Silicon Valley. This name conjures up brand associations like high tech, digital, Facebook, Google, venture capitalism, Stanford, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Infinite Loop, Linkedin, Cisco, cloud, Big Data, Xerox PARC. But think about the name in two parts. a. Silicon. The raw material for most commercial semiconductors, the backbone of the digital world. b. Valley. A physical description of a geological depression with predominant extent in one direction. Put the two words together and we have the metonym for the US high tech industry. This physical, analogue place has been driving digital innovation and the creation of cyberspace for decades. There is a certain irony in this. One of the promises of digital innovation is that we can increasingly interact in digital cyberspace via globally diversified teams, that we can collaborate across timezones, and that we can video conference with partners and clients. Yet the history of digital innovation is one that has been consistently emerging from a specific geographical location - Silicon Valley. This ecosystem has been the central playground for digital ideas, and the Mecca for innovators and venture capitalists since the name made its way into popular jargon in the 1980s.
This is why I find myself at Sprout Cafe on University Avenue in Palo Alto. Sprout represents the essence of California. It’s a salad cafe, and everything about it oozes local, vegetarianism, artisan, farm-to-table, fresh, organic and sustainable. I sit there awaiting the arrival of Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Sergey and Larry, or Tim Cook. Hmm, not today, apparently. I keep munching on my mungbeans and line-caught tuna. But the digital rockstars are here (albeit in the ether), and they are here for a specific reason. Silicon Valley is THE digital talent cluster. Despite the best efforts of the UK, Russia, South Korea, and India, digital pioneers still migrate to Silicon Valley. While the Valley reminds me of a large business park, its cafes, campuses, and educational institutions speak to the history of innovation, and provide the habitat where digital ideas can flourish. It’s immersive, it’s an eco-chamber, it’s incestuous, and it’s highly analogue. Why? Trust. Introductions. Physical Demos. Handshakes. Morning bikerides. Children in the same school. Serendipity. Hype. Constant pitching. Caffeinated idea exchanges. Stanford alumni. MBAs. This analogue stuff matters. Particularly when it comes to digital innovation.
We are in Silicon Valley to advise one of the largest internet security firms on big data and the impact on privacy. In person. While cyberspace is awash with information, research, reports, case studies, and data visualisations on this topic, being in Silicon Valley somehow feels more authentic. It’s the equivalent of running a political PR agency in Washington DC, a design studio in Milan, a fashion label in Paris, or a hedge fund in London. I mean there is a reason we go to industry conferences isn’t there? There is still no virtual golf or virtual beers (despite Cisco’s best attempts). We still crave the human connectivity, the mingling, and the networking. Even if you’re an introvert and don’t like that kind of thing, there is a sense of belonging that goes with these types of analogue places. A sense of being in the know, a sense of knowing who’s who, a sense of being in tune with the latest thinking in the industry. Thus it is helpful for us to connect with Stanford faculty, to hang out with VCs, to have dinner with budding entrepreneurs and spend time at the Google campus. Oftentimes the good stuff - the best information and the insider tips - can be found in the physical gaps and the informal conversations. We have all been to the conferences where we realise that the speakers (and I might be shooting myself in the foot here) merely provide the social lubricant that enables delegates to talk real