A slender, horseshoe-shaped slice of real estate in the southern San Francisco Bay Area, Silicon Valley is less a geographical location and more a state of mind. So-called because of its prominence in the evolution of global tech companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google, the area has become synonymous with technological innovation, inspiring the likes of design guru Steve Jobs and Tesla’s Elon Musk to change the course of history, while elevating Palo Alto’s Stanford University to its status as one of the world’s leading research institutions.
The climate of change
Rewind to the 1960s and Silicon Valley was more agricultural than urban, a place where fruit trees outnumbered tech businesses by quite a margin. As it became the go-to location for microchip developers like Intel, the intellectual and economic climate started to shift and the Valley began to attract wave upon wave of ambitious young entrepreneurs looking for a fresh way to do business.
This focus on innovation helped to create a thriving tech cluster that boosted the network of workers, suppliers and networks needed to support the rapid growth of this highly specialised sector and added considerable value and cachet to San Francisco as the preferred location for ambitious start-ups, as well as more established companies from further afield (Europe and China, for instance) looking to sprinkle a little Silicon Valley gold dust on their operations. Today, although some manufacturing remains, the Valley functions primarily as an ‘incubator’, a forum for hot-housing ideas that lead the world.
Disrupting the status quo
Silicon Valley continues to be the centre of tech-based innovation; the cutting-edge digital developments that enabled start-ups like Google and Amazon to rapidly grow into global brands are providing a new generation of companies with fresh opportunities to challenge the status quo. Far from slowing in scope and ambition, advancements in technology are causing ripples across formerly traditional businesses. A revolution in infrastructure – and in artificial intelligence (AI) – is opening up industries such as logistics, food and hospitality to completely new ways of operating.
So-called ‘disruptors’ like Airbnb and Uber have rocked the foundations of established operators by taking a radical approach to connecting customers with services – something that’s made possible only through technologies that enable a more fluid approach to traditional transactions. This notion of a ‘sharing economy’ doesn’t only allow big players to tap into new markets, it can also benefit businesses and individuals that wouldn’t otherwise be able to access funding. Tech company Kiva – headquartered in San Francisco - sources crowd-funded micro-loans that can change the lives of people in impoverished areas of the world.
A hub for entrepreneurs
The entrepreneurial model that’s gained traction in Silicon Valley has become a blueprint for businesses across the world. This agile approach enables companies to adapt their products and services to new markets and to anticipate changes rather than to react to developments as and when they occur. This process of continuous improvement designed to reduce the risk of stagnation is a start-up mentality that’s embraced by even the largest businesses as part of a drive to stay relevant.
Interestingly, many Silicon Valley companies share a belief in the value of establishing and nurturing an entrepreneurial culture that attracts like-minded employees and benefits the business and encourages disruption. Businesses that specialise in innovative funding opportunities are a product of this kind of entrepreneurial thinking. Early-stage venture capital fund Pear has helped to seed tech start-ups like Dropbox and Zoosk, while Silicon Valley Bank tailors financial services to innovators. Start-ups that need a place to work can get the support they need at co-working facility and corporate incubator RocketSpace.
Immerse yourself in the cool San Fran counter-culture
San Francisco is one of America’s most beguiling cities. Its liberal culture and remarkable bay setting makes it an unmissable destination. Victorian buildings sit comfortably amid striking contemporary architecture, while cable cars share the road with futuristic Teslas.
There’s lots to see and do in and around the city. The Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco’s most striking landmark. You can walk or drive across it, but the best views of the bridge can be had from the genteel residential area known as Nob Hill. Fisherman’s Wharf offers all the charm of a historic waterfront setting – check out the shops and eateries at Pier 39. It’s also a great starting point for a sightseeing cruise.
Art lovers should head straight for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) that reopened in 2016 following a programme of renovation, though the elegant Palace of Fine Arts is also worth a visit – if only to soak up the tranquillity of its lagoon setting.