Friday, December 17, 2010

So Not Silicon Valley

The Chicken Littles of brain drain are at it again. In today's Boston Globe, the one that got away is Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. The point is that Boston is no Silicon Valley and that talent has to leave. The story ends with a silver lining. The startup scene in Beantown is coming of age.

To put a different spin on AnnaLee Saxenian's book "Regional Advantage" about why Silicon Valley rocketed past Route 128, I've focused on greenfield versus brownfield economic development. Margaret Pugh O’Mara, author of "Cities of knowledge: Cold War science and the search for the next Silicon Valley", makes a similar geographic argument:

What happens is that Penn and the City of Philadelphia together use federal urban renewal as a tool to bulldoze a big piece of West Philadelphia and build the University City Science Center. In the Valley, [where there is more space] you didn’t have to worry about getting rid of buildings, or getting rid of people.

How can Rust Belt brownfields possibly compete with the greenfields of Silicon Valley? O'Mara ends the interview with her own silver lining:

One of the interesting things about Philadelphia, then and now, there’s a core group of thinkers who see Philadelphia as a vital urban place. One thing that was notable about University City initiative, it was trying to revision this new economy — a community of educated people — strongly assocated with this super suburban Silicon Valley model. They were trying to market University City as this cool urban neighborhood, celebrating the vitality and diversity of the city, like Jane Jacobs. Now, when you look at West Philadelphia, it’s an idea whose time has come.

The new greenfields are in the city, where the urban frontier is located. I was reminded of this while reading about the guy who got away from Pittsburgh, Groupon's Andrew Mason:

Bryan Dunn, a high school classmate of Mason's in Mount Lebanon, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh, remembers Mason as intelligent and perfectly content to march to the beat of his own drum. "Probably the best word to say was he was unique," Dunn said. "He probably didn't care too much about what people thought. He did his own thing."

When Mason attended his 10-year high school reunion last year, Dunn found him to be largely as he remembered. "He has a great sense of humor if you can appreciate it," Dunn said. "It's very dry. The things he's saying now, it's the same sense of humor he had."

Today, that sense of humor has morphed into helping cook up what can seem like frat-boy high jinks within the walls of Groupon's headquarters in the former Montgomery Ward catalog building in Chicago. Some have been his creation; others were dreamed up by co-workers and those are the ones Mason likes best, he says, because it shows his sense of nonsense has become ingrained in the corporate culture.

The Groupon playground is Rust Belt Chic, an old and cool building that has been reinvented. The latest:

Groupon also is negotiating for additional 13,000 square feet in the sprawling, eight-story former Ward’s complex, which hugs the North Branch of the Chicago River, the spokesman says. The 1.56-million-square-foot property has become a hotbed for Internet and technology firms in recent years and is now 97.5% leased, according to real estate data provider CoStar Group Inc.

This resonates with the recent story about the boom of downtown office building at the expense of suburban parks. The geography of innovation is decidedly urban and increasingly in places with heavy legacy costs. That is to say, the opposite of Silicon Valley.

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