Rewinding American history to the late 18th century and early 19th century, five men built modern-day America. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Vanderbilt,Henry Ford and JP Morgan created the foundation of America and shaped civilization as they invented the motor car, electricity reached every corner of America, created a new financial model and created industries and opened new sectors. From steel, to rail to oil to shipping to the financial system they broke every rule possible, rivaled one another but imagined a new world. From a visit to the bay area and Silicon Valley, one senses that we are perhaps at a point in time when, a new disruptive future is in the making. New men are re-building America and ushering in new times riding on imagination and foresight!
In a recent immersion, down in the valley shifts were very visible. Security robots are patrolling malls; the Stanford campus now boasts most of it’s d-school-the design school which does not give any degree but runs the hottest class for students from other Stanford programs. Here offices give you few reasons to go back home, as everything needed to live life is embedded within and hotel bars are meant to strike deals and brew more ideas than drinks. One also notices new ideas of mobility in action. Cabs are redundant in the valley replaced by Uber and Lyft and recharging power stations are making a visibly strong appearance alongside fuel stations.
Perhaps these are signs of larger civilization shifts that are in store for us! In this new world access overrides ownership, liquid data is making way from big data, educational institutions are remodeling programs to enable the learning continuum. New civilizational concerns and questions of the future are shaping present day behaviours and choices. What’s striking about the present in the valley is their obsession about the future and the role that technology along with design, academia, research, behavioral thinking and the capital ecosystem is playing collective in shaping it.
The immersion and interactions with investors, consultants, the d-school at Stanford, institutes that study the Future, dealers/manufacturers of new age technology, the unicorns and old world companies rediscovering themselves in the new world left some interesting questions, thoughts and realizations about the future!
1. The mindset called Silicon Valley
The Valley has created an incredible ecosystem, with venture capitalists, ideators, serial entrepreneurs, academic institutions supporting research capabilities, proven business models and unicorns making the valley home. According to a McKinsey study the Bay area GDP is the 36th largest economy in the world, larger than Singapore or Israel (2014). With 23,000+ startups in the valley it also makes it one of the best places to fail.
The valley is a magnet that self selects. It attracts people who have an inner drive and a self-organizing ability. It is for those who see life seamlessly and those who have the ability to understand the continuum of life and work.
But unlike a large metropolis or economic power centers in the world, “energy” in the valley lies in the invisible. Lacking the hustle and bustle and the overt markers of citification as progress, in the valley high-rise buildings and the cityscapes are replaced with Californian sun, beautiful weather and a picturesque life. Nothing here seems to be overdone. Consciousness and energy perhaps here comes from within making the valley more than just a place, but a mindset.
2. The Future obsession
“Everything can be disrupted” seems to be a belief in the valley. With every present assumption being questioned and with the ability to converge technology, design and capital the valley is obsessively creating the future.
Here human minds are on steroids. Linearity sees no place here. And with the valley having seen the cycle of creation and commercial realization, it seems to obsess less on the ability to predict what the next big thing could be. Instead it prototypes multiple imaginations of the future while it budgets for failure. The Future is not a Utopian idea, but always in the making!
3. Technology development is not equal to technology adoption
Perhaps the valley is obsessed with technology because humans are harder to predict than technology. Technology has always been the surrogate to manage the imperfections of humans and equip them with the ability to conquer time and space. However the valley recognizes that the cycles for development of technology are distinct from the cycles of technology adoption. The two need different abilities and resources. More importantly technology development does not always lead to technology adoption. Adoption of new behaviours is deeply rooted in cultural contexts, habits and ideologies. It also needs convergence of the head and the heart and of commerce and design.
4. Die hard believers
Beyond capital and a cultural ecosystem the valley also showcases the need for fanatics while attempting to disrupt the world. In a one-on-one interaction with Vinod Khosla one recognized the role that fanatics like Khosla play. They support the space not just with capital, but more importantly by belief and support, they harness, force multiply, promote unheard ideas and imaginations of the future. These believers bring foresight, experience but importantly display sheer guts by backing and supporting unthinkable ideas and unstoppable people with confidence. Perhaps this sort of thinking will some day also disrupt the disruptors!
5. The Modern day corporations as Culture Institutions
By definition, growth and scale brings discipline, predictability and stability. But innovation, which is at the core of modern-day business, cannot be led by linearity. In fact process is the bug that kills innovation. The valley seems to have understood the need for left-brain and right-brain balance and have designed a culture for innovation.
From Facebook to Google to young start up’s transparency, fluidity and agility is aspired for. The 80-20 principle is one such rule through which the innovation culture is lived out. Striving for perfection, getting better at the same thing by repetitive action/review is the 80 percent ask. However everyone is encouraged to spend 20 percent of the time pursuing dreams and imagining bold tomorrows. From many such hackathons and 20 percent projects were born big ideas like Google Maps to the Facebook Like button.
No meeting Wednesdays adopted at Facebook is another interesting way in which the valley workers remain in flow state. With a day dedicated to working with oneself, it sets a discipline, a rhythm to work and allows for time when each one is forced individual responsibility to remain focused and productive.
Office campuses here are more like new age university towns. It would be common to find the next big hero walking around in a T-shirt or biking to his next meeting. With free food organizations buy the heart-share of its people. Providing for everything required inside campus to live life – from books, to fitness to entertainment, organizations blur boundaries between work and life.
One can only wonder what would it be like to grow up children in this highly demanding world, or how family life spans out for the average worker. However it’s for certain that these new age culture institutions created by corporations is another next-gen idea from the valley to the world!
A new world is in the making for sure. In this new world new rules, new heroes, new concerns will emerge. Many questions will still remain unanswered. Perhaps only time will be able to provide answers to the philosophical questions around the nature of our future and the implications of technology on human civilization.
But in the meanwhile lets imagine how we can create the spirit of the valley here in India and re-imagine a new future for India, for India? Can we imagine an India that gives to the world new ideas, new beliefs and creates new behaviours. Yes in times gone by, India has given to the world many philosophers, many thoughts and many ideas unparalleled. From Yoga to Ayurveda from the Bhagvad Gita to the Arthashastra and from Aryabhatta to Gandhi, India has shown its prowess in leading with thoughts.
However 21st Century India is known better for labour arbitrage, process innovations and for its glorious past rather than its ability to create an imaginative future for itself and the world. We take pride in aping business models of the world and in embracing a borrowed imagination of our self and growth rather than imagining new futures for ourselves. Indians are leading the unicorns in the valley and we have exported talent that is central to the valley’s workforce.
Perhaps we need to create a robust eco-system that allows Indians to dream of a new world order. With a convergence of society, education, academia, commerce, design, technology and capital India too can lead in the world with ideas. With this we need to re-imagine what we measure as success and allow for failure, we need to integrate the world of academics and the world of business, we need to regard and respect not just our engineers and doctors but also entrepreneurs and designers.
Most importantly we need to create a series of extreme believers that back thought leaders and disruptive original thinkers. We need to make our beginnings and create a Maha-kumbh that aggregates society in the whole and parts to re-imagine India as a land where the sone ki chidiya soars once again!
Ashni visited the valley in early May 2016 with the McKinsey next-gen India group, to attend the Silicon Valley Boot camp program.