How can Europe find its own vision of the future?

Last weekend I made a brief visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland. Most cities are scarred and shaped by their history, but it’s true of Belfast more than most. Wherever you went, shadows of the past were visible.

The docks, once crawling with shipbuilders constructing huge constructing vessels like The Titanic, are now an empty sprawl of wasteland dotted with lonely office buildings. And for anyone who remembers the Troubles, an activity as simple as crossing the road or staying at a hotel can carry chilling reminder of brutality that is not easily forgotten.

It’s no surprise that these difficulties have had an impact on the local startup scene too.

From what I heard, the attempt to build a new entrepreneurial culture is there, but it’s slow going. Northern Ireland’s turbulent existence means that the economy remains massively reliant on the British government (around a third of the population work for the public sector) and it is still working hard to attract investment from outside. Meanwhile, locals are still looking for a real champion, a real victory, beyond bluster and good ole boy networks.

Belfast’s problem is that things don’t get consigned to history: in fact, history stubbornly raises its head at every opportunity, bleeding mercilessly into the present and the future. Northern Ireland’s ambitions are too often scuttled like The Titanic, crushed by the pressure of the past.

But the truth is, Belfast is not alone in this. It may feel like an extreme example, but the whole of Europe suffers the same malaise in some shape or form.

Belfast mural used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Infomatique

Weighed down by the past

From Finland to Faliraki, from Portugal to St Petersburg, Europe is sitting on a vast and varied history that it struggles to move beyond. We’re stuck like flies in amber, our ideas freeze-framed at the moment our societies were at their most successful or most extreme. Britain can’t shake off the arrogance of empire, France clings to its l’exception culturelle,

In a way, this is especially resonant in technology companies — because, after all, they the ones meant to be inventing the future. And because our societies are failing to shake off the worst parts of their legacy and craft a successful vision of where we’re going, we are all left copying Silicon Valley’s idea of what tomorrow will look like.

Look at Nokia (s NOK) — not long ago the world’s biggest force in the world’s fastest growing technology industry, now apparently an also-ran. Although some of its leaders have a bright vision, too many insiders stubbornly cling to a history of greatness that no longer chimes with the rest of us.

Or look at Germany’s attempts to enforce rigid and steadfast privacy rules. These ideas have a totally understandable historical context, but outside of that unique bubble, it would be polite to call them overzealous. Clinging to that history has left German web companies hamstrung while the buccaneering robber barons of the Wild West clean up everywhere else.

The result is that the conversation about our future has become a one-sided dictation from a group of companies who essentially grew out of the same Valley culture. Our tomorrow is their tomorrow.

I was reminded of this failed future when London’s Tech City announced that it had poached top Facebook (s FB) executive Joanna Shields to run the organization.

Joanna ShieldsBringing in Shields, an American, is definitely a win for the group paid to cheer on London as a startup and technology capital: she’s got more experience at the top of 21st century web companies than almost anyone else, which gives her a stratospheric level of credibility with the investors that Tech City is desperate to court. She’s smart, savvy and sharp: a great hire.

Shields’ record is not as spotless as Downing Street would have everyone believe — for example, masterminding the $650 million sale of Bebo to AOL (s AOL) was a genius move for company insiders but disastrous for everyone else. And then there’s the little fact that she has presided over companies that avoid millions of pounds of taxes from the country she now represents. But there is a rightful sense of pride at being able to prize somebody away from Mark Zuckerberg’s clutches.

However, bringing her in is also an admission that Britain — and Europe — has no other visions of the future to offer. It’s a tacit acceptance that technology, that innovation, can only be built the way they see it in Palo Alto.

Follow your own path

Perhaps you don’t mind. That’s fine. But I think if we want to find some alternatives — or at least explore them — we need to move on from our history, and our obsession with creating “the next Silicon Valley”.

Earlier this year I gave a talk in Portugal aimed at helping people there understand that they cannot win by chasing the Bay Area’s dreams. Every startup hub across the continent talks endlessly about being “the new Silicon Valley”, every PR flack has pitched the and every journalist (including me) has worked on those stories. But that’s just playing somebody else’s game. You can’t be the next Silicon Valley by doing what Silicon Valley does. It will win every time, because the game is stacked in its favor.

The same thing happens elsewhere. I talked about the reporting I did a couple of years ago from Shenzhen, China, where most of the world’s electronics are now built. Those skills, that expertise, are all in one place — and in just 30 years. Now their advantage is so huge, why would you try to beat them?

The problem with “the next Silicon Valley”, I argued, 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? What will change the world? Find that, get there early, build now around a vision of the future that you really believe in, and reinvention could work. Use the strengths you have locally — things like engineering talent, design culture, customer service, research expertise — but don’t let them dominate you. Don’t let history weigh you down.

Now, I don’t know what that thing is — biotech, next generation manufacturing and data are all contenders that Europe could focus on. But whatever “the next” ends up being, every entrepreneur across the continent, whether they’re in Belfast or Berlin — must stop looking over their shoulder, shrug off the past and stop buying into somebody else’s dream of tomorrow.

Photograph of Bobbie Johnson and Belfast mural used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr users Luca Sartoni and Infomatique respectively.