🚀 Do we need more Silicon Valleys? (No)
I have been historically doubtful of reproducing innovation models imported from other cultures and ecosystems – I've been very polite right now. The main fallacy, in my experience, is that such things as "the Silicon Valley" are a model to start with. If anything, they are a complex construct that gelled over decades of improbable (and mostly random) collisions, specific socio-economic constraints that will never reappear as is, and human-based network effects that were spawned from an equal mix of spectacular wins and devastating failures.
What do you want to reproduce again?
Essentially, if you want to Xerox the Silicon Valley in Europe, you'll have to rewrite the way our public universities work, find local burgeoning private tech giants to prime the pump, and let loose hundreds of aggressive private-equity investors without much regulatory pressure. But ideally, you would have to travel back to the seventies to get there. Building a multi-million (billion?) industrial park is not the critical factor for this plan to work.
And yet this is what we always get. Every single visionary regional initiative about gettin gud at innovation spearheaded by politicians and aging industrials is a bloody construction project. It doesn't translate well, but I regularly annoy my French friends in the field by saying that "L'innovation ? C'est un métier de maçons !" paraphrasing the motto of the Bouygues company when it was a successful construction company. In any case, cutting ribbons followed by drinking lukewarm champagne end up being the peak deliverables.
The current state of affairs of rebooting Milan's World Expo in MIND (a local Silicon Valley) by injecting €4.5 billion into "a sustainable, post-pandemic technology center" is dire. And contracting Skydeck (the mythic accelerator of the UC Berkeley) to sprinkle Californian magic hasn't helped much for now.
Even worse? South-east of Shanghai, the 120 km² Lingang free-trade zone was designated in 2018 by the central party as "a new center for high-end technological industries" and "a new local [sic] Silicon Valley." Fast forward to 2022, and discounting the likes of Tesla that are seeking massive tax breaks (and need to play nice with national authorities), the zone is pretty much deserted. As anyone should have expected.
We could play this game from Berlin to Dubai, but eventually, we need to realize that we need other models, logic, and mindsets. And what is truly mind-boggling is that these models abound. But they don't seem to appeal to the politicians and economists' collective unconscious the same way as Silicon Valley does.
Cue in pizza-delivery startups and coders in garages... I guess?
Or we can start embracing our strengths.
Who is modeling how Wageningen University in the Netherlands became the most efficient virtual hub for European foodtech and agtech? Who is working on how the whole city of Helsinki chose to be an open mobility lab exploring both new technology and regulations? I barely point at these two because I explore European tech ecosystems once or twice a year to write reports and white papers on where's the innovation hotness at any given time, and they always come up.
Sweden is ranked second among the 49 high-income economies worldwide in innovation, ahead of the US of A! Shouldn't we effing care about their modus operandi a little bit more?
All this doesn't mean we shouldn't build and grow tech clusters, technology valleys, or tech transfer programs. But it's all about the underlying strategy, the way to prime proper network effects, and, most importantly, embracing our own cultural and social idiosyncrasies. And at least there's a simple indicator for everyone involved: you fail if most of the money is sunk into architecture and construction.