Terroir in Tech

“The French use the word terroir to denote a food’s or wine’s evocation of the whole of a place — the minerality of its soil, the roughness or smoothness of its land forms, its heat or cold, the fragrance carried on its beaches”

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee

I’ve been reading the story of how Alice Waters established the renowned Chez Panisse French restaurant in Berkeley, drooling at the food descriptions as I go. Waters’ philosophy is that food is linked to where it was produced and by whom; enjoying a meal fully means being aware of these connections, because they lend texture and context to a meal. Products, in essence, carry imprints of the environment they come from, hence the idea of terroir.

In fact, terroir applies not only to cuisine, but to tech products as well.

Walter Isaacson in his book The Innovators, for instance, links the early days of personal computing and the internet to the free-wheeling hippie culture of the Bay Area in the 1960's. Similarly, though more speculatively, one might ask if the intensely social apps from the Valley — Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, are stereotypical reflections of American exuberance and extraversion. Would a start-up in the UK, for instance, where people are seen as more reserved than in the US, have come up with Instagram, where users comment, link and like photos of people they follow?

The idea of terroir is interesting because it suggests that geography can contribute to uniqueness. If so, what new and interesting products might result from apps coming from outside the established tech hubs — Sillicon Valley, London and Berlin? I would suggest that these unique apps exist, albeit in internet enclaves protected by language barriers — websites in Mandarin, for instance- that mean that their functionality is not yet mainstream.

What would happen if we were to look at innovation through the lens of geography and culture, rather than simply disruption?

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