Global networks of opportunity

By Tracey Grose

Silicon Valley and the wider San Francisco Bay Area is a global innovation hub. The success of the region's highly adaptive innovation system can be attributed to multiple factors, and one of which is its strong ties with other places in the world. The Bay Area's global linkages are growing, they drive innovation, and they generate new value in and outside the region.

On the topic of global competitiveness, people often think in zero-sum terms: if one place is gaining in the global marketplace, then it must be at the loss of another. While global markets are highly competitive and fast moving, success is increasingly a cross-border endeavor.

One important ingredient to innovation is diversity. As with the biological model, diversity drives adaptation and generates new ideas and products. Technological advance is empowering and engaging individuals around the world, facilitating communication across distance and cultural differences.

This is good news for talented people in urban centers in the developing world. Access to education and acquisition of technical skills is growing through free learning platforms such as Coursera and the free online courses of MIT, Stanford and others. Additionally, distributed work platforms such as oDesk and Elance are launching individuals onto the global labor market and in some cases, even more. Tayyab Tariq, a freelance software developer based in Islamabad, Pakistan, was able to grow his earnings and hone his technical and self-management skills on oDesk. According to Tariq, this experience gave him an edge in his Fulbright interview which landed him at Stanford where he is now completing a master's degree in computer science.

My own research shows that over the last decade, the percentage of Silicon Valley's science and engineering (S&E) talent that was born outside the US expanded from 50 percent to 64 percent. Nationally, it’s just 21 percent. Most recent flows have been strongest from India and China. Indians represents almost 30 percent of the Valley's foreign-born S&E workforce.

Traditionally, the region's universities serve as ports-of-entry for global talent. People come to the Bay Area to study, they build their networks in school, and start businesses in the region. They also maintain their ties to their home countries. This dynamic has been a big piece of Silicon Valley's success and the success of other rising innovation hubs in the world. AnnaLee Saxenian has written much about the international presence in Silicon Valley's development and how these ties have helped drive the economic development of global partners.

Technology leaders recognize that new ideas can come from outside their company and their home country. Patent statistics are usually reported by the location of the first-named inventor. But what’s much more interesting is to see all the co-inventors listed on a single patent and where they're located.

My research shows that over 10 percent of all patents registered with an inventor in Silicon Valley include co-inventors outside the U.S. And this is increasing. This bodes well for innovation in the region, because it illustrates that knowledge flows are increasing between here and other wellsprings of new ideas in the world.

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