How can you make your city or region a major innovation center, and in particular, a major center for technology-based innovation? This is a question that cities and regions around the world have been asking themselves for the past few decades, ever since Silicon Valley emerged as the premier center for technology-based innovation sometime in the 1970s, a position it has continued to hold ever since.
A number of places have embraced Silicon in their name - Silicon Alley and Silicon Glen for example. Others have used the words as their nickname in their respective countries, e.g., Campinas as the Brazilian Silicon Valley and Bangalore as the Silicon Valley of India. What they all hope, with very mixed results, is that somehow the innovation pixie dust will follow their use of the term.
One of the things that impressed me about the Design-London initiative when I first learned about it last summer, is that even though its goals are very much to make London a global center for creativity and technology-based innovation, it did not feel the need to copy the Silicon Valley model and name.
Design-London is a joint effort of the engineering and business schools at Imperial College and the Royal College of Art to bring together the disciplines of design, engineering, technology and business to address jointly the challenges of innovation in an increasingly global, competitive economy.
Rather than attempting to fashion the initiative after Silicon Valley, Design-London is taking the seemingly radical step of building on the strengths of London - its history, culture, tradition, infrastructure, diversity and talent base - and come up with its own model. They emphasize creativity and design, in addition to innovation, because of their belief that these are qualities at which London has particularly excelled through the ages.
Ever since, I have been pondering how different innovation models might apply in different geographical and cultural areas. What is the essence of the incredibly successful Silicon Valley model, and can Design-London pursue a different model and be equally successful in its own way?
As I was researching this question, I came across a very interesting article, “How to be Silicon Valley” by Paul Graham who calls himself an essayist, programmer and programming language designer. Paul's thesis is that it takes the right people – nothing more. "If you could get the right ten thousand people to move from Silicon Valley to Buffalo," he says, "Buffalo would become Silicon Valley." In a footnote he adds that perhaps the number of people you need could be as low as 500 or so.
The key, of course, is to get the right people. "I think you only need two kinds of people to create a technology hub: rich people and nerds." The Bay area and Boston have both kinds, built up over the years around their great engineering universities - Stanford and Berkeley, and MIT respectively. To a lesser extent so do Seattle, with the University of Washington, and Austin, with the University of Texas. Pittsburgh and Ithaca have very smart, nerdy people at CMU and Cornell respectively, but few rich ones to fund their ideas. New York, Los Angeles and Miami have lots of rich people - but not enough nerds to get a critical mass of technology-based innovation startups.
Let's examine a little closer these two types of indispensable Silicon Valley people. Rich people is easier. First of all, they have money to invest. But, adds Paul, "Startup investors are a distinct type of rich people. They tend to have a lot of experience themselves in the technology business. This (a) helps them pick the right startups, and (b) means they can supply advice and connections as well as money. And the fact that they have a personal stake in the outcome makes them really pay attention."
Then there are the nerds. Here is Wikipedia's definition: "Nerd, as a stereotypical, archetypal and frequently derogatory designation, refers to a person who passionately pursues intellectual or esoteric knowledge or pastimes rather than engaging in social life, such as participating in organized sports or other mainstream social activities." A typical dictionary definition of nerd is an "unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person: especially: one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits."
This explains why New York, in spite of its fabulous wealth and ability to attract lots of creative people, has few nerds. New York, says Paul, is all about glamour, style and fame. These are the qualities that will attract prospective artists, writers, dancers and actors, but not nerds, who care little about glamour and are therefore not willing to pay a fortune for a small, dark, noisy apartment to be around really cool and attractive people. Paul adds: "Nerds will pay a premium to live in a town where the smart people are really smart, but you don't have to pay as much for that. It's supply and demand: glamour is popular, so you have to pay a lot for it. Most nerds like quieter pleasures. They like cafes instead of clubs; used bookshops instead of fashionable clothing shops; hiking instead of dancing; sunlight instead of tall buildings. A nerd's idea of paradise is Berkeley or Boulder."
This is really intriguing. And it begs the question - what about Design-London? London is clearly much more like New York than Berkeley or Boulder. Like the innovation hubs Paul Graham talks about, New York and London are full of young people willing to work really hard to make it - just not by building a technology-based startup in the Silicon Valley and Boston style. In New York and London, many are aiming at success in the creative arts, while many others are trying to make it big in media, communications, healthcare, finance and business in general.
For the last thirty five years or so, Silicon Valley has been the class act in a certain style of innovation – involving startups, rich VCs and nerds. No other region comes close to them when playing their game. But, perhaps, there are other styles of innovation out there, and cities and regions need to be innovative in their very approach to innovation in other to succeed. They need to define their own game in a way that fits them best.
I think the time is ripe for the emergence of new styles of innovation. Heretofore, there has been a split between hard or technology-based innovation, and non-technology-based innovation, such as in the arts, media and business, which are generally based on soft qualities like creativity. No longer. In an economy increasingly characterized by information and knowledge, as well as by incredible advances in digital technologies and communications, all innovation - all - has to include technology and creativity; hard capabilities based on science and engineering, as well as so-called soft capabilities based on design and insight.
The classic startup areas - in Silicon Valley, Boston and elsewhere – are changing by going up the technology stack, starting new businesses in new areas like energy, healthcare and other major industries. But perhaps the biggest opportunity for innovation in the knowledge economy will come from infusing design, insight, business and organizations in general with increasing amounts of technology, science, engineering - and creativity. That really feels like a new, radical approach to innovation, and the space that Design London is aiming to define and lead. I sure hope that they succeed, and that in the not too distant future, we will see the emergence of Design-New York, Design- Shanghai and others around the world.