One of my favourite jokes about Silicon Valley goes like this: A million guys walk into a Silicon Valley bar. None of them buy anything. The bar is declared a rousing success.
It underlines an unbounded enthusiasm that you wouldn’t find elsewhere. And yet, this hasn’t stopped cities like Beijing, Bangalore, Singapore, Shenzhen, Daejeon, and even Ho Chi Minh city, being touted as the next Silicon Valley. People think that if you’ve got a bunch of tech companies all in one place you can call it a Silicon Valley. But the fact is, people don’t tell these kinds of jokes in Asian cities. Embracing devil-may-care failure and rampant cowboy venture capitalism is just not in Asia’s DNA.
Yes, companies and communities throughout Asia need to embrace the principles that lead to success in Silicon Valley, like the lean startup method or the practices of venture capitalism, but an Asian Silicon Valley will never come. And it doesn’t have to.
Forget Silicon Valley, Asia is the Silicon Continent
Yes, it makes sense that Asian cities are often touted as the next Silicon Valley. With India saving the world from the Y2K bug, Japan’s electronic mavericks, and China’s trillion RMB e-commerce industry, who can argue with that evaluation? I mean, 50% of Silicon Valley tech jobs are filled by Asian Americans. But this eagerness to dub Asia the next Silicon Valley belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Valley is and what it takes to make one.
‘Something Ventured‘, a movie about the early transition from the Fairchild semiconductor to the full-fledged Silicon Valley, outlines perfectly the arduous and multi-faceted journey that small area in Northern California had to take to become the Hollywood of technology. Another film just came out on PBS’s American Experience titled: ‘Silicon Valley‘. If you haven’t seen them yet, watch them. The moral of the story is clear – it’s not easy to make a Silicon Valley happen. It requires decades of government research funding, ballsy venture capitalists, intelligent educational institutions, a healthy network of relationships and, of course, brilliant individuals that were fostered by that environment.
I think the dialogue needs to shift away from dubbing a new Silicon Valley and into something else entirely. Take a quick look at a list of places on Wikipedia with the word ‘silicon’ in them and you’ll see right away how unoriginal Asia is. It’s all “Silicon Valley of -” China or India or Indonesia.
Can’t we get more creative? How about Silicon Kingdom for China? Or Silicon City-State for Singapore? Why would Ho Chi Minh city want to be the Silicon Valley when it could be the Silicon Delta? Obviously, Samsung’s gotta push the Silicon Peninsula. And I’m shocked nobody’s grabbed Silicon Island yet (Taiwan, are you listening?). Or better yet, why use the word ‘silicon’ at all?
But this isn’t about branding, it’s about identity and self-perception. As long as Asian entrepreneurs aspire to be the next Silicon Valley, they will never carve out their own niche in an increasingly diverse technical world. Don’t take whipped cream and put it on noodles. That’s right, whipped cream = Silicon Valley and noodles = Asia.
The existential journey of Asian entrepreneurs
I think ‘Start-Up Nation’, a book about Israel’s rise to high-tech relevance, has the best lesson for what to do next. As Gary Shainberg says in the book, Israel faced some extraordinary circumstances: “Nowhere else in the world where people work in a centre of technology innovation do they also have to do national service.” This is powerful. Israel, with its long list of world-renowned startups, has embraced what makes it unique and has infused into how it innovates.
This is exactly what innovators and entrepreneurs in Asia need to do. The cities of Silicon Valley don’t need to create the next Facebook or Google. They need to solve problems native to Asia. I think that’s what a few companies are doing, and I want to see more of it. Otherwise, we’re just going to see the same old cut-and-paste enterprises.
Asia’s got its own peculiarities that you won’t see anywhere else. It’s leverage. A humongous, young and hungry population that’s increasingly tech savvy, widespread diversity that forces relevant startups to compete internationally, and the potential to innovate. And I think these characteristics need to be embraced more and sought out. It’s like the saying goes, the problem is the solution. So stop saying that your city is the next Silicon Valley, and fill in the blanks in your society’s lives.