Last week on GigaOM, the always thought-provoking Bobbie Johnson challenged Europe’s entrepreneurs to “shake off the past and stop playing a game that’s stacked against them”. He says we should stop trying to be the next Silicon Valley and instead focus on the next big thing in technology, whatever that turns out to be.
I agree with much of what Johnson says. He’s exactly right that Europe suffers from the weight of it’s own history; our inability to free ourselves from our history so often holds us back. I left the UK for California in 1996 because I felt the weight of this – real and perceived historical precedents were always being cited for why a good idea was “too hard” or simply “not what we did here”.
A common criticism you hear of America is that it has no history. This profoundly misunderstands one of America’s great strengths – it is a place where people escape from history and are free to re-invent themselves and thus invent the future. The future is a better place to be than the poorly recalled past.
I’m not so convinced by the argument that the tech industry should not look to Silicon Valley as its inspiration. Johnson writes:
The problem with ‘the next Silicon Valley’ was that we took it too literally. Focus on ‘the next’: What will the next huge technology-led industry be? What will the next center of innovation that touches everyone be?”
Silicon Valley has been the global epicenter of innovation and wealth generation for more than 50 years now. The reason it continues to be the home of so many great tech companies decade after decade is because it continually reinvents itself.
Johnson notes how Shenzhen in China has become the region where most of the world’s electronics are built. It took over from Silicon Valley, which as its name suggests, was originally all about building electronics – with companies like Fairchild, Intel, HP and Cisco. That dominance was overtaken by the microcomputer industry which became Silicon Valley’s major driver of innovation in the late 70s and early 80s with companies like Atari, Apple and Seagate.
In the ’90s the web industry — with all due respect to Tim Berners-Lee — was established in California through Netscape and the first generation of dotcoms.
In the 2000s web search and social innovation on the West Coast led to Google, Facebook, Twitter and many others.
Every decade or so, Silicon Valley profoundly reinvents itself. It has repeatedly created the next huge technology-led industry. What drives this? Is there something magical in the water? No. Silicon Valley is not a specific set of companies or industries. Silicon Valley is a way of thinking about the future and creating companies around those ideas. It is an experimental approach that allows people to solve real problems by listening to users when possible and leading them when required.
It is a set of support structures — such as a critical mass of smart entrepreneurs, great technical universities, adventurous venture capitalists, innovative tech incubators — that allow that thinking and experimenting to be quickly embodied into the next great company.
When tech entrepreneurs in Europe talk about creating the “next Silicon Valley” — whether it’s in London, Berlin or Dublin — we mean importing this way of thinking and reproducing these support structures to allow us to figure out and create the next huge tech industry. The Silicon Valley approach is exactly about freeing yourself from the constraints of the past and allowing the experimentation that generates ideas that can change the world.
So, I’m not afraid to say that in London we’re trying to create a new Silicon Valley.
The explosive growth of innovative tech companies here is proof that it’s working. There are companies exploring how to reshape finance, building the new world of personal manufacturing, processing vast amounts of data to make the world work better and even (for my part) trying to make live music work better.
There are hundreds of companies trying to invent the future. Some of them will succeed, thanks to our ambition and using the techniques that work so well in Silicon Valley.