August 20, 2014

The next Silicon Valley

The next Silicon Valley? You’re kidding, right?

Google the phrase, and you’ll find an archive of old stories with titles like "India likely to be the next Silicon Valley," "Could the next Silicon Valley be in a developing country?" "Is Vietnam the next Silicon Valley?" Or my favorite: "Could Silicon Valley be the next Detroit?"

Long the preeminent high-tech center in North America and the world, Silicon Valley saw unrivaled success that has proved very tough to clone or import. The Valley has done a great job over the years of attracting and retaining global talent and local capital, and of building world-class tech companies around brilliant ideas.

But as last week’s General Motors bankruptcy shows, the U.S. industrial base is undergoing wrenching change. And on the technology front, R&D in everything from electronics to solar tech is increasingly being done outside of Silicon Valley. Technology innovation itself has become globalized.

As history has shown, tough economic times don’t halt the evolution of technologies and their applications. On the contrary, tech innovation can drive economic recovery and strengthen competitiveness. Consequently, such innovation has become a national imperative in many nations around the world.

Last week, the International Association of Science Parks (IASP) held its annual conference. The event, hosted in Raleigh, N.C., by Research Triangle Park, drew more than 700 delegates from more than 40 countries, representing all quarters of the global innovation economy. As one delegate from the Berlin Adlershof tech cluster put it, "The hard-core tech sector is doing very well."

Like Silicon Valley, regional tech centers from Brazil to Bangalore are finding that technology development thrives in an environment of creative intellectual energy that offers a networked economy, proximity to research institutions and universities, unique intellectual property development, a diverse base of high-tech talent, access to investment capital and infrastructure. As IASP delegates would attest, these attributes are now characteristic of many metropolitan regions around the world.

Innovation hubs

Innovation hubs and science parks are no longer limited to a few select locations. In today’s economy, innovative businesses and regions are appearing and flourishing by making global connections, tapping into virtual opportunities, breaking down local jurisdictions and building regional innovation engines–what IASP keynoters termed "future knowledge ecosystems."

By some estimates, in as little as 10 years virtually all jobs will have a technology component. Highly skilled workers can choose where they want to live, work and play. An epic battle is on among regions globally to attract and retain them.

Ironically, as the worst economic downturn in modern times unfolds, thousands of talented professionals, engineers, scientists and students from around the world are leaving Silicon Valley, or are having difficulty staying in or entering the United States.

According to a recent Business Week article, "Foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities with degrees in science and engineering are increasingly leaving the U.S. to pursue job opportunities in their home countries." The article quotes a Duke University report, released in March and titled "Losing the World’s Best and Brightest," that warns, "The departure of these foreign nationals could represent a significant loss for the U.S. science and engineering workforce, where these immigrants have played increasingly larger roles over the past three decades."

Craig Barrett, the recently retired chairman of Intel, despaired of the United States’ stemming those losses.

In a December 2007 article in the Washington Post, Barrett noted: "The European Union has taken steps that the U.S. Congress can’t seem to muster the courage to take. By proposing simple changes in immigration policy, EU politicians served notice that they are serious about competing with the United States and Asia to attract the world’s top talent to live, work and innovate in Europe.

"With Congress gridlocked on immigration, it’s clear that the next Silicon Valley will not be in the United States."

Maybe not. But as tech development centers in places like China, the Gulf states, India, Israel, Korea, Russia, South America, Southeast Asia and Taiwan become stronger links in the new, complex technology innovation chain, the current Silicon Valley might create a new future for itself as the granddaddy of the "knowledge ecosystem," securing its place as it gingerly looks over its shoulder.

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