Can Europe copy Silicon Valley?


Every week, I get asked the "Silicon Valley question". This week alone, it came up at least three times. I had a phone call with a Belgian start-up asking me for my thoughts on whether to start their company in Belgium or in Silicon Valley. This afternoon, iMinds, a Belgian research institute that promotes entrepreneurship, visited me at Acquia to talk about similar topics.

There are advantages and disadvantages to being in Silicon Valley, and we could argue them to death. Not every great technology company is based in Silicon Valley, and there are many successful entrepreneurs who aren't in the valley. However, I bet you that deep inside every one of those entrepreneurs wonders whether it wouldn't be better to be in Silicon Valley. More often than not, it actually would be better.

This morning I got a message from Bart Becks, a well-known Belgian entrepreneur and angel investor. He asked for my thoughts on an article he is writing about whether Europe could replicate the Silicon Valley phenomenon. To me, this is the more interesting "Silicon Valley" question.

Europe has no choice but to reinvent itself to become more like Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurs, not the government, will actually change the world. While the government's role is to foster entrepreneurship, clearly the government on its own isn't capable of changing Europe fast enough.

Silicon Valley is a state of mind. To recreate Silicon Valley in Europe, Europe has to adopt Silicon Valley's culture first. That culture has developed around the desire to continuously reinvent everything, including oneself. That is what keeps Silicon Valley relevant, and what Europe needs to emulate most. Once Europe has established a Silicon Valley-like culture, it can slowly mix in the other ingredients that make Silicon Valley successful: money, smart venture capitalists, better engineering talent, better creative talent, and more. But let's start with the culture.

There are other aspects of the Silicon Valley culture that all of Europe should adopt. The Silicon Valley culture encourages people from all over the world with different cultural backgrounds and diverse skills to physically come together, inspire each other, and try to accomplish something unique and game-changing.

I also believe that Europe should adopt part of the American Dream: the egalitarian belief that everyone is able to succeed through hard work, and that it is acceptable and encouraged to better oneself economically through hard work. It doesn't mean Europe needs to give up its strong communal beliefs and its desire to look out for the greater good. I hope the European financial crisis represent a watershed moment that causes Europe to rethink some of its current models.

America's social history wasn't necessarily pretty, but it has created a culture where multiculturalism, ethnic diversity and thoughtful capitalism are part of the national character. I'm worried it may take Europe a couple generations to truly embrace such a culture. Until that happens, we'll see some regional and national successes, but not the European-wide "Silicon Valley" culture that Europe needs to successfully reinvent itself.