The Reality of What Makes Silicon Valley Tick

Harvard Business Review

For any one of us, the "reality" of a situation is just what we choose to pay attention to. Take the wonderful experiment a few years ago when renowned violinist Joshua Bell played for tips in the subway. Thousands of people rushed through that busy metro station barely noticing what seemed to be yet another poor musician on the platform. Their reality was the noise and the myriad annoyances that go with crowds of people jostling to get to trains. A few stopped in their tracks and listened in awe. Same place, same time — two different realities.

The same goes for a complex place like Silicon Valley. Every day brings a fresh horde of visitors — business executives, overseas dignitaries, researchers, and journalists — trying to discover what makes Silicon Valley tick. Some go away thinking they've seen a land of "technophilic gurus and futurists...embarked on a quest to develop the ultimate patch to the nasty bugs of humanity." Others see it as a giant economic engine spitting out startup after startup to capitalize on the region's wealth of innovations. But as far as I can tell, the reality they discern here is not the same as the one I see, or at least, is just a part of my reality.

Throngs of economic development officials from all around the world regularly parachute into Silicon Valley to do the usual rounds of the "innovation ecosystem" and see one slice of reality — Twitter, Facebook, Google, venture capitalists, and Stanford University (which, by the way, is too often an extension of all of the above; even in an English class, creating an app is a requirement). They are taken to school on how to create innovation clusters in their geographies, and too often they come away with surface-level solutions: bring in venture capitalists, create incubators, provide incentives for universities and labs to commercialize their technologies, build a robust IP system, establish liaison offices in Silicon Valley.

None of that is necessarily wrong, mind you, but if the recipe worked, one would think that after some 30 years of trying to replicate Silicon Valley elsewhere, we would see many thriving clones. Yet Silicon Valley remains unique.

This, I would argue, is due to another reality of Silicon Valley. It's a reality that is often hidden from visitors' eyes and hard to penetrate, much less to dissect and duplicate — but if you adjust your gaze you'll see it. This is the reality of artists, musicians, community organizers, many of them non-techies, working side by side with techies to hack not so much technologies but ways of working, living, creating, and organizing. If there is one thing people in general here have learned from technologists, it is that things are hack-able — that the way we've designed various systems is not pre-ordained or immutable. We can tinker, re-design, and play with them. The fact that this ethos has infected artists, social activists (yes, they are called hacktivists), philosophers, urban planners, community organizers, and technologists, and that they all mingle together to create things — that's what makes Silicon Valley tick.

They come together in meetups, salons, hackathons, live/work houses, clubs, and many other places that cross all the traditional organizational and discipline boundaries. They don't ask for permission to do what they do. They are not paid for their efforts, at least not with money. They are less interested in technologies per se than in playing with established ways of doing things and conventional ways of thinking, creating, learning, and being.

Silicon Valley is rife with gatherings and places for doing this. On a Sunday you may spot some of the tech and not so tech-savvy denizens at a Brunchy Sunday series, where they come together to write and share their creations — blog posts, a song, a pitch, a chapter of a book, a screenplay, or anything else. You can see them most evenings at Noisebridge (pictured below) — a collective space for learning and doing projects together whose members' main guiding principle is to "be excellent to each other."

Noisebridge

You can drop in on a Science Hack Day, a 48-hour hackathon that brings together scientists and passionate amateurs to engage in any serious or whimsical undertaking (the two often blur) that has to do with science. You can pop into a meetup of the "Quantified Self" movement — a collection of enthusiasts who are collecting tons of personal, health, and other data for various purposes: to speed up the rate of medical innovations, to improve their own health, to have fun with data, to be a part of a community with similar interests. Or participate in the Institute for the Future's Re-Constitutional Convention, where governance scholars, practitioners, artists, and others try to re-imagine our oh-so-flawed governance structures. (Many of these examples are described in my book, The Nature of the Future.)

To shine a spotlight on this reality I'm giving it a name: these people are engaged in "socialstructing." It's a type of value creation that takes place outside of institutional boundaries, relies on social ties, and fulfills social, not monetary, needs such as the desire to belong, to be a part of something meaningful, to have fun, or, to use game researcher Jane McGonigal's phrase, to "achieve an epic win."

Science Hack Day

Socialstructers engage in hard work that they choose for themselves and to which they bring the best of their talents and abilities. Without management hierarchies, without titles and assignments, they do things such as self-organize into teams for 48 hours during a Science Hack Day (pictured right) and produce over a dozen new things, ranging from software code that converts data from nuclear accelerators into music to a robot that analyzes twitter sentiments. It's a level of ingenuity any R&D department would marvel at.

Here's my advice, then, if you are one of those organizations that sends scouts to Silicon Valley or establishes an outpost to tap into the innovation taking place here. Yes, visit the venture capitalists and the startups, but don't overlook this other reality. To understand and learn from Silicon Valley, you need to participate and get embedded in the socialstructed creation that is taking place here. Spend an evening at Noisebridge, hang out at Hacker Dojo, go to a Quantified Self meetup, sign up for a Science Hack or Med Hack or another hackathon. In settings like these you'll see a Silicon Valley that is just as — or maybe more — vital to fueling the innovation the place is known for.

Noisebridge photo by Dylan Hendricks, 2013. Science Hack Day photo by Gretchen Curtis, 2012.

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