“They Get A Valley While All We Get Is A Lousy Roundabout”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I  have sat in government technology strategy meetings around the world, listening to speakers outlining plans to recreate Silicon Valley or some bio/nano variant and making myself rather unpopular by telling people that they are probably wasting their time. As the Philip Delves Broughton in the FT rightly opines “the quest for a Silicon Valley is of course delusional and it sounds like a joke that America offers tech entrepreneurs a slice of California, while Britain gives them a roundabout.”

Of the billions that have been spent to replicate Silicon Valley around the world has a single initiative ever worked? Probably not, so the answer then is to do something different.

Warren East, chief executive of Arm Holdings says much the same thing in this morning’s Financial Times “We cannot win by being a ‘me too’,” he said. “But we could be different. The UK shouldn’t strive to be another Silicon Valley in the same way that Arm does not strive to be another Intel.”

It’s a hard message for politicians to understand, as most of them are under the impression that innovation moves directly from university labs to the economy without having to go through any complicates stages such as SME’s, unreasonable banks and investors with deep pockets and shirt arms. Over the past forty years a worrying number of politicians and their advisers gave visited Silicon Valley, liked what they saw, and decided to replicate it, but without any of the conditions being in place that allowed the Valley to exist in the first place.

But there are strategies that can work. Singapore has been investing in world class scientists working in world class institutions with world class equipment for over twenty years now and it is beginning to bear fruit. As a result, many emerging economies now refer to replicating the Singapore model rather than Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, the attractiveness of the Singapore model to today’s politicians is limited. While Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew was a man with a long term plan, most of today’s politicians will be long forgotten by the time any new initiative bears fruit.

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