Amidst incessant talks of bubbles and baubles, it is clear that Silicon Valley is back. With a vengeance, no less.
Innovation is back. Leadership is back. IPOs are back. The technology industry has shaken off the post-financial crisis malaise and has been quite exciting.
Now is perhaps a good time to stop for a moment and reflect on what the next decade will be all about for the Valley and its denizens.
I will share some of my thoughts, but mostly, I'd like to hear from readers on what you'd like to see happen over the next decade in Silicon Valley. So, please feel free to jump in.
My vision of what Silicon Valley needs to focus on is best described by the title of Michael Dertouzos's book The Unfinished Revolution. The revolution that Dertouzos talks about is in "human-centric" computing. Indeed, today's open problems are not so much in the domain of chips and networking as they are in the more human-centric domains.
For example, the technology that makes it possible for a digital worker in rural Africa or small-town India to work on data processing projects already exists. What do not yet exist are systematic methods of locating such projects and connecting these remote digital workers to them.
Similarly, the basic technology for telemedicine does exist, but the socioeconomic framework to connect willing doctors to needy patients around the world does not.
In some of these areas, Silicon Valley has already played a phenomenal role. Kiva has created the socioeconomic model for crowd-sourcing microfinance investments and matching that with projects. And Egypt's revolution is a salute to Facebook's role in the organization of a society's bid for democracy.
Our attempt to democratize entrepreneurship education and incubation through1M/1M speaks to the same philosophy of using technology to impact humanity on a large scale.
The Renaissance Mind
In exploring the possibilities for our future, let me revisit certain historical phenomena, especially the Renaissance.
Although it can be difficult to pin it down in a definition, the Renaissance can be understood as "a cultural movement that profoundly affected European intellectual life in the early modern period. Beginning in Italy, and spreading to the rest of Europe by the 16th century, its influence affected literature, philosophy, art, politics, science, religion, and other aspects of intellectual inquiry." [Wikipedia]
Other periods of cultural rebirth and rejuvenation have also been termed a "renaissance," a notable one being the Bengal Renaissance: "The Bengal Renaissance refers to a social reform movement during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the region of Bengal in Undivided India during the period of British rule. The Bengal renaissance can be said to have started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1775-1833) and ended with Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), although there have been many stalwarts thereafter embodying particular aspects of the unique intellectual and creative output. Nineteenth-century Bengal was a unique blend of religious and social reformers, scholars, literary giants, journalists, patriotic orators and scientists, all merging to form the image of a renaissance, and marked the transition from the 'medieval to the 'modern.'" [Wikipedia]
What was striking about the various renaissance movements were the extraordinary degree of intellectual, artistic, and social achievement, and the tremendous cross-pollination among the leaders of those different disciplines.
Leonardo da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance man - an engineer, a painter, a scientist - with a mind capable of assimilating ideas from multiple disciplines and pushing the envelope in multiple. That same capacity for acute observation, experimentation, and smart synthesis that is the hallmark of a Renaissance mind is in part the secret of Steve Jobs's success. Steve drew from art, architecture, design, sociology, and computer science to build Apple into the most innovative and exciting company in Silicon Valley and perhaps even the world.
I believe in the decade ahead that the style of thinking that will have the maximum impact is this ability to assimilate ideas from across domains and disciplines and apply them to innovation and entrepreneurship, instincts already deeply woven into Silicon Valley's fabric. In other words, it is the Renaissance mind that is likely to create the most important companies in Silicon Valley.
How Do You Foster Renaissance Thinking?
Each period of renaissance from history saw great congregations of talented people from multiple disciplines in certain cities or regions. Two prominent examples are Florence under the Medicis and Elizabethan England. Artists, writers, scientists, and philosophers were in the same place, working close to each other and exchanging ideas on a regular basis.
In contrast, Silicon Valley is ill-equipped for Renaissance thinking. While we have great technologists residing here, we certainly do not have great artists or musicians collaborating with them.
Over the years, I have spoken with art gallery owners who have complained that Silicon Valley's elite lack taste and do not buy art. If you look around, you'll see that they don't care very much about fashion or elegance, either. The nightlife or entertainment venues are limited in scope and quality. Theaters, museums, concerts - everything operates timidly, meekly, with uninspiring social consequence in that they don't move people, or move society forward as art can so often do. Even restaurants lack in sophistication, if you compare them with those in San Francisco or Napa. And the architecture of the Valley is positively pathetic. The old ranch-style houses and fake French chateaux or Tuscan villas are impressive in size, but not in any other way. No boundaries are pushed; there is no real achievement in the domain of architecture.
One of the first things that needs to happen is a concerted effort to expand the social framework of Silicon Valley from a nerdville to a more well-rounded, sophisticated, and interesting place.
Many of our nerds are absolutely brilliant. But to achieve brilliance in the next phase of Silicon Valley's history, they perhaps need to interact more with some liberal arts types.
Renaissance Patrons and the Renaissance Salon
How could that happen in a natural way? To answer this question, we need to look at the models of the Renaissance patrons and the Renaissance salons.
Lorenzo de' Medici, perhaps the most important Renaissance patron, supported and promoted artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Botticelli. Michelangelo, in fact, lived in his palace. Lorenzo commissioned art, helped artists to secure commissions from other patrons among the Florentine elite, and fostered an immensely productive art scene in Florence. He made it fashionable among his peers to support artists, thus making Florence a magnet for talent.
Madame Marie-Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin, on the other hand, was the quintessential Parisian salonnière who became a leading figure in the French Enlightenment: "Madame Geoffrin's popularity in the mid-eighteenth century came at a decisive time as the center of social life was beginning to move away from the French court and toward the salons of Paris. Instead of the earlier, seventeenth-century salons of the high nobility, Madame Geoffrin's salon catered generally to a more philosophical crowd of the Enlightenment period." [Wikipedia]
Madame Geoffrin held dinners twice a week. Mondays were for artists, while Wednesdays were generally reserved for literary discussions. This organized schedule had important consequences:
"Geoffrin, who acted as a mentor and model for other salonnières, was responsible for two innovations that set Enlightenment salons apart from their predecessors and from other social and literacy gatherings of the day. She invented the Enlightenment salon. First, she made the one-o'clock dinner rather than the traditional late-night supper the sociable meal of the day, and thus she opened up the whole afternoon for talk. Second, she regulated these dinners, fixing a specific day of the week for them. After Geoffrin launched her weekly dinners, the Parisian salon took on the form that made it the social base of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters: a regular and regulated formal gathering hosted by a woman in her own home which served as a forum and locus of intellectual activity." [Wikipedia]
The patrons fostered and supported the artists, while the salons provided the forums for intellectual exchange.
In today's world, one of the concepts that has drawn from these practices is the TED Conference series. However, in my opinion, the format of the salons - small, exclusive, personal, and elegant - were more conducive to deeper engagement and relationship building than the large conference format, which I do not like.
The Money and How It Is Applied
Of course, the models discussed are predicated upon the fact that the patrons and salonniers had money and were willing to spend it on fostering a community of artists and intellectuals without directly benefiting from such an "investment."
In Silicon Valley, we have plenty of money. There will be more as the next wave of IPOs and acquisitions happen. We are also already a magnet for talented engineers and entrepreneurs because the Valley's wealthy shower investment on promising startups as angel investors.
However, I am not so sure that the Valley's wealthy will put in the same effort to go find the next Botticelli and invite him to come live on their estates in Atherton or Woodside, as Lorenzo would. Nor am I sure that a concerted effort will be made to host Enlightenment salons to foster intellectual and artistic discourse of a kind that can push us forward as a society toward something more sophisticated, elegant, and creative.
This effort, if Silicon Valley's elite can rise to the challenge, will make the crucial difference.
We have the money here. But when it comes to social grace and talent, people are woefully unimaginative.
For Silicon Valley, a social and cultural "growing up" is in order. If it happens, we can expect to see a Renaissance this decade comparable to Florence under the Medicis.
This, coupled with our natural flair for technology and entrepreneurship, will help us to reach unprecedented levels of prosperity because the scale at which we can impact humanity today, right from our computers and mobile phones, is infinite.
Silicon Valley: Vision 2020
In conclusion, let's take a walk through Silicon Valley in the year 2020.
Look around. The architecture has changed from 10 years ago. Here in Menlo Park, a cluster of contemporary houses designed by Chilean architect Bernardo Urquieta flank Olive Street leading up to Santa Cruz Avenue.
Take a turn, and downtown Menlo Park is now a juxtaposition of almost 25 world-class art galleries, 15 nightclubs, a theater, beautiful boutiques exhibiting clothes from a new generation of multicultural fashion designers, and some 50 ethnically diverse restaurants. On any night, you can go listen to the top jazz musicians of the day, dance the Argentine tango to live musicians from Buenos Aires, or listen to a poetry reading at an alternative performing arts venue.
In fact, once a week the restaurants play host to a salon, where interesting, multi-faceted discussions and exchanges take place.
It has become surprisingly easy to meet interesting, multidimensional people in Silicon Valley these days. You walk in to any of these salons, performing arts venues, nightclubs, or art galleries, and social media follows you in. Location-sensitive technology lets you know who else is there, and based on personalization algorithms invented right here in the Valley, it will recommend whom you should meet and strike up a conversation with.
Not far from Sand Hill Road, on a cul de sac called Randall Place, stands a jewel of a museum - a private home, really - housing a most exquisite collection of photography by California photographer William Carter. This museum, modeled after the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston and the Frick museum in New York, hosts regular concerts and salons, as well as elegant dances. Here, artists in residence come to work from far and away, and in the Medici tradition, they find patrons among the Valley's elite through their hosts.
At a piano lounge on Chestnut, the Ella Fitzgerald of this era sings. New Orleans born Ledisi studied opera and piano in Berkeley, and when she sings Willow, weep for me ... the willow does, often, weep in response.
What else do you see, as you look around? Do share ...
Photo credit: Dominique Trempont