In 2012, Kansas City experienced what at the time must have felt like winning the tech industry lottery. Google, the Internet powerhouse from the Bay Area, was flying all the way out to the middle of the country to install its first fiber-backed broadband service, Google Fiber, in the City of Parks. Soon, residents all over the city would enjoy Internet connection speeds of up to 1 GB, more than 100x the access that most of the country had at the time, and at prices that would make this technology nearly free for all who wanted it.
Certainly, Kansas City was on its way to becoming the next Silicon Valley.
Except that it hasn’t turned out that way. Although Kansas City does today still have Google Fiber service and some of the best connection technology in the nation, as well as a strong and growing startup community, it has yet to emerge as the tech powerhouse that many were hoping for in 2012. The city, apparently, is a disappointment. At least, that’s the message behind a new Bloomberg article titled, “Why It’s So Hard to Build the Next Silicon Valley.”
“Every year after Alphabet Inc.’s Google’s first fiber connections lit up in late 2012, greater Kansas City’s GDP growth has fallen well short of the national average. In 2015, it was just 1.5%, compared to 2.6% for the nation as a whole. Metro regional numbers aren’t yet available for all of 2016, although based on state numbers through the third quarter, both Kansas and Missouri seem to be beating the national average. “We’re scratching our heads a little bit,” said Jeff Pinkerton of the Mid America Regional Council, a nonprofit that conducts economic research for greater Kansas City. “Why is Kansas City really not taking off, especially with this asset like Google Fiber?”
As a resident of another Midwestern city, St. Louis, that has long been looking for its own magic bullet for growth, I can understand the feelings of disappointment, but I also believe that the very idea of “the next Silicon Valley” is misplaced, and not just in Kansas City. All across this country there are cities and towns that are unique in their own ways. Detroit, of course, has deep roots in the automotive industry, Kansas City is a decades-old telecommunications hub, and few places do biotechnology better than the Boston metro area. The point is, each region has its own pre-existing economy and things that it does well. Here in St. Louis, for instance, we are at the heart of the agriculture industry and are deeply involved in the growing agtech industry as a result.
More than 50 years ago, Silicon Valley itself leveraged a long list of natural advantages — the presence of Stanford University, a large population of engineers and the capability to manufacture large quantities of silicon chips, back when that was the area’s primary export — to become what it is today. The goal for the rest of the country, then, should not be to try and duplicate their progress exactly. That was and is unique to Silicon Valley. We need to take what we already do well and innovate on that. Become better and more efficient at our own strengths.
We won’t become the next Silicon Valley. We’ll be better.