Cloning Silicon Valley no longer computes
Can we stop using the phrase “the next Silicon Valley”? The real Silicon Valley is the creation of a unique set of forces that would be difficult, if not impossible, to clone.
Special to The Seattle Times
Can we all make a pact, oh boosters, politicians, economic-development officials and, yes, journalists?
Let us reason together and stop using the phrase “the next Silicon Valley” or “the Silicon Valley of….”
If you Google “the next Silicon Valley,” 1.35 million entries appear. Bing shows more than 3 million.
Is Singapore the next Silicon Valley? Can Vietnam create the next Silicon Valley? Is downtown LA’s Figueroa Corridor the next Silicon Valley? On and on.
What drove me off the edge was a headline last week that proclaimed, “Tucson on the cusp of becoming the Silicon Valley of mining technology.”
I am reminded of cities that set up a few tables of vegetables in an ailing downtown, while the backers proclaim this will become like “Pike’s” Place Market in Seattle.
An intervention is necessary.
The real Silicon Valley, transformed into the world’s most powerful technology center from its agricultural Eden past as the Valley of Heart’s Delight, is sui generis. The only place that comes close is Boston’s Route 128.
Seattle and the Puget Sound region enjoy an enviable technology economy compared with most the world. We’re not the next Silicon Valley. We never will be.
The real Silicon Valley is the creation of a unique set of forces that would be difficult, if not impossible, to clone:
• San Francisco. Proximity to the enormous wealth and creative energy of the City by the Bay was critical to building Silicon Valley.
Now its glamour has not only attracted tech workers as residents but created a constellation of companies there. For example, Yelp is housed in the majestic art deco tower that was once headquarters to Pacific Telephone.
But the roots go deeper. The city was the headquarters of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the “octopus” that built and controlled much of California in the 19th century. One of its founders, Leland Stanford, went on to endow ...
• Stanford University. Frederick Terman, the university’s dean of engineering in the 1940s and 1950s, was a visionary in spurring a leading research institution to fuel private-sector innovation and investment. He mentored students in starting companies and encouraged them to remain in the Valley. Faculty members were pushed to start their own firms. The culture of startups and serial entrepreneurs was born.
Among those Terman counseled were William Hewlett and David Packard, who graduating with Stanford engineering degrees in 1935 and famously founded their company in a garage.
The university established Stanford Industrial Park in 1951 as a home for companies that could work closely with the university. It became the prototype for scores of other huge, low-density tech developments that would follow.
By the time Hewlett-Packard went public in 1957, it was a prominent tenant at the renamed Stanford Research Park, along with such giants as General Electric and Eastman Kodak.
• Other universities. The Bay Area is home to numerous fine institutions that feed the Silicon Valley talent pool. Chief among them: the University of California, Berkeley, home to 22 Nobel laureates.
• Military spending. Contrary to the libertarian myth of the Valley, it is very much a creature of government spending, especially from the Pentagon.
To take the most important example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, was critical to the beginnings of the Internet. Also, the robust research of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is nearby. NASA and other agencies are at Moffett Field.
• Talent. Silicon Valley attracted an unparalleled band of geniuses, decade after decade, from William Schockley, co-inventor of the transistor, to Gordon Moore of the Traitorous Eight that left Schockley Semiconductor to found Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel among others, to Steve Jobs.
• Capital. In addition to attracting massive private and government investment, the Valley became the center of venture capital, with firms located along Sand Hill Road.
• Critical mass. No other technology center in the world has the number of companies, entrepreneurs and engineering talent in one place. They all feed off each other to create a perpetual-motion machine.
Most of all, Silicon Valley is a creature of a moment in history, when America was at the zenith of its might, when universities were being established and lavishly funded, when the Cold War brought vast sums to defense industries, California was golden and Washington, D.C., spent unprecedented amounts on scientific research.
That moment has passed, or at least paused, in our age of austerity. The major technology centers are frozen in place, with Silicon Valley in an unassailable lead.
Today, Silicon Valley’s dark side is on abundant display.
Inequality is massive. Amid the Valley’s opulence is what is reportedly the nation’s largest homeless encampment. In San Francisco, tech gentrification has become a battleground. Traffic is horrible. Age discrimination is rampant.
The market disproportionately rewards the creation of distractions such as Facebook rather than transformative inventions such as the transistor.
Silicon Valley’s billionaires have sent most of America’s once-dominant technology manufacturing jobs offshore. Much of the new technology and the promise of “everything for free” is job killing.
And most of this elite is stingy when it comes to philanthropy.
Terman and Shockley wouldn’t recognize the place.
None of this will break the mythic hold the Valley exerts: The idea that here is a true meritocracy, that failure is the key to success and youngsters in hoodies can become fabulously wealthy.
But as much of the nation has seen its fortunes wane, for many the Valley’s image has morphed from innovation and achievement to validation of gambling’s promise of unearned riches. Not for nothing do so many cities seek casinos in desperate efforts at reinvention.
So, Tucson as “the next Silicon Valley” of anything? It would be easier to become the Valley of the Jolly (Ho, Ho, Ho) Green Giant.
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org
About Jon Talton
Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest