[Author: Gary Sheng]
What it will take to break through to America 2.0
Below is a piece from a good friend, Gary Sheng, who is doing amazing work in civic innovation and has been producing incredible thought leadership on all things “foundational technology.” To support Gary’s movement and message, I wanted to circulate his manifesto that lays out a framework for how Americans should think about how Foundational Tech can help “level up” the United States of America. You can find a brief overview of the manifesto below; a link to the full piece can be found here.
The goals of this manifesto are to make the case for 1) defining and proliferating the meme “foundational tech” and for 2) defining and developing an “American foundational tech ecosystem”—where foundational tech is technology that can greatly enable, preserve, and accelerate human or ecological flourishing; technology that can serve as foundational building blocks of a radically more resilient, self-sustaining, and dynamic America.
The mission of the ecosystem would be to bring about “America 2.0”—a future where every American has the opportunity to flourish and the U.S. is leading the world in building, implementing, and sharing foundational technologies.
The publication of this manifesto is just the first step in defining the American foundational tech ecosystem. The next step is to create a detailed report that will flesh out in detail what “foundational tech” and its ecosystem in the U.S. could be; so that investors and builders alike can be inspired to grow the ecosystem; and educators across the country know how to encourage their students to explore these technologies.
I hope you find this to be a thought provoking and action inspiring read, and welcome your comments below.
– Gary Sheng
A Future Worth Building
Picture this future, where we get the critical things about technology right:
It’s New Year’s Eve, 2035:
You wake up energized.
It’s day one of the Hawaii trip you’ve been waiting for.
The night before you flew in from Austin, Texas on a fully electric supersonic passenger jet.
3,650 miles in just 2.5 hours.
As you head to your kitchen for some coffee, you ask your AI assistant for a year in review.
As your coffee brews, you learn that your sleep and overall health metrics improved in the last 12 months. Breakthroughs in microbiome tech and personalized medicine helped you finally get the treatment you needed for your rare gut disease.
In your Austin community, homelessness is down and student learning outcomes are up. But this isn’t unique to your community. Thanks to breakthroughs in how we grow food, make houses, and personalize education, 99.6% of American children have access to the basic necessities they need to realize their potential (up from 86% in 2025).
More good news: 72% of American voters approve of the responsiveness of the American government (up from just 16% in 2025). This is thanks, in part, to tech breakthroughs in social media that supercharge collective sensemaking and healthy debate, and also, to huge strides in non-partisan democracy reform.
Across the globe, private sector investment in climate innovation is up to almost $1.5T/year (up from $130B in 2025). And you see the results every day. From the delicious cultivated meat that has become a staple of your diet, to the fusion energy plant that cleanly powers your neighborhood.
As you finish the last sips of your coffee, you reflect on how the pessimism, hyperpolarization, and sense of stagnation that characterized the first quarter of the 21st century seem like a distant memory.
It feels wonderful to be living in this time of extraordinary progression and dynamism.
That future will be very challenging to achieve—but it is possible.
The U.S. has everything it needs to level up.
How do we bring it all together to make this happen?
Let me explain.
Where We Are Today: A Make-or-Break Decade
Most Americans understand that our current situation is a shitshow, leading many to adopt a philosophy called “doomerism”. A common belief across doomers is that the way society functions will likely cause civilizational collapse.
I am sympathetic to the doomer mentality.
The world is experiencing something like an everything-crisis—where our freshwater crisis, social cohesion crisis, food security crisis, housing crisis, institutional dysfunction crisis, and many other crises intersect and exacerbate one another. As each of these crises worsens, the consequences cascade across the rest—disrupting life and deepening the severity of other crises in a recursive doom loop.
Many of the worst fears of doomers could be our reality.
Imagine a future characterized by cascading systems failures that lead to famine and drought, supercharging chronic social unrest and political violence.
American Dark Age (Gary Sheng)
A future where technology’s legacy has been to further centralize corporate power, destroy the last semblances of personal privacy, help government bureaucrats move with unprecedented efficiency to cripple freedoms and eliminate dissent, and supercharge the ability for state and private actors to destabilize the world.
A future where instead of liberating us from drudgery and making positive changes to economic systems, robotic automation has created mass unemployment and an unprecedented underclass.
This picture is not preposterous dystopian thinking—it is possible if we continue our current trajectory.
While this is decade of existential risks, it’s also a decade of extraordinary possibility.
People tend to underestimate the pace and power of exponential growth, much less appreciate the flywheels of performance and adoption of technologies like solar energy—which governments and ordinary citizens increasingly recognize as foundational to the future.
Predictions about the future often fail to account for exponential S-curves of technology performance and adoption, much less stacking exponential S-curves.
The term “S-curve” points to the shape that explains the growth of technology that becomes widely adopted in society. Both performance and adoption start out slow, and then ramp up as success breeds success. Finally, that fast growth hits a wall, and slows down again.
S-curve diagram (Alan L. Porter, UCLA)
Let’s look at one S-curve: solar energy.
Many energy industry analysts, besides a small few like futurist Tony Seba, have consistently gotten predictions about the price and efficiency of solar energy wrong. See this graph:
Experts consistently underestimate the power of S-curves (RethinkX)
Solar energy is now the cheapest energy source per kWh generated after being widely unaffordable as recently as a decade ago. And electric cars are now three to six times cheaper to drive in the U.S. than gas guzzling cars.
It was once laughable to predict this happening so soon.
Now, imagine many S-curves like solar energy stacking simultaneously.
It might be difficult to imagine. For most people, the future is a blur that looks almost indistinguishable from the present. But the present is radically different than even the recent past. Can you even imagine a world without a smartphone?
Now, remember that smartphone performance and adoption in the U.S. was built on the rising tides of many stacking S-curves, enabled by radical increases in:
Smartphones didn’t just alter a behavior or two. They changed everything.
Economist Carlota Perez described the impact of such moments in time in her influential 2003 book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: “When a technological revolution irrupts in the scene, it does not just add some dynamic new industries to the previous production structure. It provides the means for modernizing all the existing industries and activities.”
Fast forward to today: countless technologies are being developed, and thousands are experiencing or could experience S-curve performance and adoption cycles.
For example, the technologies that enable the magic of OpenAI’s DALL-E 2 and chatGPT are experiencing S-curve trajectories. OpenAI CTO Greg Brockman talks about how even though it’s still early days, there will be a societal “paradigm shift” when the technologies that underpin OpenAI’s products hit their S-curve Growth stages.
Why is this paradigm shift possible? Brockman says his team can only do what it does thanks to a “full stack of better GPUs, great software for utilizing them, neural networks that we learned to harness more and more, the scaling laws doing all the science, and [AI alignment research] making sure [large language] models are not just smart but actually aligned with what humans intend.”
A great leap in human progress is possible in a short amount of time, if we’re able to stack the right kinds of tech S-curves.
S-curves stacking over time is what drives progress (Wait But Why)
What the future will be has everything to do with what tech is built and proliferated during this Make-or-Break decade.
Breakthrough or Collapse? (RethinkX)
Societal collapse is not inevitable, even if most people can’t imagine an alternative.
This decade could be the beginning of a breakthrough: the beginning of something like the country of our dreams—America 2.0.
What is America 2.0?
A future where every American has the opportunity to flourish and the U.S. is leading the world in building, implementing, and sharing the technologies that are key to building a better world for all.
Same mission as America 1.0, shipped in 1776.
But way better at living up to its promises—with way faster innovation in the domains most relevant in confronting our huge internal and international challenges.
Imagine if water desalination, next gen geothermal, fully autonomous vehicles, housing prefabrication, advanced semiconductors, AI-powered creativity tools, synthetic biology, and many other areas reach the “Growth” phase of their S-curves during this decade thanks to a U.S.-led tidal wave of investment and student interest in contributing to these fields.
How could we not feel like we’re living in an era of progress and abundance?
And more importantly, how many more people than ever before could realize their potential to flourish?
How Do We Breakthrough To America 2.0?
Achieving breakthrough will not be easy.
We need to 10x increase the number of people building foundational tech—technology that can greatly enable, preserve, and accelerate human or ecological flourishing; technology that can serve as foundational building blocks of a radically more resilient, self-sustaining, and dynamic America; technology that collectively serve as the seed kernel for a Golden Age for humanity.
America 2.0 (Gary Sheng)
Examples of American startups I consider to be foundational tech companies include:
Phoenix-based Culdesac builds car-free neighborhoods from scratch, with their first neighborhood piloting soon right next to their Phoenix HQ.
San Jose-based OpenGov builds cloud software for public sector accounting, planning, budgeting, citizen services, and procurement—serving over 1,000 cities, counties, and state agencies across 49 states.
Chicago-based Nature’s Fynd builds the future of fungi-based protein—producing delicious meat and dairy free breakfast patties, yogurts, cream cheeses, and other high protein foods that require 90%+ less resources to produce.
Berkeley-based Pivot Bio builds agricultural technology that uses tiny organisms to give crops the nutrients they need, instead of using synthetic fertilizers that can harm the environment.
Cambridge-based Foray Bioscience builds biotechnologies—based on leading edge science in plant cell culture, materials science, and tissue engineering—that generate the wood and forest products we need, without cutting down a single tree.
San Francisco-based OpenAI builds leading AI models meant to serve the public interest—known for its explosively popular user-facing products that include chatGPT and DALLE-2.
Los Angeles-based Hadrian builds unprecedentedly efficient, automated factories that will accelerate the entire advanced manufacturing sector and bring forth an abundant future.
These companies are not full of degrowthers, partisan culture warriors, professional critics, or people sitting idly, waiting for a world government to save the day.
They are full of optimists who understand that their optimism is self-fulfilling only if tied to thoughtful collective action. A different kind of activism that prioritizes building over talking. An activism that can inspire and unite across differences.
Foundational tech companies are not just important to the flourishing of Americans; their success supports the flourishing of people everywhere. Foundational tech operations can be easily be scaled around the world, and foundational tech intellectual property can be easily developed and shared with other countries (and even used as a way to negotiate peace).
I will refer to the number of foundational tech companies achieving traction as “Foundational Tech Velocity.” To achieve an order of magnitude higher foundational tech velocity, many aspects of American society and culture must evolve.
And to drive this evolution, I believe it’s worth defining and jumpstarting something like a movement of thinkers, builders, and investors who see themselves as working toward a common cause, which I am calling “American foundational tech ecosystem.”
A quick note on why I believe it’s valuable to define and proliferate the meme “foundational tech”
Before I dive into the “American foundational tech ecosystem,” I want to explain why it’s important to turn “foundational tech” into a mainstream meme.
Zooming out, one of the reasons why you might want to define and proliferate a meme is to enable people to coordinate with each other to address an issue of shared concern. A meme that points at solutions to an issue can help mobilize a movement to form in common cause.
For example, the “climate tech” meme serves as an essential coordination tool to connect people who feel inspired to build and invest in technologies that reduce carbon emissions and address other issues related to climate change.
The “climate tech” meme enables certain VCs to call themselves “climate tech VCs,” certain entrepreneurs to call their startups “climate tech startups,” and for certain conveners to call their events “climate tech conferences.”
There was a need to coordinate collective action to address climate change through tech, and indeed, the proliferation of the “climate tech” meme has played a big role in the explosion of investment self-described by entrepreneurs and investors as “climate tech venture funding.”
“Climate tech venture funding” has exploded alongside use of the term “climate tech” (Google Trends x Holon IQ)
“Climate tech” gave like-minded people a flag to rally around and has helped mobilize a global movement that has been growing exponentially over the past decade.
Inspired by the many instances of people manifesting memes into impactful movements, I’m motivated to define and proliferate “foundational tech” as a meme because I believe we need to coordinate far more resources and talent toward building tech that helps us break through to America 2.0, and I’m betting that this meme can help mobilize a lot of people to help do so.
I intentionally chose the word “foundational” to precede “tech” because it points to tech that can serve as “foundational” building blocks for America 2.0.
And to me, “foundational” has a sense of gravitas and virtue that something like “powerful” or “disruptive” does not. Many technologies are powerful or disruptive—but these qualities do not connote net-positivity. Some technologies are “emerging”—but the stage of a technology’s development doesn’t imply whether it is making a positive impact. The reality is that a small subset of technologies can be widely considered as a necessary part of the foundation of a next generation civilization, and we need words to more efficiently describe them and coordinate collective action to build them.
If “foundational tech” becomes a mainstream meme, it becomes a tool that we can use to kickstart lively debate on whether, say, web3/blockchain is foundational to America 2.0. I would say so—even if we just look at the privacy-protecting, zero knowledge identity solutions being developed today. But I believe it’s primarily up to domain/industry leaders to justify how foundational their tech is, and build applications whose utility to America (and the world’s future) speaks for itself.
By planting my flag on the “foundational tech” hill, I hope that this Substack (and my work in general) can serve as a default gathering place for people who believe in the power of certain kinds of tech to level up America. We need Americans who have been working hard to level up the way we do geothermal, nuclear, water desalination, democracy + government, public safety, food, healthcare, etc in this country to know they are on the same team, and help accelerate each other’s success.
Jumpstarting the American Foundational Tech Ecosystem
The idea behind the American foundational tech ecosystem is simple. In order for us to level up to America 2.0, we need an army of people obsessed with accelerating “Foundational Tech Velocity.”
So how do we make that happen?
For this ecosystem to greatly accelerate Foundational Tech Velocity, we have to jumpstart the “Foundational Tech Flywheel.”
The “Flywheel” is a concept introduced by Jim Collins in his seminal book Good To Great, used to state the fact that companies (or in our case: ecosystems) don’t become exceptional as a result of a single intervention or initiative, but rather from the accumulation of little wins that stack up over years of hard work until such a moment that momentum takes over to power sustained periods of accelerated growth greatly outstrip the effort being applied at that particular point in time.
How might the Foundational Tech Flywheel work?
Well, if the goal is to increase Foundational Tech Velocity (aka the number of foundational tech companies achieving traction), then tied for first for what we need to kickstart is far more media highlighting success stories of foundational tech companies.
What does this do?
It grows the public’s appreciation for foundational tech.
And this greater appreciation does a number of things, including increase the amount of government, university, and private sector support for foundational tech research and incubation?
Because these institutions are incentivized to support what they know people demand.
And if there is more institutional support, more builders and funders will be able to receive training and funding to proliferate foundational tech.
From there, we see the creation of more foundational tech startups, which will ultimately increase the number of successful foundational tech companies.
This success of these companies in accelerating human and ecological flourishing will trigger more positive press about the foundational tech ecosystem.
And the cycle continues.
The Foundational Tech Flywheel (Gary Sheng)
A quick note on the importance of government support of foundational tech
Government support of foundational technologies is a key part of the Foundational Tech Flywheel for at least three reasons:
Government can be the first customer of a capital intensive company. Vaccines are extremely costly to develop. So are rockets, car-free neighborhoods, and telecom infrastructure. Governments making advanced market commitments that funds the development of new technology can pave the way for the tech to eventually commercialize and scale its benefit.
Government can keep local startups competitive with international competitors also getting government support. While the private sector can do a lot on its own, it can’t quickly marshal hundreds of billions of dollars to kickstart advanced semiconductor fabrication like the federal government just did with the CHIPS and Science Act. Of course, the efficiency of a particular government incentive can be hotly debated, and that debate should be welcome.
Government can’t guarantee an industry will succeed just because it enacts good regulations related to that industry, but it can definitely kill it with bad regulations. Let me explain below.
What is built and how much of it can be built is constrained by the regulatory environment.
All Americans need housing, healthy food, a good education, medical care, transportation, internet, material goods, and more—the building blocks of modern life.
And all the stuff we need comes from somewhere, whether from farms, factories, power plants, or gas lines. But there’s a growing sense that the American regulatory environment has greatly restricted the ability of Americans to build the things we need (which I call foundational technologies), to produce the end products and services Americans need to affordably thrive.
We need to change policy to encourage more supply and fight the rising costs of all of these building blocks of modern life.
We know we’ll have succeeded when we’re seeing progress across the country to rescind the…
Near-total bans on new nuclear power plants
Restrictions on construction of new housing and walkable communities
Restrictions on manufacturing and sale of drugs, diagnostic tests, and medical devices
And other policies that just don’t make any sense to keep if we want to see widespread flourishing in the coming years
I’m optimistic about government support for foundational tech for at least a couple reasons:
Escalating geopolitical competition with China will encourage many U.S. political leaders to self-reflect on whether the U.S. has adequately made the case in the 21st century for liberal democracy over autocracy. If the U.S. can’t figure out how to better take care of its people in the next decade, we can’t blame anyone but ourselves if people around the world turn their back on the American-led global order? This Great Power Competition with China should greatly motivate us to level up our laws and regulations to proliferate tech that accelerates flourishing.
Many of the rules blocking production of what people need remain in place not because they have strong constituencies, but due to inertia and lack of awareness. This suggests there’s hope for change if reformers keep at it over this next decade—educating elected officials and other government leaders on how unblocking foundational tech can be a pure political win for them.
How we know if the Foundational Tech Flywheel is achieving escape velocity
Some of the best signals of whether the Foundational Tech Flywheel is ripping are the degrees to which foundational tech builders are…
1. Widely appreciated by the public ❤️: Americans without technical backgrounds should widely understand and appreciate why we must build and support foundational tech for the national interest.
Pieces like this very manifesto are key to helping define and connect concepts that make it clear to people that we face a looming threat of societal collapse, that our future could be much worse than more of the same stagnation, and that foundational tech development is a big part of how we break through to a radically better future. America needs a subculture that incentivizes and celebrates foundational tech builders. These builders need to be seen as modern servicepeople. To do this, the ecosystem should invest heavily in storytelling around the companies that are already building foundational tech and making a difference, the visions for America’s future that can be realized if more foundational tech is developed, and the thrill of contributing to the growth of the ecosystem.
2. Can easily access high quality education : Talented, passionate young people should be able to easily get the education they need to make the leap toward building foundational tech.
It is important that it is easy for people who are inspired to join and contribute to the ecosystem to get support finding their way to the existing educational programs that enable them to develop into foundational technologists focused on whatever issue(s) they care about. Foundational technologists must be supported not only in developing technical know-how, but also leadership skills like nobility, clear conscious, humility, and deep commitment to service for the greater good. More than ever, we need leaders who are true to their purpose.
3. Can easily fundraise from a diversity of sources : People on the path to building foundational technologies should be able to easily get the funding they need to develop their solutions, find product market fit, and ultimately achieve financial sustainability.
For it to be far easier to raise money for a foundational tech company, leaders of the following groups and institutions need to be educated on the value of investing in foundational tech: family offices, Congress, government agencies, venture capital firms, philanthropic foundations, and more.
An Invitation To Unleash A Golden Age For Humanity
Golden Age America (Gary Sheng)
So much needs to be done to achieve the vision laid in the beginning of this manifesto.
And the future history of how this will all unfold is far from clear.
But I’m confident in my next step: to create a detailed report that…
Articulates criteria for determining if a technology is foundational (or to what degree),
Establishes the identity of the ecosystem,
Spotlights canonical examples of foundational tech companies,
Curates best practices that enabled said companies to succeed,
Identifies top challenges to the ecosystem’s success,
Catalogues funders and funding models (old and new),
Establishes the shared language and concepts that are required to help prospective ecosystem members decide whether it is right for them,
Ultimately, this report will flesh out what “foundational tech” and American ecosystem could be; so that investors and builders alike can be inspired to do what’s needed to build the ecosystem; and educators across the country know how to encourage their students to explore these technologies.
By John Montague