From Silicon Valleys to Community Informatics Neighbourhoods—Digital Development Strategies as Though Local Economies Mattered

Posted on August 2, 2010


Many (most) countries in the world have in the decade just passed, developed and at least partially implemented what may be called a “digital development strategy”.  These strategies are based on a perception that the kind of economic activity that has resulted from the technical/digital development taking place in Silicon Valley and similar such locales particularly in the US is a necessary element of the economic development strategy for any/every country that wants to be competitive and thus prosperous at this time in economic history.

The perception is that the well funded science and technology programs at the leading universities in the San Francisco and California region—Stanford, CalTech, UC Berkeley and so on attracted faculty and produced students whose leading edge work contributed more or less immediately and directly to the generation of technology innovations which in turn led directly to the creation of start-up technology enterprises. These mixed with fairly ready availability of investment capital, in turn sparked the technology (and commercial) digital revolutions of the Internet and other digital enterprises.  In turn these enterprises provided the basis for economic advance and importantly (from a government’s perspective) job creation and enhancements to the national revenue stream through taxes and so on.

This logic is probably correct at least in outline (but would be worth examining in some close detail) however, what is rather less obvious is that this model can (or should) be reproduced not just once or twice but repeatedly in tens and hundreds of locations around the world—Silicon Peninsula (Dalian PRC), Silicon Alley (NYC), through Silicon Vinyard (Okanagan, BC, Canada) and so on; to the point where there is a Wikipedia site simply documenting and listing these and pointing to an even more comprehensive site called Siliconia.

Not surprisingly, attempting to reproduce these developments has become something of an industry in itself for certain institutions (most notably perhaps MIT with its string of (largely failed) international Media Labs and international consulting firms.  Making an argument against the possibility of reproducing these results is somewhat contentious given the resources which have propelled the attempts in this direction however, it is fairly widely acknowledged that the specific ecology that contributed to the development of Silicon Valley and its counterparts elsewhere in the US is one that is difficult and extremely costly to reproduce.  As well, it is much more easily reproducible when a number of the pre-conditions already exist as for example, a very well-established university and research system–creating what is generally termed as Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP) and a strong set of technology traditions and extraordinary available funding as for example is available through defense research programs.

Whether these ecologies can be reproduced is one thing, whether the attempt should be made to reproduce them is something else. There are certain things about digital technologies which suggest that perhaps this should be approached with considerable caution:

  1. the nature of most Silicon Valley (SV) types of technology development is “winner take all” that is the first to capture the market keeps the market and there is little room for additional suppliers/competitors in the field
  2. Silicon Valley types of development are probably net destroyers of employment for an economy overall rather than contributors in that they encourage and contribute the automation of previously manual processes while themselves only creating a limited number of jobs in he domestic economy.
  3. all of the other SV’s start with significant competitive disadvantages in relation to their emulators
  4. a likely effect of significant investment in developing HQP in anticipation of a SV type of development is in fact to be training domestic personnel so that they can then begin to participate in and compete for employment in the international technology marketplace and thus have opportunities for emigration (and contribution) to US and other technology poles rather than to domestically research.
  5. the contribution of local investment in HQP and other technology development makes relatively little overall contribution to other areas of domestic development and rather more to internationally focused technology development supporting the dominant players in those market place.

In fact, it is quite possible that a “SV” strategy will have only limited impact and certainly nothing like the transformative economic benefits which are generally ascribed to the investment being made.

Let’s be somewhat more realistic about the economic circumstances opportunities in second and third tier countries:

  1. many countries are suffering from quite severe rural urban migration as many, particularly the younger and better educated migrate from rural areas including rural smaller communities to larger urban areas and particularly capital cities.
  2. many countries are suffering from severe youth unemployment including unemployment among recent post-secondary graduates
  3. rural economies overall suffer from a lack of innovation and capacity to support and promote innovation
  4. rural population centres in many countries suffer from a lack of skills and an overall lack of services associated with participating in a contemporary economy
  5. shifts of population from rural to urban areas are a significant contribution to urban degradation and in many cases present an overall social problem.

Given this circumstance one wonders why little or no attention/resources are directed towards developing capacity for innovation including technology enabled innovation at the local level and making a contribution to local development and particularly among rural and marginalized populations.

Thus for example, rather than, or perhaps better, in addition to making huge investments in advanced science and technology training, laboratories, internationally recognized university faculty, and so and so on, perhaps a rather more substantial impact on a domestic economy could achieved by establishing programs for training young people to become locally community informatics officers—providing the basis for Internet access, local training, support for local innovation, support for local business development and business adaptation towards the integration and effective use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) and so on.  What would be needed rather than state of the art computer science and engineering programs would be programs training young people in working in their local communities and having an understanding both of local community processes and how ICTs could be an enabler for local economic and social development.

Since in many cases the young people could be encouraged to return to their home communities they would have an intuitive understanding of local needs and opportunities and would be able to “hit the ground running” since they would begin from a platform of sympathy and trust.  In addition, they would help to maintain and revitalize rural communities and inner city neigbhourhoods which are currently suffering from depopulation of their skilled young people and they would be much more likely to settle down locally rather than subjecting their employers to the costs of continuous turnover.

Since many real innovations come from finding innovative ways of addressing local problems it is possible, even likely, that a program to support locally developed innovation as might emerge from a program such as this might in fact foster significant and more broadly competitive technical and enterprise innovation (one need only look at the types of innovation currently emerging from the local cell phone cultures in Africa as an example of this).

So rather than adding to the lists of (mostly failed) Silion whatzits, perhaps national governments could begin to develop digital development strategies focused around the development and deployment of Community Informatics Corps into rural areas, villages, low income neighbourhoods and in this way make effective and lasting contributions to not only “bridging the digital divide” but more importantly to revitalizing communities and re-energizing local economies .  In this way governments would, and not incidentally, very likely be making rather more lasting and cost effective economic contributions at a national level as well.