Googling innovation

I was in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago speaking to a group of marketing executives at Royal Philips about the forces that drive the Internet revolution in America. "So what is it about Silicon Valley that makes it so innovative," one Philips executive asked me after my speech. "How easy is it to replicate this innovation in Europe?"

It's a great question -- one that has intrigued me since 1983, when I first arrived in northern California as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. Indeed, it's such a good question that I instantly Googled it when I got back to America.

No, I didn't ask the artificial algorithm. I actually had the good fortune to get through to a real human being at Google. Kent Walker is Google's General Counsel and the guy responsible for running all of the company's legal affairs. What is particularly interesting about Walker is that he's a Silicon Valley native -- having grew up in Palo Alto, the home of Stanford University and both the intellectual and business hub of the Valley. So, when I talked to Walker last week, I asked Google's top lawyer to explain the special relationship between Silicon Valley and technological innovation.

Walker gave me a whirlwind history lesson in the evolution of Silicon Valley. He started his narrative in what he calls "the growth of the military-industrial complex" of the Fifties which he sees as setting the essential backdrop for all later innovation. Indeed, Walker's father had originally been in the American navy and then worked both for Stanford University and for the aerospace company Lockheed. Growing up in Palo Alto in the Sixties and Seventies, Walker was exposed to technology at a really early age -- first doing very primitive programming in elementary school and then, as a high school student, playing Star Wars games on Stanford university computers.

While Walker believes that the cultural foundations of Silicon Valley revolution need to be understood in the context of the rugged western individualism of the 19th century Californian farmer/rancher/cowboy, he also sees the counter cultural Sixties as adding a curious twist to the local story of technological innovation. It was the radical libertarian spirit of San Francisco in the Sixties, he believes, that provided an ironic remix on the the frontier spirit and risk taking ethos that we now naturally associate with the technology entrepreneur. And he suggested that there is a curious historical parallel between the dreamy hippies of the Sixties and the kids today sitting in Stanford university dorm rooms and dreaming up next generation search engines and social networks.

In addition to the culture of western individualism, Walker believes that liberal bankruptcy laws and laws that make it very easy for individuals to switch companies have also significantly contributed to the uniquely innovative nature of the Silicon Valley economy. This pro entrepreneurial legal culture, with its high toleration for failure and its encouragement of an infinitely mobile workforce, enables what Walker calls "Schumpeter's gale of creative destruction" to successfully blow through Silicon Valley. This is heaven for capitalists and it's why, according to Walker, the region is now the critical engine of the global information economy.

So let's return to that question from the Royal Philips executive -- how easy is it to replicate the innovation of Silicon Valley in Europe? The answer, I fear, is hard, very hard. The strip of flat land between San Jose and San Francisco has a unique cultural, social and economic history. Silicon Valley is an incredibly unlikely beast -- a sui generis hybrid of frontier risk taking, Cold War technology and the counter cultural revolution of the Sixties. Lightening only strikes once – and it's already struck Silicon Valley.