Blog Post

In Innovation, location is something

The New York Times’ article, When it comes to innovation, geography is destiny, Greg Zachary, a former colleague writes that “where you live often trumps who you are.”

While I was hoping to read a piece about how your geography can define your innovation and technology. Instead it turned into a piece that took an all familiar route: Silicon Valley is destiny manifest, since it attracts the best ideas and there are venture capitalists who are ready to fund them. Sure, Silicon Valley’s advantages cannot be underscored, but everything isn’t as black and white.

To argue that India and China will replace SV as the center of tech universe is just a futile exercise. And to argue that innovations happen more in SV is also not quite on the mark either. Lets use Zachary’s own examples.

I visited the thriving code-writing communities in Tallinn, Estonia; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Helsinki, Finland, three Nordic cities that were being transformed by advances in cellphones, mobile computing and the Internet. Their tight-knit network of engineers seemed poised to create the tools required to make good on a much-hyped prediction: the death of distance….. Yet these Nordic innovators were blindsided by two Silicon Valley engineers whose tools we experience whenever we “Google” the Web.

Is that really so?

Everytime my Nokia phone rings in New Delhi, though someone called me on my New York number trying to reach me in my San Francisco office, it proves that the distance is dead. And remember Skype! It was a nordic creation that killed the distance, and for a few million, made voice calls free.

As Vinnie reminds us, an ecosystem is not just the innovators, but the actual end users, who have a very active role to play in defining what innovations succeed.

For a while the technology was easily available to those of us in the West, especially in the US. Naturally, Silicon Valley, became the super hub. Now Asians and Europeans are adopting faster broadband and mobile technologies, and it is natural to see innovations come from these locales.

No wonder I am in 100% agreement with the title of Zachary’s piece: When it comes to innovation, geography is destiny!

14 Responses to “In Innovation, location is something”

  1. Kelly Chase

    I came across this blog for I’m In (, a Boston based consumer travel company. I was amazed at the consensus across-the-board that there is a lack of investment made in consumer companies outside Silicon Valley. Check it out; their ideas for raising funds are pretty funny.

  2. Jesse Kopelman

    Ricardo is right on with his point about culture that many others have missed. Keep in mind that culture includes things like regulation and corruption as well as attitudes about risk taking and innovation. Also, some people miss the point that this is a generality. It is not so much about whether it applies to you in particular as whether it applies in general. I think the evidence is heavily on the side that in general location is key in getting innovation out into broader society.

  3. “Sorry for the rant. Any thoughts? Should a person with a great product relocate to a place more likely to advance a winning public image?”

    Daniel raises an interesting point…another key attraction of places like Silicon Valley is the ability to connect to people that might be influencers (face-to-face networking).

    Note: I don’t think that the SV is the only place that innovation is taking place. I am always amazed at the stuff being put out by Japanese and Korean companies.

  4. Sandeep Sahai

    I kind of have a different view, I guess Innovation is more important then Location.
    All great invention doesn’t neccassarily come from people in great location. I fee

    Innovation + Location = great Package
    Location alone = nothing and
    Innovation alone = something.

  5. As a geographer and now doing a Masters on Science, Technology and Innovation, this topic of “When it comes to innovation, geography is destiny!” resonates in me every time.

    The fact is that we need to see this in the long term perspective. In this sense, the economic preeminence of a certain location (city, region or country) is clearly shrinking in terms of time.

    Sure Silicon Valley (SV) has a distinctive advantage, but that advantage is not technological as some people might argue, it is mostly cultural – i.e. the culture of risk and the venture capital industry, which dynamically reinforce each other. That translates into something Om pointed in relation to what Vinnie Mirchandani said “commercializing innovations is where the big pay back is”.

    And even this distinctive advantage is being emulated by other places, and Om you hit the spot when you highlighted the case of Nokia.
    No one thought that a country with no record on scoring innovations would become the birthplace of the companies that massified cellphones or VOIP.

    One of the best books that describe this new paradigm shift is “From Global to Metanational: How Companies Win in the Knowledge Economy” from a trio of INSEAD professors

    What we can draw from the book is that the economy is now both global and knowledge-based, and that the knowledge needed for a company to suceed is not anymore seeded in one place, but it is scattered through the world.
    Albeit you can say that with ICT you or your company don’t need to migrate your operations to these locations, think again because the most valuable knowledge are sofisticated, hard to learn and hard to move – what you need is co-location.

    Forget all that fanfare about “The World is Flat” and all that fuss about the death of geography. Understand this: geography is not distance!

    One of the most important “bricks” of the this global knowledge-based economy are the
    highly skilled professionals that travel around SV and the other innovation hubs around the world.

    The first person to saw the importance of this people was Annalee Saxenian (professor at Berkeley), especially in the form of immigrant entrepeneurs that helped forge some hubs like Bangalore (India) or Hsinchu (Taiwan)

    Their role on accelerating development of countries, regions and cities is so evident that even the World Bank created a initiative called “Diasporas of Highly Skilled and Migration of Talent”.

    More than a brain drain movement towards SV or its demise because of entrepeneurs’ return of to their home countries, the overall trend is what is called brain circulation – moving between hubs in face of opportunities in a daily, monthly and annualy basis.

    To sum, there will be a broadening of the innovation hubs, since the solutions marketed my companies will be made by knowledge produced in a growing number of different locations, transfering the economic preeminence of one location to a network of several locations.

    P.S. Om, you and all the other writers are doing a great job! Keep up the good work! Cheers from Portugal!

  6. Re – All said and done — There are still other factors such as family and culture which define where you live. For example Indians returning from education in the states to India for cultural & family reasons are a major factor in the business development there!

  7. AllSaidAndDone

    Well all said and done if distance vanishes and it is all a big Global Village then which part of the village would you rather live? Unless you have some super bonding to one place I guess you will tend to migrate to where the “grass is greener and the life is better”. Where would you rather live then in this Global Village (Assuming that you are anyway not able to stay in your hometown – where you were raised,where your parents are)- Bangalore or Cupertino? I guess the best will always try to migrate to the better of the two places and from experiencing the infrastructure and the quality of life in both places first hand I can bet quite surely that for most people the destination will be Cupertino. That is until the roads and the cops in Bangalore become just like those in Cupertino.

  8. I came across this blog and read it because the title reminded me of a global bias I am still trying to prove or disprove. As a writer, I pay special attention to novelists and occasionally look at their backgrounds for insight into the nature of their successes. Based on my findings, I wonder if some very innovative and creative writers haven’t missed out on the recognition due their skills because of their geographical location.

    Think about it… are you more likely to read the new novel of a guy from the Fort Worth suburbs or from San Francisco? Some geographical areas seem to detract from the image of a budding artist, inventor, or developer.

    Sorry for the rant. Any thoughts? Should a person with a great product relocate to a place more likely to advance a winning public image?

  9. I completely agree. It’s the innovations that have brought us closer together. And maybe that on a more personal level, the term “End-User” in this information age should change to Neighbor.

    The question is, can we get the easily available technology into the lives & hands of people who either aren’t able to use it or have the chance to use it. Will we be closer as people?

    Blogging is a lifestyle.