Shaping Silicon Valley

Roosevelt Island Tram - CC image from The Eyes of New York

A couple of items that came across the internet about technology, innovation, the economy, and urban form:

Tech & the City

Nancy Scola pens a long piece in Next American City about the future of the technology industry in the city.  The piece looks at how policy can shape an industry cluster – or not.  New York’s tech university on Roosevelt Island is a key piece of the puzzle in helping shape an industry within a city:

Fortunately, by the late 2000s, the tech sector was on an upswing. Venture capitalists were nosing around the city. Talk of a “Silicon Alley 2.0” was in the air. Start-ups were starting up in DUMBO. But, says Pinsky, when the city held hundreds of conversations on economic development with everyone from academics to business leaders to community groups, they came to the realization that while there was, in raw terms, a good amount of applied science activity afoot, New York City’s economy is a huge one. There simply wasn’t the critical mass needed to create the sort of idea sharing and hopping from company to company that helped spread innovation in Silicon Valley. They concluded that there was a dearth of trained technologists able to do the heavy lifting.

Now, far be it from me to dissuade an investment in education – but there’s a concern about focusing too closely on chasing a specific sector rather than setting the rules and conditions to be ripe for innovation:

So what worries her? It’s the way government is getting involved. Along with Stanford, Silicon Valley had a mess of government contracts in the 1950s, particularly in the fields of naval research and aerospace. “Silicon Valley was never a purpose-built science city,” says O’Mara. “Dwight Eisenhower didn’t say ‘We’re going to build a tech capital on the west coast.’” Sure, there was a ton of money injected into the region. But there were few strings attached. It was pure profit that went to building out iconic tech companies like Hewlett-Packard and Xerox PARC. “In a way, it was a happy accident,” says O’Mara. “Part of my skepticism about this whole enterprise is a belief that government can have this great market impact. In the case of technology, it’s just a little more slippery and unpredictable.”

One common theme is the rejection of the idea that the strip-mall office park of Silicon Valley is critical to the kind of technological innovation seen there – that linkage of form and innovation is spurious:

Cities have, of course, made a comeback in recent decades, and much modern thinking — O’Mara points to Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From — “really emphasizes the urbanity of innovation,” with the accidental encounters and collision of ideas that are the product of density seen as creative fodder.

The Boston area’s high-tech corridor that grew along Route 128 pioneered what became known as the East Coast model: Giant firms that did everything in-house. But in New York, real estate costs alone might encourage that tech firms stay small, says O’Mara, in keeping with “the other industries that have been in New York for so long that have a similar small-scale communitarian [culture] — the creative industries, fashion, media…” In that way, even a tiny start-up can be part of something bigger: An industry, an economy, a city.

Speaking of the building that will house your enterprise…

A couple of items on Facebook’s planned Frank Gehry HQ.  First, from Allison Arieff in the NYT:

The choice of Gehry might have been “game-changing” — to use the parlance of the start-up community — two decades ago. Today, it’s a safe bet, representing Facebook’s true transition from rogue start-up to the establishment (no matter how strenuously they might dispute that designation).

Writing at the New Republic, Lydia DePillis (she’s back) sounds off similarly:

That’s a frustrating response. As shrouded in moss as it might be, the 10-acre campus is fundamentally no different from the tech parks of old: Single-use, completely isolated, and shamefully wasteful of the kind of space that commands such a premium on the other end of the Bay. The designs highlight the accommodations they’ve made for pedestrian and bike access—like an underground tunnel to its other campus across the highway!—but only glancingly mention the subterranean lake of parking, with 1504 spots for a projected 2800 employees (that’s a really high ratio, even for a suburban office). The horizontal layout might comport with Mark Zuckerberg’s conception of a social universe in which relationships exist independently of any physical reality. But from a practical standpoint, it ignores one of the most important qualities of a creative place: Density, activity, and exposure to the ferment of ideas.

Arieff notes that the designer and the client both want to foster the kind of interaction and proximity that comes naturally in cities – taking note of the fact that Facebook has no offices for anyone, regardless of rank – but something is still missing:

But so very unlike a city, the New Urban-ish campus is populated not by folks from different walks of life but solely by Facebook employees. For all the talk in startup circles of “serendipitous interaction,” it’s not the sort celebrated by Jane Jacobs. There may be a place to get a latte there but there is no Third Place, those accessible anchors of community life like bars, farmer’s markets or barber shops that help foster civic engagement and interaction with both regulars and new faces. Yes, it’s stating the obvious, but Facebook workers interact with other Facebook workers. There’s next to nil outside influence to be found on a corporate campus. Indeed, many tech employees (Facebook’s and others) have observed that many of their most meaningful encounters occur not at work but while waiting on city streets for the now-ubiquitous corporate shuttles from San Francisco that take them south to Silicon Valley.

Now, it’s tricky to separate some of the urban planning issues (transportation access, urban design) from the interior design ones (office layouts, use of internal space) from the economic geography issues (Silicon Valley is dense, even if filled with stereotypical office parks).  That said, the themes are interesting to track.  Add in the region-wide issues of housing costs and other drags on the local economy, and things can get murky quickly.

It’s not like the denizens of Silicon Valley are happy with the built environment…

Two pieces in San Jose’s MetroActive (the intro, the full piece) lament the lack of urbanism and the impact it has on innovation in San Jose.  The author, Michael Malone, talks about San Jose’s inability to embrace the values of Silicon Valley while similarly stumbling in creating a big, authentic city:

And there is one more thing I would expect our elected leaders to know something about: Entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship built Silicon Valley; entrepreneurship is the source of this valley’s economic power; entrepreneurship is this valley’s only hope of a prosperous future. San Jose claims to be the capital of Silicon Valley—and Silicon Valley is the world’s capital of entrepreneurship . . . so why is it that the leaders of this city appear to have no real understanding of entrepreneurship?: Who does it. How it happens. And what it needs to survive.

I know they don’t understand because their actions tell me so. Here are three truths about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs:

1. The big fancy buildings and famous company names don’t matter. The future is in the hands of men and women working on business plans in Denny’s and Starbucks.

2. Entrepreneurs don’t need support. They need benign neglect.

3. You can’t pick winners in advance. There are too many variables. Winners pick themselves.

Compare that with the approaches debated in New York.

Instead, you give the start-ups cheap office or warehouse space, tax breaks and the fastest broadband you can deliver. Then you get the hell out of the way and trust them to do the rest. Ninety percent of them will fail, but that last 10 percent will change the world—and the fortunes of the city of San Jose.

“Giving” cheap office space might not need an actual subsidy – and it likely speaks to a broader policy change that follows on the work of the Econourbanists.

2 comments to Shaping Silicon Valley

  • charlie

    I dont know if you can draw any real lessons from SV. It is singular place, everyone is trying to copy it and it doesn’t work. What is interesting is globaly the copying mean just that — exact same office parks. That is why the FB and Apple campuses are negative, as models.

    Clearly housing prices have a negative effect on innovation there. Lots of literature on that.

    But to tie it back to local, this is why Tysons densitfication may not work. Poeple do need cheap office space for startups. Free parking (or rather, free transport) is part of that. Raising office rents and charging montly parking — not so much.

    And as long as transit systems are built on the assumptions of a 9-5 (or 8-5) commute, startup entrepreneurs aren’t going to like them. Hell, the most common perk I know in DC is free taxi or car service home for law firm associates if they work past 8.

  • Alex Block

    Well, I do think you can draw lessons from SV: one of them is that out-and-out copying won’t work. However, the lessons are more about economic geography and agglomeration and the kinds of factors that led to SV in the first place: education, research, defense spending, etc.

    As for Tysons – I don’t think the Tysons densification is meant to turn it into the space for innovation, but rather help relieve rent pressure on other places. Those other places then become the cheaper laboratories for start-ups.

    And you make a good point on transit systems, which is why I think urbanism is key – it alone can offer more options.

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