Asia, Give Up On The Dream Of Being Silicon Valley

Anh-Minh Do
2:01 pm on Feb 26, 2013


One of my favorite jokes about Silicon Valley goes like this:

A million guys walk into a Silicon Valley bar. None of them buy anything. The bar is declared a rousing success.

It underlines an unbounded enthusiasm that you wouldn’t find elsewhere. And yet, this hasn’t stopped cities like Beijing, Bangalore, Singapore, Shenzhen, Daejeon, and even Ho Chi Minh city, being touted as the next Silicon Valley. People think, if you’ve got a bunch of tech companies all in one place, we can call it a Silicon Valley. But the fact is, people don’t tell these kinds of jokes in Asian cities. Embracing devil-may-care failure and rampant cowboy venture capitalism is just not in Asia’s DNA.

Yes, companies and communities throughout Asia need to embrace the principles that lead to success in Silicon Valley, like the lean startup method or the practices of venture capitalism, but an Asian Silicon Valley will never come. And it doesn’t have to.

Forget Silicon Valley, this is the Silicon Continent

Yes, it makes sense that Asian cities are often touted as the next Silicon Valley. With India saving the world from the Y2K bug, Japan’s electronic mavericks, and China’s trillion RMB e-commerce industry, who can argue with that evaluation? I mean, 50 percent of Silicon Valley tech jobs are filled by Asian Americans. But this eagerness to dub Asia the next Silicon Valley belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Valley is and what it takes to make one.

Something Ventured, a movie about the early transition from Fairchild Semiconductor to the full-fledged Silicon Valley, outlines perfectly the arduous and multi-faceted journey that small area in Northern California had to take to become the Hollywood of technology (Another film just came out on PBS’s American Experience titled: “Silicon Valley”). If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it. The moral of the story is clear – it’s not easy to make a Silicon Valley happen. It requires decades of government research funding, ballsy venture capitalists, intelligent educational institutions, a healthy network of relationships and, of course, brilliant individuals that were fostered by that environment.

I think the dialogue needs to shift away from dubbing a new Silicon Valley and into something else entirely. Take a quick look at a list of places on Wikipedia with the word ‘silicon’ in them and you’ll see right away how unoriginal Asia is. It’s all “Silicon Valley of -” China or India or Indonesia. Can’t we get more creative? How about Silicon Kingdom for China? Or Silicon City-State for Singapore? Why would Ho Chi Minh city want to be the Silicon Valley when it could be the Silicon Delta? Obviously, Samsung’s gotta push the Silicon Peninsula. And I’m shocked nobody’s grabbed Silicon Island yet. (Taiwan, are you listening?) Or better yet, why use the word Silicon at all?

But this isn’t about branding, it’s about identity and self-perception. As long as Asian entrepreneurs aspire to be the next Silicon Valley, they will never carve out their own niche in an increasingly diverse technical world. Don’t take whipped cream and put it on noodles.

That’s right, whipped cream = Silicon Valley; and noodles = Asia.

The existential journey of Asian entrepreneurs

I think Start-Up Nation, a book about Israel’s rise to high-tech relevance, has the best lesson for what to do next. As Gary Shainberg says in the book, Israel faced some extraordinary circumstances: “Nowhere else in the world where people work in a center of technology innovation do they also have to do national service.” This is powerful. Israel, with its long list of world-renowned startups, has embraced what makes it unique and has infused into how it innovates.

This is exactly what innovators and entrepreneurs in Asia need to do. The cities of Silicon Valley don’t need to create the next Facebook or Google. They need to solve problems native to Asia. I think that’s what a few companies are doing, and I want to see more of it. Otherwise, we’re just going to see the same old cut-and-paste enterprises.

Asia’s got its own peculiarities that you won’t see anywhere else. Its leverage. A humongous, young and hungry population that’s increasingly tech savvy, widespread diversity that forces relevant startups to compete internationally, and the potential to innovate. And I think these characteristics need to be embraced more and sought out. It’s like the saying goes, the problem is the solution.

So stop saying that your city is the next Silicon Valley, and fill in the blanks in your societies lives.

  • LW

    Good ending there, Minh… “So stop saying that your city is the next Silicon Valley, and fill in the blanks in your societies lives.” I think u also need note that ppl from SV come to Asia trying to make it into a SV. Asians follow… Sad that Westerners come Asia and see the place thru their lens.. that i think make them blind.

  • Shlomo Freund (@StartUpNoodle)

    I think that as someone coming from Israel and know about innovation there, China got a lot to learn. Since culture here does not encourage risk taking , and invention (which is about accepting failure, as something one should go though), it will take a while to Change.

    Don’t get me wrong, there is still great innovation in China and the gap is closing, but I wonder how big it is in terms of percentage considering the population size.

    I’m still learning….

  • Sascha

    Great article. Couldn’t agree more. I attend so many conferences, workshops, etc. since coming to Bangkok and most the guys talking say things like “that worked already in Europe, now we’ll make it work here” (hello rocket internet) and just pushing the ‘Asia = Copies” stereotype further. However there are awesome startups, ideas and smart people here. They should just stop trying to be someone else.

  • Peter B

    *Daejeon, not Daejoen.

    I agree that the cities you mention needn’t copy America’s model for tech innovation. Actually they are already doing very well for themselves! I’m in the process of applying for PhD programmes in California, Korea, and Taiwan.

    For California, the admission requirements for international students are very high, and the admission rate is extremely low. They are renowned for research, yet names like Stanford and Berkeley have become a brand.

    By contrast, I visited KAIST last summer. They were eager to encourage me to apply, and are passionate about making better connections around the world by taking in international students.

    Some Californian universities are known for political activism. But out of 25 research projects in Berkeley’s Electronic Engineering department, only 8 do not include military funding. I have a conscientious objection to military research, as it is often classified and not shared for the benefit of humanity. For example, Ultra-Wideband communications. Now I know why the students are protesting in their own backyard!

    When the military don’t make the research classified, patents prevent companies from using new knowledge. ASIC designs by Broadcom are impressive, I won’t deny. But half of them are never manufactured. By contrast, in KAIST they have a semiconductor fab next door. PhD students spend one year designing a chip, and then manufacture 5000 of them. The following year they test it, and send samples to all the major suppliers. That is practical research – pushing the boundaries on technology, not just hoarding intellectual property!

    Back in the 1970s, when most semiconductor fabs were in Silicon Valley, the research culture will have been different there. But now, I would rather study somewhere that I can make a practical difference than in a place with a historical reputation.

  • Boris

    The culture. Confucianism and the education in Asian countries ( Taiwan, Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan and etc.) don’t allow any burst and explosion of creativity and entrepreneurship. An innovative mind in the real Silicon Valley can find V.C. easily, and has to overcome less obstacles. In Asia there is absence of the “leap of faith” and true entrepreneurship. Without this two no-way you can have silicon valley like industries and development.

  • chai_green

    westerners love stereotypes. China is not creative because of its rote learning, confucian culture of not questioning authority and draconian laws against individual liberties. Chinese people are not things you can put in a box! Risk taking is in the Chinese dna! Heck, gambling is in their blood and many of the top gamblers in the world are Chinese. Hong Kong has the richest people on earth! Don’t let the forbes list fool you. News for you, it ain’t Carlos Slim or Warren Buffett or Bill Gates that are the richest! It’s a couple of Chinese families living in HK. This line of western thinking is one reason why the west is setting. For all its talk of embracing diversity, it fails to see beyond the tip of its nose. Get out there and learn to speak Mandarin.

  • Demolished Man

    Chai-green, I’ll have whatever you’re smoking please – it seems like pretty powerful stuff. Honestly, anyone who equates a pathological problem (like gambling addiction, or alcohol addiction) with entrepreneurial qualities like risk-taking is just talking crap. The education system in China is a total disaster that DOES churn out rote-learning drones and crushes both individuality and creativity. Not for absolutely everyone of course, but hiring in this part of the world is not easy if you are a technology company that seeks *creative* individuals. The many problems with Confucianism are not just stereotypes created by the West, they are acknowledged by the Chinese themselves – at least the ones that managed to break out of the Confucian mold, which is designed to produce bureaucrats, not free-thinkers.

  • VSA

    The author’s use of anecdotes, euphemism and analogies lead to a mishmash of pointless points. No one would argue that you can copy-exact any culture but aspiring to be like SV is not in of itself a bad thing. Even Silicon Alley in NY and Silicon Beach in LA cannot be confused with SV, yet no one takes issue with their nomenclature. Even whipped cream on the West Coast doesn’t mix with whipped cream on the East Coast.

    And what if the early Asian pioneers of silicon wafers heeded similar warnings to not try and copy the successes of Fairchild, IBM, Intel and the leading semiconductor companies of the 70s and 80s? There would be no Samsung, Toshiba or TSMC… now world leaders in chip making.

    So lets not get caught up in the name calling and know that trying to model yourself like someone you admire and respect is a worthy aspiration.

  • Boris

    chai_green: I speak Chinese, Russian, German and English. On the Confucianism issue; I get paid a lot of money by two Airplane companies and one art university, for helping their pilots and students think out of the safety of their culture. I didn’t say that I’m against Confucianism, but in some business practices it can cause problems. Since I mention business practices, you have to know that gambling and risk taking is not a wanted as a characteristic in any culture. Sure there is risk in anything new, but “getting drunk” and “guns blazing” is not how you approach the market.

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