Why you don’t want your city to become Silicon Valley


Silicone Valley NewsSilicone Valley News

For the last few years I’ve heard and read that St. Louis just might be the next Silicon Valley.
I haven’t just heard that about St. Louis. I’ve heard the same thing about Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Denver, Houston, Columbus, and just about every decent-sized city in America.

Of course, Silicon Valley has a lot going for it. The region is a source of a whole lot of innovation, and the people who work there can become (or already are) very, very rich. But even if we could make St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, or any other midwestern city the next San Jose, would we really want to? Silicon Valley isn’t exactly problem-free. Some of the challenges facing residents and communities of the Bay Area prove that a staggering amount of money isn’t just a blessing.

It can also be a curse.

The cost of housing in Silicon Valley is astronomical, forcing many relatively well-paid workers into less-than-desirable living situations. In fact, Silicon Valley is one of the most economically unequal places in the world. There’s a reason why Task Rabbit thrives in the Bay Area: Teachers, police officers, nurses, and other employees working in professions that are critical to a functional and safe society often cannot afford to live in the communities they serve without trying to monetize their every waking minute.

Personally, I’m glad I live in a metropolitan area where I can afford a decent home without having to pick up someone else’s dry cleaning. In fact, earlier in my career, I had opportunities to move to California for jobs that offered a significant salary increase. However, that salary increase was more than eaten up by the cost of living. In other words, a 20% raise and a move to Silicon Valley would end with me, my wife, and our three kids moving from a home with enough space for all of us to a 600-square-foot apartment.

When I envision that scenario, I immediately think of those movies where unsuspecting tourists get sent to a cramped prison cell in Thailand.

No thanks.

For a whole lot of people, Silicon Valley is exactly the community they want to live in, and they can either afford the high cost of living or find Task Rabbiting their way through what little off time they get to be a perfectly acceptable way to live.

And that’s okay.

However, it doesn’t mean that other cities should strive to recreate Silicon Valley. Branding your city “the next Silicon Valley” is also an exercise in futility. Silicon Valley has its roots in the defense industry and the need to protect the West Coast during World War II. Before the Japanese blew up Pearl Harbor, the west coast wasn’t the center of American innovation. Instead, cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit were the birthplaces of some of the country’s biggest and most innovative companies.

We should build a Silicon Prairie that isn’t an imitation of Silicon Valley, but instead is a place where a low cost of living means that a full-time worker (whether he or she is a programmer or 4th grade teacher) can afford to buy a home and spend their off-time enjoying the community they live in.

A few years ago, I was invited to visit the San Francisco offices of LinkedIn. During my visit, several employees mentioned the extraordinary cost of living, the fact that they knew they could never afford to raise a family in the city, and how frustrating and demoralizing it was. They had great jobs, could smell the ocean 24 hours a day and lived in one of the world’s most beautiful and unique cities—but many of those workers couldn’t afford to enjoy it.

I can’t smell the ocean from my front yard, but I do live in a unique and beautiful city. I don’t want to see that city become the next Silicon Valley. I want to see it become the best version of itself it can possibly be, and I believe that making that happen will depend on creating a base of technology-focused jobs.

Let’s let Silicon Valley be Silicon Valley. It can be the place where you find gigantic social media companies, good seafood (it’s true), and teachers living in vans.

And the Silicon Prairie can be home to great cities, good BBQ, and communities where teachers can still afford to live down the street from the founders of pretty exciting startups.

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