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.
Monoculture vs. Polyculture
The first challenge Silicon Valley will have to overcome in order to retain its supremacy is that it will need to diversify beyond technology.
New York doesn’t have that problem because technology has never been its primary industry (and probably never will be as New York seems to abhor the ideas of a single culture or group being dominant. Sure, Wall Street has had some power in the city but so has the media space, and the fashion industry, and the horse-drawn carriage industry. But each of those industries eventually found itself confronted with some setback, eroding its power base further (in historical terms, the power of Wall Street started eroding in the 1960s, with the fight over the creation of the World Trade Center, and while it has seen ups and downs over the last 50 years, it is no longer the dominant force in New York).
The existence of multiple industries in New York has forced the New York technology field to think about building products that are attractive to people outside of the technology field. As a result, a large part of the tech field has been blindsided by the success of products like meetup, etsy, and and gilt because they were not solutions based on heavy algorithms but based on input outside of technology.
As Brady Forrest recently pointed out, one of the great think about New York is that “it’s never about technology only, it’s always tech and something else”. And that something else is something that would be very hard to reproduce for the valley. The cross-germination that happens here will, as evolution has always told us, bring up new models and new businesses that could not possibly sprout out of a mono-cultural system.
Another aspect of this is that there seems to be an inherent pendulum in the technology world, moving from times of great innovations that arise out of innovation for innovation’s sake, great feats of engineering which arise with no pre-existing use for them. When the pendulum is on that side, the Valley shines. For example, there was no pre-existing use for semiconductors when engineers at Fairchild Semi came up with them. The Fairchild leadership failed to see this opportunity and left it to others to mine. This was typical valley-like world-changing type of innovation that New York-type leaders failed to see.
However, the pendulum often has to swing from that space where radical technological innovation happens to a place where business integration (and eventually business innovation) arises. When the pendulum switches to that end, having companies that mix expertise in the technological field sitting side by side with expertise in a specific business field helps create the new generation of companies.
We are now in that second part of the cycle and New York has the lead because of its overlap with many other industries. For the valley, this can be a dangerous time unless it finds the next big radical algorithmic-based technical change. For New York, it is an opportunistic time as it can foster the creation of some startups that are working on that next set of radical innovations while at the same time mine the expertise inherent to its position as a dominant commercial center.
Takeaway: Monocultures have negative impact. Polycultures take longer to create powerful organisms but inherently build ones that are more adaptable.
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