How does your Valley grow?

There are challenges to creating the 'next' Silicon Valley, but also to keeping the current one vital. In the Bay Area, one ray of hope is offered by a former Naval Air Station (think Magnuson Park on steroids), and a proposed Expo could bring all the pieces together.

Crosscut archive image.

Google's operations are centered in Silicon Valley, seen here in a 2007 photo, but Seattle now has some of the company's employees.

There are challenges to creating the 'next' Silicon Valley, but also to keeping the current one vital. In the Bay Area, one ray of hope is offered by a former Naval Air Station (think Magnuson Park on steroids), and a proposed Expo could bring all the pieces together.

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.

The former Naval base, Moffett Field, is now mostly owned by NASA, whose Ames Research Center is there. The California Air National Guard still flies out of Moffett and so do Google executives. Google is on part of the site and it pays to use the massive runways that are largely idle these days.

Nearby are big-name technology companies in addition to Google: Yahoo, Microsoft (their largest campus outside of Redmond), Juniper Networks, Lockeed-Martin. Moffett Field is sandwiched between Sunnyvale and Mountain View. There are over 1,000 acres there, much of it unused or still in transition from one era to the next.

It's like Seattle's Magnuson Park (formerly Sand Point Naval Air Station, and just recently landmarked) on steroids. There is the giant airship shed, plus two companion hangars, and a historic district of old base buildings, some of which are occupied by academic programs from major universities like Carnegie-Mellon. Some 77 acres are leased from NASA by University Associates-Silicon Valley LLC, a public-private partnership of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Foothill-De Anza College and developers TMG and Related Companies. The hope is to create a Silicon Valley academic presence for the University of California and bring housing (up to 1,900 units) and new commercial development to the site. 

The University Associates project is stalled by the recession. But Bill Berry, a former NASA administrator and president of the group, hopes that the world's fair idea can jump-start the project. The Expo idea is being backed by the powerful Bay Area Council, a business group. The notion is to mount a bid for a major world's fair in 2020. It would be privately funded and sited at Moffett Field under a lease from NASA.

The fair, it is hoped, would get the UC campus off the ground because that part of the site could be developed as the Expo Village, which would remain afterwards to house students, staff, tech workers, research facilities, and private tech companies along 101. The fair would mostly take place on the vast stretches of runways that once accommodated massive airships. Imagine an array of temporary, high-tech, green pavilions sprawling over 450 acres or more.

A legacy of the fair would be transportation and utility improvements. When I visited Moffett recently, I was warned that AT&T mobile coverage might be spotty. Not that unusual, but it struck me as funny: You still can't get reliable cell service in the heart of the Silicon Valley? Turns out that isn't the only challenge. The site needs new electrical, water, sewer, and IT upgrades.

There's also a pollution issue, with an underground plume of toxics working their way slowly toward the Bay — residue from the base dry cleaner and nearby semi-conductor manufacturers. Even the iconic Hangar One is toxic, a veritable layer of asbestos, PCBs, and lead paint. It needs to be restored and cleaned up. During a fair, the airship hangars would make great (and vast) exhibition spaces, and Hangar One has been touted by some as a possible USA pavilion. It certainly offers the Expo a pre-existing landmark.

The advantages of Moffett seem strong. It's hard to find huge chunks of developable land in the heart of the Valley (or any urban center). The fair could result in environmental improvements. The site is easily connected with heavy rail (a dormant Caltrain freight spur could bring commuter rail right there), and there's light rail to the site from San Jose. Passenger ferry/hovercraft service could be added on the Bay.

An academic center would be left behind (a legacy of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Expo was the University of Washington campus). All of that is beyond any other commercial and public-relations benefits that would result from the fair itself: tourism, image, showcasing technology, trade agreements, and Silicon Valley innovation. A Bay Area Council study predicts the fair would generate $5.6 billion in economic activity and over 40,000 jobs.

The folks at the Council were in Shanghai opening an office there during Expo 2010. Shanghai and San Francisco are sister cities. A visit to the fair inspired then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to return home and announce the 2020 bid last fall. Since then, even the new, minimalist Gov. Jerry Brown has endorsed the idea.

The Council has also got buy-in from groups such as Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a group of business, government, academic and community leaders devoted to keeping the Valley "the world's best platform for innovation and entrepreneurship." Their one stipulation is that the fair be carbon neutral — a challenge, but it argues for making the event a showcase of green technology (as most Expos are nowadays). One idea is that Juniper Networks and the regional power company PG&E could build a smart grid for the Expo site.

The mix of uses at Moffett mirror what has made the Silicon Valley successful. The fair would take place on federal property. It would leave an updated facility with additional research, educational, and commercial capabilities, be a smart adaptive re-use of an old military facility, and help slingshot transportation improvements (one is to transform the Caltrain line from diesel to electric, which is cleaner and could more than double capacity). Fairs have sometimes been designed to leave new tech centers or science parks as legacies. Daejon, South Korea, and Seville, Spain, are two examples. This would bolster one of the world's great technology clusters by beefing it up, rather than starting from scratch.

One question — and there are many, including some tricky political hurdles — is why would Silicon Valley be interested? The short answer is the improvements mentioned above. Plus the fact that fairs are an international marketplace and the Valley is heavily dependent on international trade. Eighty percent of U.S. semiconductor sales occurs abroad, and so does much of the growth in tech consumer products and services. Still, international trade has been roughed up by the economic climate.

Over the years, those who are cynical about the future of world's fairs have often cited technology and the emergence of the Internet and World Wide Web as proof they are relics of a former age. Why gather in person when we can meet on Facebook? Still, tech culture is infused with a kind of global idealism that matches the spirit of fairs even if it arguably offers an alternative to them. That idealism is still centered on the idea that our hope for the future is fueled by technological progress, a concept as old as the first world's fair in London in 1851. And while the Valley and its products, from chips to software, have been transformational, it can't hurt to have the world come to your place for six months and reinforce for your customers and competitors why you can do it better than anyone else.

It is also true that tech culture is tinged with utopianism, as documented in the book From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Stanford professor Fred Turner. He documents the rise of "digital utopianism," the imbuing of the Internet with powers that can transcend right and left and have been embraced by everyone from Newt Gingrich and George Gilder to Stewart Brand.

Add to that the revolution of the social-network era and mobilization of the citizenry. Modern fairs are largely digital events, featuring enormous HD multimedia displays. Three-D goggles have replaced Ferris Wheels. They are also communal events about communication itself. Their raison d'etre is to embody and employ global networking. They are an example of media-seer Marshall McLuhan's famous observation, "The medium is the message." 

Expos are consumer showcases that introduce the public to new technologies (computers, TV, video phones). It's salesmanship wrapped in utopianism that makes them work, and that's something Silicon Valley and its ad agencies already know well. It's still effective. Upcoming Expos prior to 2020 are slated for South Korea and Italy. The recent "obsolete" fair in Shanghai had 73 million visitors, a record. Silicon Valley attendance is projected at a mere 25 million.

From a practical standpoint, an Expo offers the chance to break out of several boxes: the recession-slowed economy, the slog and decline represented by government cutbacks, the erosion of global competition, resistance to public-porivate partnerships. Fairs exist for many reasons, but one often overlooked rationale is simply local: to create a context for mobilizing resources that can't otherwise be marshaled.

Robert Moses used two New York fairs to build parks, reclaim an ash dump, and expand highways. Companies like Google get on board if their workers can have a better, greener commute, and if the company can sell its global mission in a receptive context. This fair has to work at all levels for the deep-pockets of tech to get onboard, which means everything from the nitty-gritty details of rail stations to the high-brow visions of a tech-driven world.

Isn't an Expo rather incongruous, if not ill-timed, against the austere background of budget-cutting? Yes, but fairs aren't necessarily reflective of boom times, and they're planned so far in advance they must serve in any kind of economic climate. Often, they have been a direct response to tough times and adversity. There were numerous expositions during the Great Depression in the 1930s, including New York in 1939 and Chicago in 1933. Others have attempted urban renewal and revival, examples being Spokane's rehabbing of its downtown in 1974, and the San Francisco Panama-Pacific fair of 1915, which helped to rebuild the city and restore confidence after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire.

Silicon Valley is not a virtual place. It is real people in a physical space with all the attendant issues: transportation, housing, pollution, utility upgrades, schools, civic improvement. A fair can catalyze progress at both ends of the spectrum, pushing ideals and greening infrastructure, as well as cleaning up asbestos in the attic. It's clear that the Valley and its Bay Area business advocates understand they have an opportunity to make practical progress by hosting an event that you might have thought they had made obsolete with technology (the Bay Area's last world's fair was in 1940).

It shows the Valley is looking for ways to keep its edge, even by turning to one of the oldest means of boosting a modern future to do it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.