The Dome: Palo Alto-on-Thames?

Opinion

The Dome: Palo Alto-on-Thames?

Legacy's bid for the Dome has generated too many glib parallels with Silicon Valley

Paul Mason

Opinion

The successful Legacy bid for the Dome was hyped to the public as "Britain's own Silicon Valley".

The bid promises 14,000 jobs and 1,000,000 sq ft of cheap office space, hopefully with some broadband access. But Silicon Valley it is not.

The real Silicon Valley was founded in 1953 when Stanford University decided to turn some of its land into a business park. Mr Hewlett and Mr Packard were among the first to move in, and the rest is history.

The Silicon Valley formula consists of risk-taking venture capitalists, high-tech centres of academic excellence, plus the research and development facilities of the world's biggest technology companies.

It is not enough that these are co-located.

The real chemistry comes from what sociologists have described as the "dense social networks" that link these three kinds of institution.

According to California folklore, in the early days, even competitors would phone each other up for technical advice. And ideas that transformed IT over the past 30 years were hatched in the legendary drinking haunts of computing's pioneers.

Job mobility and a spate of mergers also spawned another phenomenon: engineers changed jobs and companies changed technology strategies, so fast that people became more loyal to technologies than to individual firms.

This. in turn, sharpened California's appetite for spin-offs. Paul Mackun, a Silicon Valley historian, writes:

"A small coterie of employees in a firm, dissatisfied with their current place of employment, would gather after work to tinker around with some of their own ideas. They would then develop a business plan, acquire funds from venture capitalists and seek advice from local academic sources. If they succeeded, they were heroes."

Mackun goes on to point out the Silicon Valley formula could not be repeated, even in favourable circumstances of the Route 128 area around Boston, Massachusetts.

Most of the physical circumstances were the same.

What was different was culture: "In direct opposition to Silicon Valley's reliance on risk-taking and partnerships is eastern Massachusetts' emphasis on decorum, convention and self-reliance."

This brings us to the key reason why it will be hard for the Dome to replicate Silicon Valley. Think of the City with its old boy/barrow boy networks; think of our venerable universities; think of the sales and service-based operations of the IT companies stationed along the M4 corridor: which does it sound more like - Boston or San Francisco?

As our interview with Professor Andy Hopper shows (p60), there are real echoes of the Silicon Valley experience happening in Cambridge. Spin- off rather than start up is the order in Britain's emerging biotech and telecoms hub-based Silicon.

Meanwhile Europe's nearest thing to Silicon Valley is Eire, where tax regulations aimed at inward investment, combined with a highly-educated workforce and modern telecoms backbone have made the small country the world's biggest software exporter.

Let's wish the new Dome well - but warn against hype that says co-location was what made Silicon Valley. It's about culture. And maybe the world's wannabe new Palo Altos have to accept that, when they made Silicon Valley, they broke the mould.

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This was first published in November 2000

 

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