the Institute picking up a lot of speed as we’re moving forward.

Given the rapid pace of changes in technology in the past couple of decades, how can legislators and regulators keep laws and regulations current with technology?

One of the biggest challenges to incorporating new technologies is the fact that much of the infrastructure in our society is based upon legacy technologies, which are typically owned and operated by very large and powerful organizations, be they unions or corporations. Often times these organizations feel threatened by new technologies that could either affect their membership, need for their employees, or the need for their products.

One of the first things legislators need to do is be on guard for "barriers to entry," which are both the legacy infrastructure and the laws that make it difficult for new technologies to find their way into the ecosystem and compete. Secondly, legislators need to do a better job of writing laws that are less technology specific and more outcome specific.

One historical example of this is when California defined its renewable portfolio standard in a very limited way. The legislation included some technologies and excluded others, and of course as soon as those technologies that were on the inside became aware that there were other technologies on the outside, they became very staunch defenders of the letter of the law and argued that any change would be a weakening of environmental standards when in fact their concerns were about their bottom line, not about the environment.

To really keep laws and regulations current with technology, we need to pass laws that are not technology specific, delegate greater responsibilities to regulatory bodies that can be more nimble; and build into the regulatory rulebooks more explicit requirements that they include best practices, peer review, scientific analysis, cost benefit analysis so that policymakers can better respond to new technologies.

What do you believe the legislature’s role in technology policy should be?

There are a lot of questions surrounding the degree to which government should be involved in helping promote certain industries or new technologies. New technologies go through a development life cycle curve where they begin purely on the white board and end up being shown to potentially work in a theoretical environment. This research development and deployment life cycle has played out innumerable times. Whether it comes to Model T’s or relates to computer chips or mobile phones, there’s a very decided life cycle.

Government historically has gotten involved and helped with the R&D, and in subsidizing very promising technologies during the roll out phase. An obvious example is the million solar rooftop program, which included subsidies over a period of seven years for those who installed solar panels on their rooftops. The subsidies started at a relatively high level at a per kilowatt basis, and over those seven years declined to zero. It was constructed this way under the theory that as these technologies begin to evolve, markets would become established, and as economies of scale increase, the need for a subsidy will naturally decline. At the end of the process these new technologies will become the established technology because of the quantitative improvements and benefits that they provide over the prior technologies that were used.

The role in government should be to remove barriers and hasten the implementation and adoption of exceedingly promising technologies, however; government needs to be very selective and careful about which technologies it selects and engages on as subsidies can be very expensive. It is a dangerous thing when the government is picking winners and losers; it’s a slippery slope to corporate welfare and the type of crony capitalism that connects government to technologies and industries in a way that is not good for a competitive, free market as we’ve seen play out over the past few years in Japan. In short, there’s a role for government to play but it has to be pursued with a certain level of sophistication and caution.

During your time in the legislature, what do you think the most important technology policies have been, and why?

The most important technology policies being debated in the legislature during my tenure dealt with energy. I was elected in the immediate aftermath of the California energy crisis, so I witnessed a complete top-to-bottom reevaluation of energy planning for California. There were a number of changes in how we procured electricity, in the price of oil and natural gas (which exploded), and the emergence of highly competitive fuel cell, photovoltaic, and wind turbine systems. If you include the smart grid and smart meters, I think we are on the cusp of what’s going to be massive reinvention of our electrical systems in California.

Much of that transformation has already happened in parts of Europe, and much of the change in California will ultimately sweep across the nation. There will be benefits; it will produce electricity that requires less importation, less use of dirty fuels like coal, will allow for more consumer control, and will be more intelligently price based on the value of electrons with externalities built into that price whether it be time of generation, time of use, social costs, transportation cost, carbon emissions, a trading system for carbon and renewable energy credits. There’s been a rather significant change in the technology which has driven a change in the economics and the increased the power of the consumers to make their own decisions which are all playing out because technology made it possible.

During your time in the legislature, what do you think is the most important technology related issue that the Legislature failed to address, or in your view failed to address properly, and why?

Just as we’ve seen a revolution in technologies that affect energy, we’ve also seen a revolution in technologies associated with information, communications and large interconnected database systems. Where those technologies could be applied to great effect, but have failed to do so, is in our educational system. We should be able to easily track the performance of every student from the moment they enter kindergarten to the moment they exit our system. We should be able to track the teachers and the performances of their classes. With the metrics we’ve had over the years with testing we should be able to create rich data sets to understand exactly where we’re doing well and where we’re doing poorly. For the most part those systems have been fought and in many cases deconstructed by entrenched special interests who aren’t thrilled about the accountability that is brought to bear when this tracking and information systems approach is applied to our education struggling education system.

Also in the education arena, the ability to embrace online learning and to directly connect students, teachers, and parents through technology represents another wasted opportunity. Given the enormous sums we spend on education and given the impact a successful or failed education system has for our society, I would identify this as the specific policy area where the legislature failed most significantly during my tenure.

Other than creating the institute, what have you been doing since you left the Legislature?

One of the benefits of returning to San Luis Obispo and stepping away from politics is that it has given me more time to invest with my company. I own a broker dealer with offices in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County. We manage about 700 million dollars of client assets and have 10 brokers that work for my firm.

I have always believed the investment world is a very exciting one. The ability to step away from politics and re-adopt a larger, longer term perspective on what’s happening globally with the economy, with trends and technology and energy are not only interesting from a public policy perspective, but are also critically important if you’re going to manage individual portfolios investments for the future. I’ve found quite a bit of synergy in my role at the company and the institute. As I think about good public policy and where we could go, it connects directly to what’s happening internationally and what’s happening with investments, which is how I spend a fair amount of my time everyday.

Do you miss the Legislature?  You were very well respected as an even-handed, intelligent member of the Legislature, and someone who was viewed well by the both parties and the press. The qualities people most admired about you are the ones that people also say we need more of in the Legislature.

Well, of course I miss the legislature. I miss politics, being involved in the process where new ideas are developed and coalitions are created, where potential adversaries and opponents can be coopted as eventual allies, and where you assemble teams of people to rally together to win. There’s a lot of excitement and collegiality that goes into being a highly engaged, forward leading legislator who believes that our job is to make things better.

Although I am a Republican, I’m a firm member of the party of yes- not the party of no, which means that I do believe that we can make things better by intelligently legislating solutions in Sacramento. What we’ve seen in the last few years is the destruction of the two-party system in California, with two-thirds majorities in both the Senate and Assembly and Democrat control of every statewide office including the Governor’s. Frankly, there’s not a lot of opportunity as a Republican to engage in the big public issues of the day as a legislator. During my tenure the legislature, Republicans had healthy minorities in both caucuses and a Republican Governor. This created more balance where the two sides could strategize and work together to attack tricky public policy issues. Because the political environment is so different today from when I was serving, I’d have to candidly say I’m glad I’m not in Sacramento. I think it would be disheartening to deal with the hyper-partisanship and absence of collaboration that exists today. I frankly believe that I have a greater opportunity to work on the type of creative, high impact, and collaborative public policy that excites me in this new capacity at the Institute.

Would you ever return some day, either to the Legislature or to another role in government?

I suspect at some point I may ask that question myself, but right now as I am completely and fully subscribed to the things I’m trying to achieve both with my investment firm and the Institute at Cal Poly.

A version of this article was originally published in Techwire Magazine.