Trying to Figure Out the DNA of 'Infectious Innovation'

Should companies outside of Northern California try to re-create Silicon Valley's mythical environment of innovation?
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The story of Silicon Valley start-ups like Google, Facebook, and Snapchat have earned a mythical status in the business world. Terms from west coast tech culture—disrupt, innovate, hack—have been exported to companies that want to re-create start-up success in areas that have nothing to do with technology. But what's difficult is pinpointing exactly what "a culture of innovation" looks like. It's easy to repeat catch-phrases like "move fast, break things" or "ask forgiveness, not permission," but it's much harder to figure out how to bring that to your company's office.

Perhaps there's no one better to take on this question than historians and librarians. At The Atlantic's Silicon Valley summit on Monday, Leslie Berlin, the Silicon Valley archivist at Stanford and Marina Gorbis, the executive director of the Institute for the Future, did just that. Here are the qualities they called out as hallmarks of the "culture of innovation":

Speed. "There's a real sense here that speed matters—it's a sense of innovating on the fly," Berlin said. If Google is trying to figure out what size pixels to use on a new banner ad, for example, they just do it—"there's not a lot of lining things up in advance."

Generational success. "Even Steve Jobs had the notion of the baton being passed from one generation to the next," Berlin said. She described this idea as a sort of iterative process: The tech companies that are successful today grew out of a culture created by the Valley's early successes, like Intel.

New people. At the same time, Berlin and Gorbis emphasized the importance of newcomers. "There's a constant influx of new people," said Berlin. "Look at the Valley just as a population: A third of people living here now were born in other countries, two-thirds of the people in the tech sector were born in other countries." Even though "it's obscenely expensive to live here," she said, "we have a serious innovation culture which keeps bringing in new, smart, motivated people."

Innovation isn't limited to the workplace. "These conversations happen at the playground, at school, in the supermarkets," Gorbis said. "I'm not sure that we ever stop." She framed this in a really interesting way: "We have stories and narratives that shape how we think about ourselves and our role in this—there's a narrative about Silicon Valley as an innovation place." In other words, people who work in or move to Silicon Valley think of themselves as innovators, and so they live out the alleged "lifestyle" of an innovator (i.e., they think and talk about ideas for new companies and products and widgets constantly).

Emphasis on technical prowess. The myth about great start-ups like Microsoft "starting in a garage," is important, Berlin said. "There was a whole time when people were renting out garages to create start-ups, as though being near a car has some sort of magical power," she said. But a rags-to-riches (garage-to-multi-building-office-complex?) story is not the point: It's that there's a cultural deference to having "raw talent" rather than presenting well. This may also explain the T-shirt plus hoodie stereotype: Suits are for people focused on the trappings of business, rather than the business product itself.

Socially conscious ethos. "These conversations are not just about technology," Gorbis said. "This is the notion that these are not just products, these are not just apps—people are changing the world." As Gorbis pointed out, this has been criticized lately: Take Evgeny Morozov's opusTo Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, or perhaps even Tom Scocca's take-down of Dave Eggers's take-down of tech culture in Scocca's recent essay on smarm

Imagine innovation as a disease. "I really believe innovation is kind of infectious," Gorbis said. "Being in Silicon Valley is infectious." Companies located throughout the U.S. should try to learn from the culture of the Valley, she said: "Hopefully there's enough infection going on to change the main organism, to affect the immune system."

This last point reveals the most crucial question here: Should companies beyond California even try to capture the je ne sais quoi that animates the Silicon Valley myth? Berlin doesn't think so. "For other places trying to replicate the Valley—this was just the result of a very specific set of circumstances," she said. "There's more than one way to have an innovation economy. As the global supply chain has changed, as what we need in the global universe of technology has changed, we need for there to be different types of innovation economies around the world."

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages TheAtlantic.com’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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