Innovation Par 1: Why Silicon Valley

LeRoi Gourhan, a French Anthropologist, observed that during pre-historic times there was a close relationship between the evolution of the human brain and the hand. In science, the experimentation plays the role of the hand. There is a close relationship between new observations and new scientific ideas.

Newton observed the apple falling and devised the law of gravity; the telescope permitted Galileo to observe planetary motions and devise new conception of the solar system; Einstein following observations from Michelson-Morley devised the theory of relativity. Today, experimentations became more costly and take longer time. Scientific evolution has slowed down by longer time to gain results from experimentation. Nowadays, complex experimental apparatuses take years to build and require large investments.

Technological innovation follows a similar path.

“The Wright brothers built and tested a series of kite and glider designs from 1900 to 1902 before attempting to build a powered design. The gliders worked, but not as well as the Wrights had expected based on the experiments and writings of their 19th century predecessors. Their first glider, launched in 1900, had only about half the lift they anticipated. Their second glider, built the following year, performed even more poorly. Rather than giving up, the Wrights constructed their own wind tunnel and created a number of sophisticated devices to measure lift and drag on the 200 wing designs they tested. As a result, the Wrights corrected earlier mistakes in calculations regarding drag and lift, though they missed the effect of Reynolds number (known since 1883), which would have given them an even bigger advantage. Their testing and calculating produced a third glider design, which they flew in 1902. It performed far better than the previous models.”

Their wind tunnel permitted a series of rapid trial and errors that would have taken them years to achieve. The Silicon Valley is a land of rapid trial and errors. There are hundreds of new start-ups with young entrepreneurs willing to try new ideas. Time between new ideas and commercial products is short. High concentration of VC, University and high-tech companies render the whole region as the equivalent of the wind tunnel for the Wright Brothers.

The essence of innovations is observation. The essence of observation is experimentation. So to increase innovation capacity, it is essential to devise new ways to shorten the time of experimentation. That being a wind tunnel or new way to finance start-up.

For more on innovation in information technology, see sketching user interface for a way to shorten time in experimentation.

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