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Is Silicon Valley Reproducible? 415

Posted by Cliff
from the appalachains-have-some-nice-valleys dept.
sunil99 asks: "Paul Graham, in his latest essay, looks at the ingredients which make Silicon Valley what it is. From the essay: 'Could you reproduce Silicon Valley elsewhere, or is there something unique about it? It wouldn't be surprising if it were hard to reproduce in other countries, because you couldn't reproduce it in most of the US, either. What does it take to make [a Silicon Valley]?'. In his opinion: 'I think you only need two kinds of people to create a technology hub: rich people and nerds'. He concludes that if a city can attract these people, it can stand a chance of replicating Silicon Valley. What do you think of Paul's opinions? If you would like some changes to the current Silicon Valley, what would those be?" While the people are an important part to the Silicon Valley experience, they are only part of the requirement. What local characteristics must also be present, even if Silicon Valley is to be duplicated on a smaller scale? What draws technology companies to a specific location?
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Is Silicon Valley Reproducible?

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  • by barutanseijin (907617) on Thursday May 25, 2006 @10:30PM (#15406938)
    However you want to define it, "Silicon Valley" is a product of history. That being the case there are a lot of things that went into producing what we now know as "Silicon Valley". In no particular order:

    • The Cold War. (the impetus for much basic computer research)
    • Massive investments in education from both the State of California and the US federales. (Nerds are made, not born)
    • Relatively cheap land (obviously not anymore.)
    • The youth rebellion of the '60s. (contributed in no small part to the popularity of mini/personal computers, *nix, free software, WozJobsMacintosh etc.)
    • Communications and transportation infrastructure. (Some degree of connectivity was important, but too much makes centralisation unnecessary.)

    As a general principle, what was a possibility for previous generations is a possibility for us, too. Whether it's likely or not is another question.

    I think the article overemphasises economic factors at the expense of the cultural and historical. Silicon Valley is history, and history is a lot more complicated than that.

  • Irvine? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by TheGreatHegemon (956058) on Thursday May 25, 2006 @10:35PM (#15406963)
    I'm not an expert on the mechanics of Silicon Valley, but isn't Irvine essentially trying to achieve a Silicon Valley status? They give very ncie incentives for Tech firms, and UC Irvine partners up with many companies for R&D. I do believe it's a road towards Silicon valley.
  • Silicon Hills? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by SydShamino (547793) on Thursday May 25, 2006 @10:48PM (#15407023)
    Austin, Texas, is known as the Silicon Hills [siliconmaps.com] because it has reproduced Silicon Valley, albeit on a smaller scale.

    It also has a major research university (University of Texas), which might be a key component. It also has a good supply of risk takers, and plenty of money.

    But, it also has a few things that Silicon Valley lacks. Namely, it has a better cultural scene for folks. I don't mean the high-class snobby rich folks that fit in well in California. I mean young folks, the kind that like to live someplace that is the live-music capital of the world, with two world-class music festivals, a world-class movie festival, site of the flagship whole foods, the state's only public nude beach, and plenty more to keep you busy every week.
  • Re:Short Answer No (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 25, 2006 @10:51PM (#15407052)
    The cultural differences between Silicon Valley and Route 128 were examined in a book by Annalee Saxenian [amazon.com]. Another was the book "Sunburst" (out of print, I'm sure) that contrasted the early histories of Sun Microsystems with Apollo Computer.

    As a Boston area resident, one thing I've noticed is that while our startups swing for the fences, they tend to have conservative technology plans. A common theme is to take a known technology and market, but deliver it on an emerging platform or media for a much lower price than the leaders. They also tend to stock top management with people who have spent most or all of their careers in large companies. These people turn around and start hiring like crazy to get back to their comfort zones, so you have a giant burn rate and less time to come up with something truly original. In Silicon Valley, you're more likely to see startups that are trying to create an entirely new product space, so after you hear their elevator spiel you are likely to say, "Huh? And who are your customers again?" But the VCs are used to that level of ambiguity, and a few of those turn into Google, Yahoo, Netscape.

  • Yes, in New England (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 25, 2006 @10:56PM (#15407082)

    There already is a smaller scale version of Silicon Valley roughly centered on Boston, Massachusetts. The partial circle defined by Route 128 (and to a lesser extent the larger one surrounding it defined by Route 495) has most of the required properties already. Heck, it even has the same elevated levels of Asperger's Syndrome that Silicon Valley has.

  • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Thursday May 25, 2006 @11:19PM (#15407208) Journal
    The thing that made silicon valley was neither money nor nerds. In fact, when it started out it didn't have much of either. The thing that really made silicon valley was Non Proprietary Technology. That is what made it. That is All that made it. The rest followed naturally.

    But you can do "Non Proprietary Technology" anywhere. So why is there only one Silicon Valley?

    Because there's another (related) item - and it's a BIG one:

    Callifornia law - then and now - had a zinger on inventions:

    If you invent something that is NOT in your employer's current or forseeable line of business, do it on your own time, and don't use company equipment and materials, it's YOURS.

    No matter WHAT your employment agreement says: It's "against public policy" to let your employer grab your idea and sit on it if you wnat to develop it. And California interprets this VERY much in favor of the employee - so even if it's in the same field (sometimes even if it enables direct competition only a little while later) - the employer is S.O.L.

    Write up a business plan, move across the street, and hang out your shingle.

    Which key people do all the time - sometimes repeatedly, until one of their ideas catches fire.

    THAT is the "Engine of Creation" behind the explosion of startups in California, and why Silicon Valley hasn't been successfully cloned in any of several other sites that have all of its other desirable characteristics.

    Want to try to clone up a Silicon Valley in YOUR state? (Tried a few times with no success?) Start by cloning that law.
  • Re:Silicon Hills? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by spxero (782496) on Thursday May 25, 2006 @11:30PM (#15407260) Journal
    Could that be a reason it hasn't flourished as well? When you have a bunch of geeks with nothing to do but get excited about tech, I bet they can do more than geeks with everything to do. Austin has its festivals, nude beach (not always a plus), and plenty to keep you busy. But silicon valley's a 3.5 hour drive to the snow, a 1 - 1.5 hour drive to the ocean, 30 min to San Fran, and 6 hours to L.A. There's plenty to do there (I was born and raised in the east bay, now I live in Texas), and from my visits to Austin, you can find close to all that near silicon valley. The music scene may not be as advertised as Austin's, but it's there.

    After being in Texas, the people are just different out here. It's more laid back (except Houston), and there's a lot more of a get-it-done-when-it-gets-done feeling. I think that's what contributes to Austin's silicon hill not being as recognized. Silicon hill may erupt, but I think that the extra-curricular activities and different attitude keep it from being larger than Silicon Valley.
  • by seanadams.com (463190) * on Thursday May 25, 2006 @11:36PM (#15407290) Homepage
    Actually, you hit on a good point.

    Housing was not always expensive here. When Wozniak was developing the Apple I, middle-class homes were routinesly built on 10,000 square foot lots because land was so plentiful, and blue-collar jobs could confortably pay a mortgage.

    In that environment, you can imagine how a young man could dedicate two or three years to desigingin something while taking insignificant personal financial risk.

    Just another reason why we CAN'T have another "silicon valley" here - living expenses prohibit one from starting a full-time garage business.

    I could share a funny personal story about threatening investors to leave the valley so that I could get a cheap house and work from my garage, rather than having to take their money so I could draw a salary. I've thought about this one a bit. :)
  • Washington DC, (Score:2, Interesting)

    by BlueQuark (104215) on Thursday May 25, 2006 @11:57PM (#15407384)
    In a recent visit to the DC area, I would think that Silicon Valley would be easy to reproduce there.

    From Dulles via the 267 Toll road in Virginia there are alot of technology companies, though they seem more gov'ment contracters and military industrial companies.

    A friend of mine who was raised in MD just north of DC said that the 270 in Maryland has alot of tech and IT related companies. It has a few good universities (Georgetown/Geo. Washington/Virginia Tech/UofMD), alot of nice museums (Free) a fair amount of diversity, not quite like LA or the Bay Area.

    Plus housing is not quite out of reach for experienced tech workers who make decent wages, which is impossible for someone who makes even 100k a year!
    Public schools are awesome for those with families and want to raise nerdlets.

    Public schools in California are downright dismal compared to the midwest and the east coast (I'm from Wisconsin and had a great public education in a working class industrial neighborhood)

    But Silicon Valley was founded also by alot of government spending and a military base. Didn't Stanford and Berkley receive alot of government money for research in the 50s and 60s? Which spawned off alot of the early tech companies.(Fairchild, HP, etc) Someone corrent me if I'm wrong.

  • by i am kman (972584) on Friday May 26, 2006 @12:06AM (#15407421)
    I lived in Silicon Valley and the DC region and worked with VCs in both areas. There's a tremendous difference in culture between the two regions. West coast startups are all about innovation and foster new ideas. East coast companies are all about services and contract execution. That's why you have SUN and Apple in California and AOL and Verizon on the east.

    California focuses on brilliance and creativity. East coast focuses on formality and contract execution. I was think that was government-related, but it's also true within NYC with financial services and more old-school business.

    So, Silicon Valley CULTURE is very unique and it's far more important than $$ and nerds.
  • by anjrober (150253) on Friday May 26, 2006 @12:13AM (#15407455)
    This is where boston steps in. The colleges are clearly available (MIT/harvard/tufts/bu/bc/etc), the tech companies, and the culture....
  • Critical Mass (Score:4, Interesting)

    by georgewilliamherbert (211790) on Friday May 26, 2006 @12:24AM (#15407507)
    What started Silicon Valley was that it had critical mass, of everything that modern tech companies needed to grow out of.

    The article lists a lot of that, but misses some other things. Pre-existing tech and engineering companies... before it was Silicon Valley, HP and Varian already started here, IBM was a major major force in the area (one of IBM's bigger research centers), GE was here in force. Lockheed is here, doing unmentionable space stuff, and Space Systems Loral's predecessors.

    These were all more traditional tech companies, but the untraditional tech companies were in a sense a spinoff from the density of skills and suppliers and environment that the larger tech companies had been growing in for decades previously.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 26, 2006 @12:58AM (#15407606)
    "I wonder if WA state has a similar law."

    CA also has a law that invalidates non-compete clauses. By contrast, WA has the most restrictive non-compete clauses in the US (it's not an accident that Microsoft, Real, Amazon, etc. are there).

    WA is more on the employer's side than the employee's. CA is more like Europe, with a more restrictive list of what's allowed in employment contracts. I do not know but would suspect that this applies to idea ownership as well.
  • by heroine (1220) on Friday May 26, 2006 @12:58AM (#15407608) Homepage
    The author left out the biggest point: immigration. Silicon Valley has always been the first and last destination for most Asian immigrants. Silicon Valley is the cheapest flight from Asia.

    Most of the workers in Silicon Valley were educated in China and India, not Stanford. Their background is engineering all the way because they're not burdened with stupid black studies classes, history of homosexuality, and all the garbage Americans are forced to study. Asians have loads of money to fund businesses because their currency is priceless.

  • Stanford Endowment (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Cocoshimmy (933014) on Friday May 26, 2006 @01:02AM (#15407621)
    One major factor as to why Silicon Valley is so successful is due to the fact that when the area was first being developed, land was CHEAP. I know that this is no longer the case, but it was at the beginning. Leland Stanford, who donated large amounts of land to Stanford university, put in a condition that his land could not be sold. So instead, when the university ran into troubles in the early 50's, it signed 99 year leases with major companies such as Kodak, GE, HP, etc. The smart move on the part of the university is that it limited the leases to High Tech companies which, as someone mentioned earlier, helped both the university and the companies (of course this benefited institutions such as Berkeley University as well).

    However, many of those companies probably wouldn't have settled there if the university didn't lease the land at such low prices. Of course, today Silicon Valley is one of the most expensive places to live in California.

    Having the high tech companies present attracted more companies and thus a cycle was formed which keeps companies there to this day.

    Universities are still doing this today abeit on a much smaller scale and with mixed results. Time will only tell if any of these initiatives prove to be as successful.

    Source for some of this information: http://www.netvalley.com/svhistory.html [netvalley.com]
  • Re:Silicon Hills? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by sauge (930823) on Friday May 26, 2006 @01:16AM (#15407671)

    After being in Texas, the people are just different out here. It's more laid back (except Houston), and there's a lot more of a get-it-done-when-it-gets-done feeling. I think that's what contributes to Austin's silicon hill not being as recognized. Silicon hill may erupt, but I think that the extra-curricular activities and different attitude keep it from being larger than Silicon Valley.

    I have found that the people in Texas are a bit more like California than the people in California. I think Austin has a good run on the hippie to yuppie ratio as Santa Cruz.

    When I moved to California from Philadelphia I thought the place would be "like mellow and thoughtful, man." It wasn't quite that way - I hate to say it - but surprise! I found it a little bit shallow.

    When I moved to Austin I found myself thinking "Dang, this place is more California like than California is!" Heck, we even got our own movie stars here.

    I should stop bragging about the place or someone might wanna move out here!

    I do think Austin is getting it's second wind when it comes to technology though. It's a little breeze, but lets hope I can do my part to make it a tornado.

  • Silicon Fen (Score:4, Interesting)

    by DataCannibal (181369) on Friday May 26, 2006 @06:40AM (#15408432) Journal
    They tried to reproduce Silicon Valley near Cambridge in the UK. As far as I've heard it's not been the rip-roaring success that the people who thought of the idea imagined. The impression I get from a friend who works there is that there are a lot of start-ups which quickly turn into tits-ups. He's having more success with his home business making and selling infra-red controllers http://www.redrat.co.uk/ [redrat.co.uk].

    There's a number of pulled-out-of-my-arse random reasons why it hasn't taken off like Silicon Valley:

    1. It was pushed by National and Local Government. This never works, otherwise the North East of England would be like Silicon Valley after the amount of money that has been plowed into the region through Government and through the regional development agencies.

    2. The Weather: as another post mentioned the weather in Silicon Valley is brilliant. In Cambridge it is the opposite. Nine months of the year an east wind blows out of the Russian steppes, across the North Sea and blasts across the flat fens of Norfolk towards Cambridge. It gets a bit warmer for a month or two in the Summer but if you try something like punting in the Cam and fall in, you could still die of hypothermia in August.

    3. Marketing: No-one outside of the flat and soggy corner of England that is East Anglia knows what the fuck a "Fen" is. Anyone readin the name "Silicon Fen" will know straight away that it will be a cheap knock-off of Silicon Valley. Doh! The people who built Silicon Valley didn't call it that, it was called that by people who saw what he entrepeneurs and risk takers were doing.

    4. Food: The UK is well known for having the worst food in Europe. I know there are more Michelin starred restaurants in London that ever before but 99.9% of the food in the UK does not come from Micehelin starred restaurants and who want to come and live here in you can live in California, France etc. This ties i with point 2 as well.

    5. Risk Aversion: most brits don't like taking risks. They are terrified of risks, even more so then the Germans. One kid cuts their knee on a school trip and all school trips are banned because they are too dangerous. One person gets stabbed with a knife and know they are talking of banning all carrying of knives in public places. No more camping knofe fro me then when I head off into the mountains. Is it any wonder that people living and growing up in such an atmosphere aren't willing to take business risks. We will never see the likes of Alan Sugar, Richard Branson and Anita Roddick again.

    I'm sure there quite a few more.
  • by Sqreater (895148) on Friday May 26, 2006 @07:14AM (#15408496)
    How about the national personality of Americans? We are a nation of risk-takers. All immigrant. Uprooters. Destroyers and builders on the ruins. You can't replicate that in Europe. Change your laws. Throw money around. But that is one of, no doubt, the many x factors involved. Greece during the rise of Athens. Italy during the Renaissance. Books are written on why and how they arose. None satisfy entirely. Paradigm shifts occur. Never can they be replicated deliberately. Success in other parts of the world? No. Where are their shifts?
  • by beaverfever (584714) on Friday May 26, 2006 @08:53AM (#15408914) Homepage
    When I read the opening blurb the first things I thought of were the weather and the geography. I have lived in the Bay Area, and quite simply it is a beautiful place to be, and the weather is as close to perfect as can be found. Not a day went by that I didn't appreciate how nice a place it was to be, even in my first apartment in San Francisco, in the super-crappy category.

    This being Slashdot, I suppose I wasn't too surprised that the opening blurb said "While the people are an important part to the Silicon Valley experience, they are only part of the requirement. What local characteristics must also be present, even if Silicon Valley is to be duplicated on a smaller scale?" and almost every post moderated up discussed the people (after the predictable DRM comments, of course).

    It wasn't until almost right at the bottom that I saw a comment moderated up which mentioned weather (and restaurants). People want to be somewhere nice. Until San Antonio and Ottawa and Cambridge and Vancouver and Seattle and wherever else these other tech areas are start up their weather machines and bulldozers and make some changes, companies trhere are going to have a harder time drawing the employees they want than those in California.

    Don't forget: a huge proportion of people in California aren't from California. These employees are drawn from outside, and it takes more than money to pull people in (usually). Perhaps the people writing the comments and moderating them for this thread either haven't been to California and so can't appreciate its physical qualities, or they are nerds who, even if they are in California, keep the blinds drawn and don't go out in the sunlight.
  • Re:Silicon Fen (Score:4, Interesting)

    by DataCannibal (181369) on Friday May 26, 2006 @09:55AM (#15409332) Journal
    I don't normally reply to anonymous cowards but in your case I;ll make and exception:


    1) As someone who started his own company using government agencies for support I can tell you it's none other than great advice. And I received a grant from 3 sources no less.

    Of course there's no problem getting the money and advice from the government agencies, but if throwing money at things was the answer why isn't the North East of England the hot-bed of entepreneurship that it could be.


    2) The wind rarely blows from Russia, we have a well known gulf stream.

    Apart from the difference between the wind and an ocean current they get a fucking cold wind in Cambridge and I say that as a Geordie.


    3) A fen is just a name, I think you'll find people arn't stupid and can work out it's meaning. (We have places called "Cul-de-sac's" aswell - wonder what those are?)

    If they have to work out it's meaning it's not a very good marketing name, is it.


    4) Food, again what are you talking about? ... We have a very diverse population, food is not a problem. You've just heard a comment some french president said and repeated it like a parrot.
    No I have eaten food the length and breadth of Britain. THe food the you get from most restaurants (including indian, chinese, thai italian the lot), all motorway service areas, works canteans, on airlines, at corner shops, at chippies is all crap. It's not just the preparation and cooking that is bad, no-one if France, for example, would consider serving you an hot toasted sandwich in a plastic bag, so that the bag is full if condensation and your sandwich soggy within seconds. No one in France would think it is a good idea to pack freshly cut cheese in antimicrobial cling film, no German chef would serve the same mixture of boiled or steamed vegetables with every single meal they serve in their restaurant with no sauce or seasoning. You can shut your eyes and shout about the arsehole Chirac as much as you want but British food is crap


    5) 2 Million people are Sole-Traders, many more self-employed in other areas, with over 19,000 business were started last year.


    2 million window cleaners, mini-cab drivers and "Earn £35 per hour in your spare time" types does not mean that we have a thriving entrepreurial economy
  • by mrraven (129238) on Friday May 26, 2006 @10:59AM (#15409786)
    Talk about not getting the point. The point is, is that overly landscaped mirror glass office park complexes that are under constant security monitoring are very dehumanizing in a Blade Runner future sort of way, it doesn't matter if the company involved is making hard drives or coding the Solaris kernel or whatever, the point is, is that the physical and social environment is degrading to our psyche, or soul if you want to be more poetic. My question was whether this is intrinsic to the process of making information technology or an artifact of American disposable culture. My guess and hope is it's the latter.

    And no I'm not from S.V. so I don't know the whole area but I did live in San Francisco 15 years ago and I used to drive by San Jose on the freeway and even then the description in the article I quoted seemed pretty accurate.
  • Silicon Valley (Score:3, Interesting)

    by crucini (98210) on Friday May 26, 2006 @12:29PM (#15410437)
    I live in the Valley. It does not have a fruitcake culture. It has little in common with San Francisco. What the Valley does have:
    1. High respect for engineers.
    2. Bias towards creating, rather than consuming technology.
    3. Management with a clue.

    All of which makes it a pleasant place to be.

    And all the Valley startups I've seen since the crash have been pretty sensible. Maybe you only hear about the silly ones.

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