The view from Mike Steep’s office on Palo Alto’s Coyote Hill is one of the greatest in Silicon Valley.Beyond the black and rosewood office furniture, the two large computer monitors, and three Indonesian artifacts to ward off evil spirits, Steep looks out onto a panorama stretching from Redwood City to Santa Clara. This is the historic Silicon Valley, the birthplace of Hewlett-Packard and Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel and Atari, Netscape and Google. This is the home of innovations that have shaped the modern world. So is Steep’s employer: Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, where personal computing and key computer-networking technologies were invented, and where he is senior vice president of global business operations.
And yet Mike Steep is disappointed at what he sees out the windows.
“I see a community that acts like it knows where it’s going, but that seems to have its head in the sand,” he says. He gestures towards the Hewlett-Packard headquarters a few blocks away and Hoover Tower at Stanford University. “This town used to think big—the integrated circuit, personal computers, the Internet. Are we really leveraging all that intellectual power and creativity creating Instagram and dating apps? Is this truly going to change the world?”
After spending years at Microsoft, HP, and Apple, Steep joined PARC in 2013 to help the legendary ideas factory better capitalize on its work. As part of the job, he travels around the world visiting R&D executives in dozens of big companies, and increasingly he worries that the Valley will become irrelevant to them. Steep is one of 22 tech executives on a board the mayor of London set up to promote a “smart city”; they advise officials on how to allocate hundreds of millions of pounds for projects that would combine physical infrastructure such as new high-speed rail with sensors, databases, and analytics. “I know for a fact that China and an array of other countries are chasing this project, which will be the template for scores of similar big-city infrastructure projects around the world in years to come,” Steep says. “From the U.S.? IBM. From Silicon Valley? Many in England ask if anyone here has even heard of the London subway project. That’s unbelievable. Why don’t we leverage opportunities like this here in the Valley?”
“This town used to think big—the integrated circuit, personal computers, the Internet. Are we really leveraging all that intellectual power and creativity creating Instagram and dating apps? Is this truly going to change the world?”Steep isn’t alone in asking whether Silicon Valley is devoting far too many resources to easy opportunities in mobile apps and social media at the expense of attacking bigger problems in energy, medicine, and transportation (see Q&A: Peter Thiel). But if you put that argument to many investors and technologists here, you get a reasonable comeback: has Silicon Valley really ever set out to directly address big problems? In fact, the classic Valley approach has been to size up which technologies it can quickly and ambitiously advance, and then let the world make of them what it will. That is how we got Facebook and Google, and it’s why the Valley’s clean-tech affair was a short-lived mismatch. And as many people point out with classic Silicon Valley confidence, the kind of work that made the area great is still going on in abundance.
The next wave
A small group of executives, surrounded by hundreds of bottles of wine, sits in the private dining room at Bella Vita, an Italian restaurant in Los Altos’s picturesque downtown of expensive tiny shops. Within a few miles, one can find the site of the original Fairchild Semiconductor, Steve Jobs’s house, and the saloon where Nolan Bushnell set up the first Atari game. The host of this gathering is Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, an industry association dedicated to the economic health of the Valley. The 400 organizations that belong to the group are mostly companies that were founded long before the mobile-app craze; only 10 percent are startups. That is evident at this dinner, to which Guardino has invited three of his board members: Steve Berglund, CEO of Trimble, a maker of GPS equipment; Tom Werner, CEO of the solar provider SunPower; and Greg Becker, CEO of Silicon Valley Bank.
These are people who, like Steep, spend much of their time meeting with people in governments and other companies. Asked whether the Valley is falling out of touch with what the world really needs, each disagrees, vehemently. They are almost surprised by the question. “This is the most adaptive and flexible business community on the planet,” says Becker. “It is always about innovation—and going where the opportunity leads next. If you’re worried that the Valley is overpursuing one market or another, then just wait a while and it will change direction again. That’s what we are all about.”...MORE
Saturday, January 31, 2015
"The Purpose of Silicon Valley"
From MIT's Technology Review: