In order to fully understand the concept of people at the center, you must immerse yourself in the subject. You must meet people outside of your own circle, outside of your own economic sphere, outside of your industry. And you can’t do that if you’re living in an area with a single dominant industry, commuting largely via personal car and interacting primarily, either at work or after work, with people in your own industry.
Social vs. Algorithms
Another win area for New York in the social game is that expertise in social is something that is forced on every one living in the city. Because it is a very dense environment, New York forces a natural social dance on a daily basis. The minute a New York resident steps out of his/her apartment, the social dance start, with careful silent negotiations for things like where to place yourself on the curb, to how to manage getting in and sharing seating arrangement in subways and buses. These quiet negotiations happen hundreds of times before some gets to work. As a friend of mine wryly remarked once “no wonder New Yorkers are intense; The negotiations required to just getting to the office is a almost full time job.”
So social interaction patterns get ingrained in New York just by living there and become second nature. By comparison, people in Silicon Valley tend to commute by car (no, I’m not discounting people taking the train or bus but it seems to be a minority). Some people decide to commute with friends from work or other startup but the net net is that the social interactions with total strangers and different socio-economic groups are not forced on them. So they have to go an analyze wider social patterns instead of living them, something that can be more of a challenge.
If you look at it in historic terms, the technology field was traditionally dominated by algorithms. Hardware and software solutions in the past meant that people were not as essential to success in technology. As the web became more social, cultural anthropology has become more essential. It is no wonder that none of the major new players in the tech field has come out of the Valley in the last 5 years (Flickr was born in Canada, Skype in Europe, Facebook in Boston, Twitter and Zynga in San Francisco (According to Wikipedia, SF is not part of Silicon Valley), Groupon in Chicago, and Foursquare and bit.ly came from New York).
This is not to discount the value of algorithmic approaches. Companies that are depending on heavy maths and engineering will continue to thrive in the valley (I’m thinking of companies like Google, Netflix, and Apple, for example) but those will have to reach out to talent in the cities if they want to thrive in the social web (interestingly enough, it seems that Facebook and Google have now started to realize this as they are poaching New York startupsor expanding their physical footprint in the city in an attempt to get social DNA flowing back into their companies)
Takeaway: Living in a city is inherently a social experience. Living in a car-driven society isn’t.
Update: This post is part of a series of why New York may gain the top position in the tech world, displacing Silicon Valley. The whole series is now online: Intro, Culture Part 1, Culture Part 2, Talent, Adversity, Business