One of the truly interesting discussions among really smart business people is how to replicate new “Silicon Valleys” in different parts of the country and world. There are certainly vibrant technology communities in places like the Research Triangle in North Carolina, New York City and, for that matter, most of the nation of Israel. But when we say “Silicon Valley,” we refer to something special, something I would define as a geographic region that produces extraordinary innovation, commercial success and global impact over multiple generations.
AnnaLee Saxenian, Dean of the School of Information at the University of California Berkeley, was interviewed recently on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of her superb book, Regional Advantage: Culture inSilicon Valley and Route 128. In it, she contrasted Silicon Valley with the Route 128 technology loop (nicknamed “America’s Technology Highway” in the 1970s) in Massachusetts.
A grad student at the time, Saxenian learned that “being able to innovate very, very quickly and being able to be the first to market with new products, being able to adapt to crises and to change quickly was a much more sort of enduring advantage” for Silicon Valley, which had a dynamism “rooted in a structure that was very decentralized and very flat and allowed for very rapid change.” This all seems like gospel now; after all, how else would a company compete in 2014? But at the time Sexenian was helping us understand (what seemed) a new phenomenon—a region that created extraordinary innovation and, when faced with collapse (as it was when Japanese firms upended the silicon market), was able to engineer a kind of self-healing that allowed it to come roaring back in a whole new and formidable shape. (Read and hear the audio here.)
Of course, Route 128 was held up as a model of innovation for a generation or more as well thanks to large, vertically-integrated minicomputer companies like Data General, Digital and Prime Computer. But in the East, management was top-down, business was close-mouthed, and companies siloed—a GM and defense-inspired model so effective in 1950--such that the flat, fluid ecosystem by which SV is now defined never had the opportunity to develop.
Consequently, for a generation or more we have watched, analyzed and debated what makes Silicon Valley so great but been stumped and frustrated about how to actually go about planting the next one.
Another Way to Come At It
Another Way to Come At It
In my own research I have taken a slightly different look at the question: I’ve been wondering not so much how to plant the next one, but if, instead, there might not have been others. If so, what did they look like? How did they compare to last generation’s Route 128 or this year’s Silicon Valley? And—most importantly--how did they get started? Were there certain commonalities that we could divine in the long historical view that are not so obvious staring at the offices on Sand Hill Drive?
This question, of course, is the invitation to a monumental long-form essay that won’t be written here—in the interests of having a life, getting some real work done, and keeping my digital sharecropping to a minimum. But a less-than-monumental overview might still be fun, and below is my shorthand for the next few paragraphs to come:
|An overview of six "Silicon Valleys" in American history.|