Six years ago, I wrote a book about the origins of Silicon Valley. Ever since, international investors, foreign officials, and urban planners from multiple continents have been asking me for advice on how to re-create the magic at home. I've met with officials from Bangalore, Barcelona, Chennai, Dublin, Fukuoka, Helsinki, Shenzhen, Stockholm, and many American cities as well. They all want to know the same thing: How did the Valley do it? And how can we duplicate its success?
Unfortunately, there are a lot of wrong ways to go about building the next Silicon Valley. High-profile visitors like Russian President Dmitry Medvedev frequently make the rounds of the glass-clad, high-tech headquarters of Google, Apple, and others in suburban Santa Clara Valley, the region south of San Francisco that put the "Valley" in Silicon Valley. They take in the sprawling Northern California aesthetic, exclusive subdivisions, and well-manicured lawns; talk to young engineers working in research parks; and convene earnest round tables with the big brains at Stanford University. They examine the latest iPhones and open Twitter accounts, to great public fanfare. They announce, "OK, we're going to go back and make one of those." If only it were that easy.
Since the 1960s, world leaders have made similar pilgrimages -- with similarly unremarkable results. In 1960, French President Charles de Gaulle toured the research parks emerging amid the farms and orchards south of San Francisco. Within a decade, the French government had established its own would-be high-tech city, Sophia Antipolis, along the Côte d'Azur. Multinationals set up branches there and Paris poured in francs, but the experiment was for years micromanaged from the top; innovation wasn't allowed to bubble from within. It is today a prosperous international business center, but hardly a global capital of innovation. Other delegations came to tour the Valley in the 1970s and 1980s, among them representatives from Japan, South Korea, and Scotland (which envisioned a high-tech hub outside Glasgow). Yet the original Silicon Valley remains secure in its place atop the high-tech food chain.
Not long ago, I toured University Town, a graduate campus that opened in 2003 on the outskirts of the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. Local leaders there are pinning their hopes on the new offshoot of the prestigious Tsinghua and Peking universities -- the campus draws top-tier engineering graduate students to the area -- to transform the regional economy and drive high-tech entrepreneurship in a part of China best known as a low-cost manufacturing hub.
The campus is monumental, with lots of open space (faculty and students drive to class, rather than ride bikes), an extraordinary library, and plenty of new, high-tech research labs. Only a decade ago, the place was exurban rice paddies and lychee orchards. Today it still has a middle-of-nowhere feel. The engineers there are China's best and brightest, and they work incredibly hard. But when I asked whether they had any intention of sticking around after graduation to build companies and lives, they told me: No way!
It turns out that sparkling facilities alone aren't enough to create a high-tech ecosystem. The essential error is in thinking that Silicon Valley can be packaged into "innovation in a box" that you can simply build overnight, unconnected to its surroundings, to the culture, to a moment in history. Too often, aspiring governments overlook the perfect storm of forces that gave rise to Silicon Valley and continue to drive its economy. Here, then, are some words of advice for the next set of global urban planners who come calling:
1. Give a lot of money to brilliant people -- and stay out of their way.
In the United States, the government funded innovative activity. Then, by and large, it stepped aside. Silicon Valley is the product of more than 60 years of massive investment of public and private capital. The U.S. government was the Valley's first venture capitalist, seeding innovation through research grants and defense contracts during the first two decades of the Cold War. After the 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite fueled panic in Washington about Soviet scientific prowess, government investment kicked into even higher gear. Much of this money flowed to research universities, and Northern California was home to two of the best in the nation -- Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. "With all their irritating faults," President Dwight Eisenhower's science advisors wrote resignedly in their 1960 annual report, "universities are essential agencies of our national hopes, and they must be treated accordingly."