How America’s two tech hubs are converging

WOULD your region care to be the next Silicon Valley? In most of the world’s technology hubs, local leaders scramble to say “yes”. But ask the question in and around Seattle, the other big tech cluster on America’s west coast, and more often than not the answer is “no”—followed by explanations of why the city and its surrounds are different from the San Francisco Bay Area. The truth may be more complex: in recent years the Seattle area has become a complement to the valley. Some even argue that the two regions, though 800 miles (1,300km) apart, are becoming one.

They have similar roots, notes Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington (UW). Each grew rapidly during a gold rush in the 19th century. Later both benefited from military spending. Silicon Valley ultimately focused on producing small things, including microprocessors, and Seattle on bigger ones, such as aeroplanes (Boeing was for decades the city’s economic anchor). This difference in dimension persists. The valley has plenty of giant firms, but its focus is mainly on startups and smartphones. In contrast, Seattle is still more of a company town, with Amazon and Microsoft, both builders of big data centres, looming large.

That, and the fact that Seattle and its suburbs are less than a fifth the size of Silicon Valley, has created a different business culture. In Seattle, for example, job-hopping is less common, as is swapping full-time employment for the uncertain life of an entrepreneur. Seattle has spawned firms such as Avvo, an online marketplace for legal services, and Zillow, a real-estate site, but the startup scene is underdeveloped. UW is a good gauge: it now has one of America’s best computer-science departments but produces nowhere near as many new firms as Stanford University.

Local politics differ, too. Seattleites don’t want their city to become like San Francisco, which is dominated by affluent, techie types. Their city council has just approved a new programme requiring property developers to include cheap units in their projects or to pay a fee. The aim is to ensure that Seattle remains America’s second-most economically integrated city (as defined by RedFin, a data provider). San Francisco ranks 14th. “In the playground parents don’t just talk about the next big thing,” says Ed Lazowska, a professor of computer science at UW.

Read more at The Economist.