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Beyond the Buses: The San Francisco Tech Boom and the Future of Digital Cities

April 4, 2014

Protests against tech company shuttle buses in San Francisco have painted a picture of conflict between the tech industry and longtime San Francisco residents – and as a new wave of protests kicked off this week following a decision from the city’s Board of Supervisors to allow the private buses to continue using a limited number of public bus stops, it’s easy to see why this perception could arise. As is often the case, though, the underlying facts are a bit more complicated.

Over the past five years, we’ve seen an incredible urban technology boom across the country as both established technology firms and new startups have moved from sprawling suburban office parks to compact inner cities. Nowhere has this trend been more strongly exemplified than in San Francisco.

Two new studies released on Friday at a Bloomberg panel discussion in Washington, DC explore the causes, context, and impact of the rapid growth of the San Francisco tech sector – and what it can teach other aspiring digital cities.

An economic study from Dr. Michael Mandel of South Mountain Economics, examines the raw numbers of the growth of San Francisco’s tech sector, charting the path from the end of the dot-com boom to the creation of more than 67,000 private sector jobs since 2010, of which 21,000 were in the tech/info sector. In the years since the start of the Great Recession in 2007, San Francisco actually created more private sector jobs in a city of 825,000 people than were created in 47 out of 50 states.

A separate study prepared by the Boston Consulting Group drew upon interviews with tech and community leaders and a survey of San Francisco residents to find out why the tech sector grew so quickly in the city, what challenges have arisen as a result, and how the tech sector is viewed.

In contrast to what some news coverage of bus protests might imply, most San Franciscans support the tech sector, with 73 percent agreeing that tech companies are good for the city, and 59 percent feeling that the buses are being blamed for other issues that the city needs to address. The most pressing issue? The affordability of housing. The hypergrowth of the San Francisco economy has led to skyrocketing demand for housing space. 96 percent of residents say that cost of living is a challenge, and nearly half say they will likely leave the city in the next decade, with affordability being the top reason cited.

Ultimately, by looking at the example of San Francisco, these studies – and the panel discussion today – can help other cities learn from what worked, and what didn’t, as they seek to grow their own digital economies.

Other key findings include:

  • The strength of the tech/info sector has helped contribute to a gain of 46,000 private sector non-tech jobs in industries such as construction, manufacturing, health, education, hospitality, and more.
  • There are an estimated 68,000 workers in the San Francisco tech/information sector comprising 13 percent of the private sector jobs. In 2012, the tech/info sector contributed roughly $9.2 billion in wages to the local economy, or roughly 22 percent of the total.
  • Tech-driven growth helped generate business tax revenues of $480 million for San Francisco in the 2012-2013 fiscal year.
  • 83 percent of San Franciscans believe that tech companies have a responsibility to give back to the community, yet only 33 percent agree that tech companies meaningfully give back to the city today.
  • 56 percent of San Franciscans feel that the city government should work to attract tech companies.
  • Education is a dominant concern. Only 13 percent of those polled said they believe San Francisco public schools are preparing young residents for jobs in the tech sector.