Saffo speaks

As part of the David H. Liu Memorial Lecture Series at Stanford, Paul Saffo from the Institute for the Future spoke briefly last night, in a talk entitled The case of the blind venetians; reflections on innovation and what makes Silicon Valley tick

Saffo is a great speaker, lots of anecdotes and metaphors and implications and sidebars, so any attempt to summarize is going to be incredibly flat. Nevertheless, it was a simplistic story he told: in essence that Silicon Valley is a specialized version of the California myth, which is a distillation of the American Dream (that’s my synthesis, as you’ll see, he didn’t quite say that)

Loose notes:

In the history of Silicon Valley there have been so many innovations. We lurch from failure to failure, we know how to fail. The death of the Interactive TV industry had programmers and technologies just waiting, so the Web industry was able to move right into the same place.

Bad management is good for innovation (looking at all the famous Silicon Valley companies that are badly managed, i.e., Steve Jobs). Good management kills innovative ideas. Don’t read management books.

What does the culture of this area (Silicon Valley) offer up in terms of how we accept failure? We permit failure, unlike Seattle, France, or Sweden, where one failure can tar a reputation forever, going bankrupt can bring shame. There are consequences to failure here, but they aren’t lethal.

But why here? Why does it keep repeating?

California is a place that is fueled by dreams, against all odds. Consider the meme of California even going back to Spanish literature of 1500s – originally envisioned as an island, but despite multiple proofs that it was indeed part of the mainland, the idea that it is an island continued to appear on maps for many years – decades and more.

As trite as it sounds, California is still a place where dreams are believed to come true. From the Gold Rush, Hollywood, early aviation – many of which started elsewhere in the US but took strongest root in California, and despite the fact that success came to very few of those who tried, the story of the dream persists.

For innovators, you have to kid yourself, because if you looked at things realistically, you’d give up. Keep the dream alive.


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