Silicon Valley: La Belle Époque?

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 11, No 1 (Summer 2000)

John Kreidler and Brendan Rawson

Throughout human history, certain cities and regions have come to be regarded as pinnacles of human creativity and innovation. Sir Peter Hall, in his landmark book, Cities in Civilization, examines the underlying conditions that led to the emergence of "cultural crucibles" in Athens, Florence, London, Vienna, and Berlin. In this book Hall also considers cities that became centers of technological innovation (Manchester, Glasgow, Berlin, Detroit, and most recently, the San Francisco Bay Area and Tokyo), as well as regions that excelled at engineering urban order (Imperial Rome, London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and Stockholm). Hall's book ends with the question of whether the elements of art, technological innovation, and urban organization can be welded together in an ultimate Golden Age.

Hall's analysis is a useful point of departure for contemporary Silicon Valley, a region of about two million people that is now marked by a sense of world prominence in technological and business innovation. Throughout the Valley, one finds a culture that emphasizes youth, risk-taking, informality, open process, and a passion for solving problems. Many here believe that this culture is the future model for regional development throughout the world. Simultaneously, a sense of impermanence and loss pervades Silicon Valley. As a physical place, it now has the look and feel of a vast suburb with epic traffic jams and undistinguished commercial districts. A massive influx of national and international immigrants is arriving daily to fuel economic expansion, but a lingering malaise emerges from a sense that these newcomers have little desire to remain in the Valley or to contribute to its progress as a community. Indeed, some wonder whether the virtual community of the Internet will displace the more traditional visceral community: real people interacting within a real landscape.

On the one hand Silicon Valley has the aspiration of achieving a Belle Époque that attaches its renowned technological prowess to a flowering of civic engagement, environmental stewardship, and cultural expression. One often hears of the desire to create a community life that gives meaning and purpose to the tremendous new wealth created in the Valley. On the other hand is the specter of an electronic version of the rust belt: empty research parks, anonymous tracts of housing, aging strip malls, and massive emigration. More than at any time past, the region is wrestling with a widening gap between the economic, education, and information haves and have-nots. Silicon Valley has seen boom times and numbing recessions throughout its post-war history, so both courses seem very possible.

Three years ago, a planning process was set in motion by San Jose's then-mayor, Susan Hammer. More than 1,000 people were involved in this effort, and the result was a ten-year cultural plan aimed at a broad sweep of developments in creative education, community-based cultural activities, nonprofit cultural institutions, facilities, and financial resources. Embedded in the plan is a recognition that Silicon Valley needs to harness its extraordinary technological and business acumen to the task of constructing a cultural sector of equivalent vitality. It was this recognition that resulted in the formation of a new organization to champion this effort, Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley.

The core purpose of Cultural Initiatives is to enhance community life by engaging the Valley's business and civic leadership in planning, advocacy, research, time-limited program initiatives, and resource development aimed at strengthening the cultural sector. One of the key problems, then, is finding ways to convince business and civic leaders that a vital cultural sector has relevance to a healthier community and perhaps as well to sustained economic success. After pondering the alternatives of websites, publications, videos, and other relatively passive media for making this case, Cultural Initiatives has now settled on the creation of a highly interactive computer simulation as the main vehicle for communicating its case to the Silicon Valley business sector. For the moment at least, this simulation has been tagged “SimCulture”.

During the past few months Cultural Initiatives has been working with a systems dynamics consultant, Carolyn Claman, to design a simulation in which users will be able to make policy decisions about arts education, cultural marketing, development of cultural institutions, and amateur participation in cultural activities. Over a time horizon of one to two generations, the simulator will project how these policy decisions will promote or retard Silicon Valley's ability to build social capital, retain its workforce, promote technological innovation, and ultimately achieve the balance of culture and commerce extolled by Sir Peter Hall.

The basic plumbing of this simulation is nearly complete, so attention is now being focused on the creation of a story line, animations, sound and video clips, and other amenities designed to make the simulation easy, fun, and provocative. Although the simulation makes no pretense of being truly predictive about the course of evolution in the Valley's economic and cultural ecosystems, it is being infused, wherever possible, with real baseline demographic, economic, and cultural data. In parallel with the fabrication of SimCulture, Cultural Initiatives is also launching an indicators project designed to collect data on the Valley's progress in achieving a more advanced cultural and creative domain. The plan is to use this data to update SimCulture in future years as a way of enhancing the simulation's credibility and capacity for stimulating debate about cultural policy.

In the next several weeks, Cultural Initiatives will debut SimCulture before a select group of Silicon Valley business and civic leaders in a “beta testing” session designed to reveal weaknesses in logic and presentation. By September, SimCulture is expected to be ready for release, probably in two versions: one on CD-ROM, one on the web. Visit the Cultural Initiatives' website for ordering information.

John Kreidler is former executive director and Brendan Rawson is former program associate, Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley.