Students become millionaires overnight – yesterday derided as IT geeks, today they are celebrated like pop stars. This may be a crazy world, but the future is emerging here: in Silicon Valley. On the west coast of California near San Francisco, a culture all of its own is evolving. The unique spirit that prevails here is difficult to pin down. Silicon Valley is the global center of the computer and Internet industry, which is continually producing new solutions for the future – for mobility, as for other subjects. One trend that is evident in various ways in this high-tech hotspot is the community aspect of the search for solutions and mutual help for making the world a better place together. An insider talks about this recipe for success, and the nature of pioneering work in the field of mobility …
Groups of visitors from Asia, Europe and the whole world come here every day with the aim of understanding how the avant-garde ticks. They want to find out on the spot what secret formula can be copied from Silicon Valley, in order to arrive in the future faster than the others. Many aspects of this region’s recipe for success cannot be learned, however. They are rooted in the culture and the mental attitude of this center of advanced technology. In its optimism, for example, and people’s inquisitive openness towards trying out something new all the time. One hallmark of the development of Silicon Valley is that the companies based here assist each other. The search for new, innovative solutions is a continuum. All the time new products are emerging – products that are useful for the services offered by other companies. And in the development phase, mutual help is provided through an open culture of critical evaluation, especially with new start-ups. People are willing to discuss their ideas rather than being fearful that their intellectual property will be stolen. Because one principle applies here: an idea has no value if it is not put into practice. And implementation requires social contact to the people who are experimenting and inventing, and feedback from experts with experience in the business.
© Claudius Macher
Tina Unterlaender is a German who has lived in the USA for eleven years. For about six years she has worked at the advertising agency AKQA in San Francisco – the place where the digital future is being developed. What is her explanation for the fact that so many new ideas from Silicon Valley are spreading across the world? “In San Francisco you have the advantage of being in the technology center of the world,“ says Unterlaender. “Here there is an incredible number of start-ups that have a lot of knowhow in the field of technology, and many people look to the future and invest.“ She is immersed every day in the trend-setting spirit of Silicon Valley, if only in her job: she supports the marketing of big customers in the field of mobility and experiences the start-up movement from very close up. Her special field of work relates to smartphone applications. The spirit of this area and San Francisco is marked by self-made people, unconventional thinkers and visionaries.
© Claudius Macher
The success of Silicon Valley is also based on research and teaching, however: Stanford University educates the best specialists in the business, thus contributing to the forward-looking development of the region. At the start of the last century, in fact, Stanford University was the moving force behind the emergence of an industry and research park around the campus. This was the nucleus from which Silicon Valley subsequently developed. One of the first companies that set up there was Hewlett-Packard in 1939. HP, today still based in Silicon Valley, is one of the world’s biggest makers of PCs. The company was founded by two graduates of Stanford, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, in a garage that is now a private museum and an icon that symbolizes the myth of the region. Further examples of companies that have set their stamp on digital growth from Silicon Valley are those well-known giants of the business, Facebook and Google. Cisco and Juniper Networks, too, have made their way into the homes and offices of the world with their network products and services, such as internet routers and firewalls. These companies made the Internet what it now is: simple, ubiquitous, and an essential part of our everyday life. Today the 77-kilometer strip of Silicon Valley is home to thousands of companies and start-ups in the high-tech business, and their numbers are growing.
© Tina Unterlaender
The regional government, too, makes possible this leading position, breaking down barriers for the benefit of progress. “It’s a little bit of everything,” Tina Unterlaender has observed. “In San Francisco of course we have the advantage that Edwin Lee is an innovative mayor.“ In her opinion, politicians in large cities have to be like that nowadays, because the world’s megacities will be more and more crowded in the future: over half of the global population will be living in cities within 15 years. Infrastructure and architecture have to create the conditions for a good quality of life there. These processes need to begin right now, and require the planning to be thought through – not only by industry, but also in politics. In this respect Unterlaender praises Mayor Edwin Lee of San Francisco. “He possessed the initiative to say that there are a great many smart people in Silicon Valley who have good ideas that the city on its own would not have hit upon,” says Tina Unterlaender. “He decided that we have to rethink and see how we can involve our own population themselves. And here data sharing plays an extremely big part.“ She sees San Francisco as an exemplary case for an open approach to data. “The city is known for the fact that it was the first, alongside its rival New York, to make data publicly available. On the size of and opportunities for using city parks, for instance, or the level of traffic at certain times and in certain parts of the city.“ This means that private individuals can download these files and make further use of them, for example in an app.
The application called WAZE shows how an app for mapping, traffic and navigation can work with a community spirit. This start-up with roots in Israel, which has its headquarters in Silicon Valley, has now been bought up by Google and was recently even integrated into Google maps. The secret of its success is crowd sourcing, which means that the task of gaining information about hold-ups, accidents, police checks and much more is allocated to the users. With every data entry into the app, they mutually provide information as a community about the traffic situation on the street in their immediate vicinity. The source of information here is therefore the community of commuters, in accordance with the trend to social media and sharing. By installing the app, users simultaneously give their consent to being tracked. Tina Unterlaender adds that by means of this additional function it is possible for WAZE to gather information about traffic problems even without users’ contributions, simply by recording whether and how quickly the registered user’s mobile device is moving. The advantage is obvious: this creates a free platform for traffic news, which is always bang up to date and can cover large areas as more people take advantage of the service. And according to the company, there are now more than 50 million users.
© Screenshot by Tina Unterlaender
Apps that are limited to particular cities are a further example. One pilot project is the city of San Francisco‘s “SFpark app”, which helps find a place to park and puts data on parking spaces in the public domain. “Some 30 to 40 percent of parking spaces in San Francisco are controlled by SFpark. They have recently been equipped with sensors and solar cells that pass on information about the availability of parking spaces and their prices to central servers,“ Unterlaender explains. The added value of this app is that it saves the drivers’ time and is easy on their nerves. When they use the service, they know exactly where there is a free space and how much it costs, and can park the car as quickly as possible. At the same time the publication of these data generates transparency and gives the creative people all around Silicon Valley an opportunity to extend and improve existing services or even to work out new digital solutions with the data.
© Screenshot by Tina Unterlaender
“People here simply like to get involved, and all the time they are producing innovations and creative ideas that might not have occurred to the city authorities themselves,“ says Tina Unterlaender. “And it is precisely these intelligent people in the region that San Francisco wants to help, for example in developing new apps, by publishing data. This means progress for the city itself.“ The potential for simplifying daily life and mobility by means of apps and other Internet services is, so to speak, lying on the shelf in many offices in the city government. “If you think about that for a moment: all cities gather piles of data, whether it is information about the make-up of the population, about traffic, or about health,“ Unterlaender explains. But not every region can use this potential, because all the expertise, creativity and will that is to be found in the people of Silicon Valley is not available everywhere. This is what defines the spirit of Silicon Valley and is the reason why, again and again, something new that benefits a lot of people is created from data and information.
© Claudius Macher
Thanks to this mental attitude, hardly any region on the planet can keep pace with Silicon Valley. For almost 100 years, bright minds from all over the globe have been
working away at crazy projects. However, even in this Mecca for brilliant
ideas, times have changed. Some people have expressed the criticism that work
at the number-one high-tech location is now heavily dominated by financial
greed, less and less by the motivation to change the world and solve problems.
Many young creative people come here with the primary aim of getting rich and
enjoying their secure employment in large companies. This is no longer the
spirit of innovation that marked the early days of Silicon Valley. Nevertheless,
the region is regarded globally as a shining example that should be emulated,
and in Israel, Scandinavia and Germany there already exist hotspots that are
being talked about as its future successors. Time will tell whether Silicon
Valley remains number one, or is overtaken by its competitors in the coming
© Claudius Macher