Silicon Valley is a bit like the ancient city of Babylon. A confluence of the right geography, right timing, and the right mix in the melting pot allowed them both to thrive.
Even the mythological status is fitting. After all, it’s not easy to replicate what circumstance has brought together.
And yet, many are looking for the secret recipe to copy what Silicon Valley has achieved. But is it just a matter of understanding the recipe, picking the right scale, and being patient?
There have been successful innovation hubs elsewhere and in disciplines outside of information technology. Take the Cambridge Science Park for instance. The site was donated to Trinity College in 1546, but wasn’t developed until 1970. It is now one of the leading innovation and research hubs in the world.
One imperative for the development of the Cambridge Science Park was a push from the then UK Government to improve returns on investment in basic research and higher education through increased technology transfer and new technologies. There are strong parallels here with the current push in Australia to improve the connection between research and industry.
In Cambridge, it took a decade for the number of companies in the science park to grow to 25. Initially being close to the world class research activity of Cambridge University was the pull. As a mini-cluster of technologies and talented people emerged in the 1980s it became attractive to more people and organisations, and so the effect snowballed. Venture capitalists and spin-outs joined the mix.
Importantly, there was also investment in accommodation and sporting facilities, conference and meeting places, and eating places. These facilities helped to develop the culture of the Cambridge Science Park.
In the 1990s, the number of companies grew to around 64 with larger and better funded companies present, and a focus on life sciences emerged. Some degree of evolution to the natural focus for the geographical area has been in the recipe for success in Cambridge.
There are also plenty of examples of less successful innovation clusters. The One-North Science Habitat in Singapore encompasses a number of other science parks creating better integration and private sector participation. It was built with further investment from the Singapore Government after the initial Singapore Science Park only achieved modest success. The Singapore Science Park was originally largely government directed in its set up with a low density design and no direct academic links.
The lessons from these examples are that culture is critical. Silicon Valley, Cambridge Science Park, and other successful examples of clusters have brought people together and actively facilitated interactions between them.
The benefits of this kind of collaboration extend beyond immediate economic growth. Close interactions give rise to new networks. New networks then facilitate the flow of expertise and knowledge between people and organisations which is essential for supporting future discoveries and breakthroughs.
Networks are important for the types of challenges we are facing. Think about climate change, biosecurity, and food security; these span country, organisational and disciplinary boundaries. Collaboration across traditional disciplines and between sectors (particularly between the research and industry sectors) is an essential ingredient in developing solutions to the world’s most wicked challenges.
Then there are the efficiency dividends from joining up the players, and lowering the costs of interacting.
Australia can learn from these international examples to improve its own collaborative effort. The 2013 Global Innovation Index placed Australia at 19 out of 142 countries, behind countries such New Zealand, Israel, the Republic of Korea and Ireland.
Two of the areas in which Australia performed poorly related to our ability to form clusters and export high technologies. Increasing collaboration and knowledge adoption are key areas that need to be improved if Australia is to remain globally competitive.
In Australia, we have a number of successful programs that improve collaboration such as Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs), Australian Research Council Centres of Excellence, Enterprise Connect, Research and Development Corporations, Technology Parks, and CSIRO’s National Research Flagships. CSIRO is also currently developing five Global Precincts.
At the moment, however, we still don’t have anything that combines the right geography, the right scale and the right mix in the melting pot to get the broad and deep connections of a Silicon Valley or Cambridge Science Park.
There are certain areas in Australia were there is sufficient expertise and industry activity to build collaborative melting pots of global scale. We have natural focus points such as manufacturing in Melbourne, and resources in Perth. Taking key lessons from around the globe we can build on these strengths to improve collaboration. High density, shared facilities and direct links to academia would also improve flows between industry, research, and government.
With scale comes international visibility, easier access, greater efficiency of investment for public and private funds, and that magic that happens when people with different backgrounds collaborate. The critical part will be to get the culture right.
With patience we can bring research and industry together and improve our collaborative performance. CSIRO’s own Global Precincts aim to do just that by emphasising physical closeness, direct linkages, and active facilitation of collaboration.
Australia might not have a Silicon Valley, but these kinds of projects already underway, will help Australia compete in the increasingly global innovation system.