Boston vs. NYC vs. Silicon Valley? Forget It—The Real City of Innovation Is Everywhere

In William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk masterpiece Neuromancer, the hero Case lives in a near-future place called BAMA—the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis, aka the Sprawl, a giant city that has spread Coruscant-like across the whole eastern seaboard. (If it had extended to Orlando, maybe Gibson could have called it OBAMA.) But while this part of Gibson’s sci-fi dystopia may have seemed plausible in the 1980s, it’s a little less so today. Yes, cities are still dealing with the consequences of the mid-20th-century’s automobile-driven sprawl—but if anything, the big metropolitan regions in the U.S. today are contracting around the edges, not blurring into one another.

And once the cheap oil runs out, analysts like James Howard Kunstler argue, cities will have to get smaller yet. The future “will be much more about staying where you are than about being mobile,” Kunstler predicts. Unless there’s a miraculous advance in solar-electric vehicle technology, or the government suddenly decides to invest a couple trillion dollars to build a serious passenger rail network, it’s hard to see how he might be wrong.

But that’s just one side of the picture—the physical reality of freeways and suburbs and Wal-Marts. There’s another trend at work that’s erasing what I would call the mental boundaries between cities. That trend, obviously, is digital networking.

It’s a tired cliché to say that telecommunications technology is breaking down the meaning of geographical distance. People have been pointing this out since the advent of telegraphy in the 1840s. What I’m saying is a little more radical. Given today’s work styles and networking tools, information workers can be anywhere. It makes very little difference whether your software engineers or QA testers or telesales representatives are in Boston or Burlingame or Bangalore. In fact, it’s easier to send an e-mail or an instant message to a colleague 3,000 miles away than it is to get up and walk a hundred feet across your office.

Which means distributed teams can get the same amount of work done as concentrated ones—probably more, thanks to the planet’s rotation and the single most important invention of 1883-84, the division of the globe into 24 standard time zones based on Greenwich Mean Time. In effect, the world’s information workers all live in one giant city—a mental space where Gmail and Twitter are more important than parking garages and subway tunnels.

Which makes one particular strain of inter-city bickering all the more inane. Over the last few years, I’ve listened to endless arguments about whether New York or Silicon Valley or Boston or insert-your-favorite-city- here is the best place to be an innovator, find investors, hire engineers and salespeople, and grow a technology company. In Boston, people still wring their hands over why Mark Zuckerberg moved Facebook to Palo Alto. In Silicon Valley, meanwhile, people glance nervously over their shoulders at New York. Recently, in fact, there’s been an extended and entertaining kerfuffle over New York’s merits as a startup hub, involving, at various points, SpeakerText CEO Matt Mireles, Hunch and Founder Collective co-founder Chris Dixon, Flickr and Hunch co-founder Caterina Fake, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham (see 2:30 in this video), and AdGrok co-founder Antonio Garcia-Martinez. Dixon, Fake, and Graham think New York’s tech scene is exploding with cool startups and “ambitious ass-kickers,” and that it’s becoming an easier place to find angel or venture financing and engineering talent. Mireles and Garcia-Martinez, on the other hand, think that New York is expensive and elitist, that the angels and tech-focused venture firms are still few and far between, that Wall Street sucks up all the talent, that the city lacks decent engineering schools, and that New Yorkers are generally hustlers rather than builders.

It’s all beside the point. Regions have their distinct flavors, of course, but in the end, none of this affects the global pace of innovation, which depends on people and their ideas much more than their locations. Does anyone seriously want to argue that Google would not exist if Sergey Brin and Larry Page had gone to graduate school at Columbia instead of Stanford? If New York is such a terrible place to build a tech startup, what are Foursquare and Hunch and Boxee and Bug Labs and Gawker and TechStars doing there?

Boston vs. New York vs. Silicon Valley is a fruitless debate rooted in fossilized provincialism of the same sort that drives the great sports rivalries. No one thinks that Philadelphia must be a great place to live simply because the Phillies have the best win-loss record in baseball this year, or that the Pirates’ dismal record means people should move out of Pittsburgh. Especially not in an era when free agency means the major-league lineups can be so thoroughly reshuffled from season to season. My argument is that the resources that drive innovation are like free agents, but are even more fluid.

Sure, if you’re a startup founder you should pick a location where you’ll have access to the resources you need. But from what I’ve seen, finding those resources is more a matter of who you know than where the people you know park their cars. By all means make the fundraising rounds on Menlo Park’s Sand Hill Road or Waltham’s Mount Money. But don’t put your company in Silicon Valley or Boston just because those places have the highest concentration of venture capital firms. After all, cash is the most liquid resource of all. Build your company wherever you’re happiest, and use technology to make it hang together. (Hint: once you’ve got your money, Skype makes it easy to have board meetings without having to fly everyone to the same place. And as I wrote last week, Anybots has another interesting solution to the telepresence problem.)

There’s a startup nominally based in San Francisco, Automattic, that presages where I think a lot of companies are going. Started by Matt Mullenweg, this is the company behind the WordPress platform used by Xconomy and thousands of other publishers and bloggers. It sublets some space on Pier 38 near the South Beach Marina, but the place is really more of a lounge than an office, and if you just stop by randomly, you’re likely to find it empty. Mullenweg goes there only once a week, and he lives just five minutes away. (“We leased it so we wouldn’t have to keep borrowing conference rooms from our VC partners” for board meetings, he told Inc. magazine last year.) Everyone at Automattic works from home, and only eight of the company’s 40 employees live in the Bay Area. The rest are scattered around the world, in places like Bulgaria and Ireland and Alabama. The company operates around the clock, and staffers stay in touch using P2, a Twitter-inspired group blogging tool that Automattic developed specifically for in-house communications.

Obviously, the Automattic model wouldn’t work for companies whose work demands labs, factory machinery, or warehouses. And I’m not trying to say that geography makes zero difference in the technology business. Here at Xconomy, for example, our small staff of journalists can’t be everywhere at once, so we’ve singled out Boston, Detroit, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle as the places we’re mostly like to find illuminating stories about companies bringing world-changing technologies to market. But we plan to keep expanding into new cities, because we know that no single place has a lock on innovation.

What should we call this sprawling city of innovation that I’m describing? Certainly not OBAMA, which is too partisan and leaves out the West. After playing with the Scrabble pieces for a while, the best I could come up with is BoBoSSCANDALS. That stands for Boston-Boulder-San Francisco-San Diego-Chicago-Austin-New York-Detroit-Atlanta-Los Angeles-Seattle. (Apologies to Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City; I just couldn’t fit you in.) But seriously—let’s stop worrying so much about where innovation happens and just get behind the people who are doing it, wherever they may be.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

Trending on Xconomy