Stop saying your city is becoming the next Silicon Valley of anything

Christopher Wink
Feb 15, 2016 · 4 min read

Something deep and meaningful is happening in cities across the country — and increasingly around the world. Yet many of us seem to prefer to squabble over who is doing it better.

Local policymakers, entrepreneurs, technologists and others are recognizing that how business gets done is changing. For the last seven years, we at local tech news network have reported on how this is happening in a handful of U.S. East Coast communities we know best — Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Delaware, Baltimore and D.C. Yet we’re also seeing the same changes take place in the six other emerging entrepreneurship communities we’re visiting in the coming weeks as part of our first ever Tomorrow TourDenver, Miami, Chicago, Detroit, Austin and Atlanta. Of course, it’s happening everywhere — new business models and pipelines to support these new kinds of businesses and new conversations about how more people can benefit from them.

I’ve personally been lucky to visit and meet with hundreds of founders in these and other local communities. They say a lot of the same things.

With a highly mobile workforce, a post-recession entrepreneurship boom, a generational wave of urbanity and a maturing web economy, we have entered a new era of economic development. The most competitive members of our workforce are choosing what place is best for them — at the right time for them.

This has given rise to a new kind of civic branding, one that is driven to attract and retain smart people who might be most likely to offer an economic multiplier effect. These are the founders and early employers of young web, tech and innovation companies that will form the bedrock of a community’s new local economy. It’s now a standard strategy for any modern municipal or state business competitiveness office. Emerging entrepreneurship communities are in stump speeches and everyday conversation.

Of course, once something becomes popular, its meaning gets lost and co-opted enough to reach parody. In this case, the profound changes taking place are being reduced to frivolity. I see this in two most common ways.

(1) Bogus, click-bait listicles of ‘Best’ tech/startup cities: some of my lazier peers in the tech and business press have found they can guarantee social sharing, engagement and web traffic if they create a distinction and list cities by whatever arbitrary metrics they set — and then let residents of those cities squabble and celebrate (depending on their placement and self-perception) about the similarly arbitrary results. Best cities for entrepreneurs to meet? Best cities for “techies” (a word that never ceases to make me shudder)? Best startup cities?

Some lists have greater rigor than others but they’re nearly all content marketing, not analysis. Because people and early-stage companies are different. They don’t really tell us anything about where to live or grow or be. They’re partial narratives at best. The lists are generic and created so often that everyone gets a chance to win. And though we know from social science that nearly winning is a greater motivator than actually winning, I’d argue that creating a false competition between these various cities is more harmful than helpful.

(2) Baseless, populistic pronouncements that ‘we will be the next Silicon Valley’: It’s a great applause line. But it’s silly. No local theater community says they’re creating the next Hollywood. No city’s Chinatown says they’re creating the next Shanghai.

Yet Brooklyn could be the next Silicon Valley — or won’t be. A bunch of business executives have said they want Philadelphia to be the ‘Silicon Valley of healthcare.” Ugh. We had to shoot down calls to say Delaware would be. It’s usually politicians and policymakers and stupid media who say these things. By contrast, any grounded and serious founder mostly finds it embarrassing — like here and here.

Because that movement has already happened. And really, it misses the point.

When you say your city is going to be the next Silicon Valley or when you get caught by the trap of click-bait lists, you’re creating a false battle. New Orleans must beat Atlanta. Baltimore must beat DC. Denver must beat Boulder. And on and on and on.

But the Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed how business got done everywhere — not just in Philadelphia or London. Sure, there were clusters where the most interesting innovation was happening but it was so much bigger than the spats we’re having today.

So let’s learn and share from each other. It’s what we hope to do at (and on our Tomorrow Tour), by having local civic pride but also sharing the best of any local community. We’d love to hear what others can learn from your community.

Hit me up @christopherwink or in the comments below.

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