It's tough to create a new Silicon Valley. Despite all the talk of "smart growth" and "knowledge cities" and the "creative class," tech hubs are hard to plant and grow.
Margaret Pugh O'Mara, a University of Washington professor, wrote a book on the subject. She was schooled and taught at Stanford University in Palo Alto and knows the landscape first-hand. In her book Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley, she says that the formula for tech towns is tough to successfully replicate.
For one thing, in the U.S. they are largely the creation of massive federal (especially Cold War) spending. They don't simply grow along highway corridors (like Boston's Route 128), they sprout where big research dollars are funneled, where major universities like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT devote enormous resources to basic research. It helps if the results of that research get to market fast. The hubs thrive on publicly funded initiatives plus private entrepreneurism, both the grant and the garage.
Silicon Valleys or Alleys have roots in military and defense work, and they tend to generate suburban sprawl. One reason was that there were federal incentives to scatter talent across the countryside so it couldn't be taken out all at once by a Soviet nuke. Another was a desire to provide campus conditions once thought essential to the deep thinking and interdisciplinary play necessary for innovation.
Those tastes can shift: A younger generation is turning to renewed inner cities for techie-friendly lifestyles (think Amazon at South Lake Union instead of Microsoft in Redmond). But there are other conditions too. To grow a Silicon Valley you have to have a location that's going to appeal to "knowledge workers" in terms of amenities, climate, setting, and lifestyle.
There's also an element of dumb luck. Here in the Silicon Forest — still small potatoes compared to Silicon Valley — there was good fortune in the fact that Bill Boeing decided to build planes here, thus launching an aerospace empire that in turn helped Seattle become a fit place for the dreams of another Bill who decided to dominate the world of personal computers.
The thing is, the ecosystem is complicated and can't be taken for granted. Tending, mending, and adjusting are required. In the face of the state and federal budget crisis, the slashing of research grants and elimination of defense programs, the slicing and dicing of institutions like the University of Washington and higher ed generally, and increased competition from overseas, there is nothing inevitable about keeping a Silicon Valley or Forest or any other tech center going once its rooted.
It's not simply a matter of making a locality more tax-friendly for tech companies. The multiple components all need funding and feeding, and much comes from the public trough, though libertarian techies in the private sector might be loath to admit it.
High-tech clusters are vulnerable even where they have flourished. Even the Silicon Valley isn't taking anything for granted, and while they're relatively healthy compared to other parts of California, there is concern over how to stay globally innovative. I recently visited and looked more closely at the concept (which I've previously written about here) to host a Silicon Valley World's Fair in 2020. The fair as currently conceived could leave the legacy of a new mini-Silicon Valley right in the heart of the Valley itself, recapitulating the ingredients every Valley needs.
When you drive south on Highway 101 from San Francisco toward San Jose, it's likely that you've noticed a strange, metallic structure rising on your left between the freeway and the Bay as you near Santa Clara. Glinting in the sun, the silvery structure looks like an alien mother ship has landed, but it arrived well before Roswell. It's Hangar One, the historic airship shed that once housed part of the U.S. Navy's fleet of dirigibles in the 1930s.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!