In our evolving post-employment culture, there are vigorous debates about what conditions are needed to promote entrepreneurship – quantity of talent; quality of ideas; access to risk capital; culture of innovation; public-private cooperation – and the list goes on. Inevitably, the conversation turns to “How can we be more like Silicon Valley?” - with its abundant and well-publicized startups, venture funds and innovation cheerleaders (Graham, Andreessen, Kawasaki, Bianchini…). This is true even in places that themselves are widely regarded as innovation hubs, like Boston (supposedly left “in the dust” by the Valley).
The short answer is, no, you can’t be Silicon Valley. It’s a confluence of great brains, great weather, great money and luck. But rewind the clock back to 1950, and there was no Silicon Valley. So we’re mistaking directional success with inherent virtue and value. If you were alive in 1900, you’d be bemoaning the industrial might of Pittsburgh and Cleveland (which themselves are re-emerging with transforming economies). Nonetheless, this is the trend that we’re stuck with. Some parts of the country are doing better than others. Some are taking better steps to prepare for the next economies. Some have a better street-level entrepreneurial culture than others. It’s a dynamic, but playing out with real consequences for real workers/business owners/investors.
Now ignore the previous paragraph and remember that the only garden that you can grow is the one you’re in. So if you want to go west, head west – if you can afford it (and if you can handle mudslides, fires etc…). If you want to stay, look down where your feet are. Then look around. There are no civil wars in the countryside, the police generally keep order, the politicians are generally honest and we’re generally helpful to each other. We have amazing schools, amazing culture and amazing businesses (large and small). On any given day, there are likely more than a billion people around the planet who would be happy to switch places with you.
Assuming then we can be thankful to be here and avoid Silicon Valley envy, we need to regularly recognize what we do have that works here at a world-class level - and learn from, and leverage, that success. Here are just two examples – live theater and medical services/technology.
The Twin Cities has the largest amount of live theater per capita after Manhattan (by ticket sales). We have over 100 venues to watch live theater (not including schools/colleges) and in every shade and stripe from repertory to avant-garde to community – urban, suburban and rural. We have the nation’s only real playwright advocacy organizations (the Playwrights’ Center) and perhaps the nation’s best repertory theater (Guthrie). Playwrights move here to get a chance to air their works and find support. This is true for a pursuit that typically yields little money or fame.
In other words, we are the Silicon Valley of live theater. It’s organically successful and people around the country (and world) know it. With all the dramatic engines fired up, we are churning out tons of new works. And frankly, some of it may be crap. But so are many of the startups out of the Valley (remember the Dot-Bomb). Then again, you need this race to get the best stuff out on top. Imagine if we had 100 street-level innovation centers and laboratories just in the Twin Cities, dynamically developing and demoing new technologies, sharing ideas, seeking creative input and criticism and launching startups.
Minnesota’s stature in medical services and technology is a great legacy of care and innovation. We have a world-famous medical clinic that sheiks come to (Mayo), the company that pioneered the battery-powered pacemaker
) and the institution that launched open heart surgery (University of Minnesota Medical School). The Mayo and the U of M legacy has spawned a raft of local innovation such that the Twin Cities is a world-class medical service and device hub. Like playwrights, medtech entrepreneurs come to Minnesota to launch new enterprise – because there is a deeply supportive community of financiers, startups and successful companies.
In other words, we have the brainpower, the money, the creativity and the legacy to support and launch world-class innovation. As with the blossoming tech scene in New York
, we need to anchor around our strengths (medical, food/grain, information technology, culture) even as we push into new spheres. And we need to see new business and technology for what they are - inherent and important parts of culture and human life – and keep the juice (and money) flowing. When we’re present to, and nurture, our local innovation, we’ll be too busy and creative to wallow in self-doubt – and that’s a fun spot to be.