The density of Silicon Valley

The density of Silicon Valley

I was born and raised in the close-in suburbs of San Jose and family ties bring me back often to the city. Furthermore, my interest in community development and in high tech gizmos keeps me on the lookout for articles on creativity and city form. Of great interest are articles on why the high tech industry is so highly clustered in a triangle that roughly stretches from Redwood City to Cupertino to the south side of San Jose. Lately, the spread of high tech has widened slightly and there are exceptions, Zynga, for example, but in this triangle are the headquarters of Facebook, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Intel, Cisco, Netflix, Google, Yahoo and Adobe and major facilities of Microsoft, Dell,  Hitachi and Sony. It’s all there.

But why?  Partly it’s an accident.  Stanford University helped spark this concentration of high technology companies fifty years ago and has nurtured new companies to this day.  Eventually, Silicon Valley has bested Boston and other rivals.  Note that New York City and Mayor Bloomburg compare themselves to Silicon Valley, not the other way around.

I think the role of luck in fostering economic growth is something to keep in mind. A lot of things happen by chance. But it takes a lot more than just luck. AnnaLee Saxenian wrote a great book comparing Silicon Valley to Boston’s Route 128 which describes why one area prospered through high tech and why the other lost out. The role of culture and law are very important. As an aside, Boston is ahead of the Bay Area in medical research. In a fairly parallel field, Boston won.

Many theorists say that San Jose is a suburban exception to the Jane Jacobs idea that density prompts interactions between strangers. Jacobs theory suggests that interaction and innovation needs urban density to thrive and some suggest that San Jose and its northern suburbs are too sparsely populated to meet this theory.   But these observers have never really lived in the region because it is no exception. While San Jose may lack a dense core, overall it is very dense. The US Census recently said it was the third densest urbanized area in the country. And as Jacobs theorized, this density results in constant interactions in collaborations. The creativity of the region needs no special explanation.

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