You’ve heard of Silicon Valley, haven’t you? It’s the unofficial nickname of the Santa Clara Valley of northern California. Located just south of San Francisco, Silicon Valley is the home of Apple, Facebook, Google, Stanford University, and thousands of other global leaders in the technology sector.
The name is so catchy that New York City has adopted a modified version of it for its own emerging technology center. Silicon Alley refers to the canyons of Manhattan that lie west of Madison Square Park and the Flatiron District, underneath the “rails to trails” High Line Park. Anchored by a massive Google office building that sits across the street from the famous Chelsea Market, the Silicon Alley nickname is a familiar one to denizens of the original Silicon Valley.
But what about Silicon Prairie? Have you ever heard of that particular region? It is now emerging in yet another area of the United States, and it is serving as evidence that the Silicon movement is becoming a national phenomenon.
Kansas City, Here I Come
In May 1959, Wilbert Harrison topped the pop music charts with his classic blues tune “Kansas City.” You’ve undoubtedly heard the refrain countless times: “I’m goin’ to Kansas City … Kansas City, here I come.”
But people haven’t been goin’ to Kansas City for awhile. After all, 1960 was the last time that KC has appeared in the list of the twenty largest American metropolitan regions. Today, Kansas City is only the 29th most populous region in the United States.
That didn’t stop Google from selecting the region as the beneficiary of its experiment in incredibly high speed internet access. Last month, the web colossus activated its new one gigabit per second fiber optic network in Kansas City, and the economic benefits are already prompting industry veterans to dub the region “Silicon Prairie.”
In fact, fledgling technology firms began sprouting in the city before Google’s launch last month, in anticipation of the activation of the network. If high speed internet access can create an economic technology hub in KC, why can’t it do the same in any other city?
Rivers and Oceans
Centuries ago, the world’s greatest commercial cities blossomed on the shores of navigable rivers and oceans. London on the Thames. Paris on the Seine. New York on the Atlantic. And Hong Kong on the Pacific. All of these metropolises developed into global economic centers because they were situated on the great shipping routes that connected their societies with other centers of wealth and commerce around the world.
Nevertheless, as the global economy transitioned from its industrial age to a post-industrial age, it entered the era of the service economy and then transitioned to the knowledge economy. As a result of this transition, wealth is no longer primarily generated through the importation and exportation of tangible goods. Instead, knowledge has become the world’s most valuable commodity, and new modes of transportation have become necessary to transmit the virtual products of information assets.
This emerging need for knowledge transmission drove the development of the internet, which in turn ensured that the California coastline would maintain its economic vitality throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Thus, the Golden State underwent its transition from an industrial era dominated by firms like Hewlett Packard and Lockheed Martin, to its current knowledge based era dominated by firms like Apple, Google, and Facebook.
In other words, the communication nodes of the internet have become the waterways of the contemporary economy. And if Google can build an electronic canal to Kansas City, why couldn’t it (and other organizations, of course) do the same throughout the United States?
From Lake Erie to the Isthmus of Panama
Indeed, the appropriate metaphor for Google’s fiber optic network is a canal. Not a river or an ocean, but a canal. That’s because canals are, in essence, artificial rivers that are designed to create trade and transportation linkages between different locations.
When Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York State authorized, funded, and eventually opened the Erie Canal in the early 1800s, for instance, he created a direct linkage between New York Harbor and the Great Lakes. The Canal enabled trade to flourish between the eastern and midwestern regions of the United States.
Likewise, when President Theodore Roosevelt precipitated a Central American revolution in order to claim the land on which to build the Panama Canal, he did so with the goal of establishing a direct water route between the eastern and western coastlines of the United States. His success ultimately led to America’s emergence as a continental economic power.
Today’s fiber optic canals are serving similar needs by connecting midwestern cities like Kansas City to technology centers like San Francisco and New York City. By creating the means to connect Silicon Prairie with Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley, Google might indeed be prompting the long term development of a Silicon Nation.