Counterflows #33: The next Silicon Valley won't be in the US

Your offbeat guide to the future of work and global living.

What a year that was. Remote work won. Borders closed. Software ate an even bigger piece of the pie. That other thing has been going on, too, but you’ve heard more than enough about that by now. So let’s leave it behind. Let’s talk about what happens beyond it instead.

The race is on to become the next Silicon Valley. It's been going for years now; a marathon more than a sprint for the places hoping for a shot. But like any race, at some point, the finish line is right there in sight.

Everybody I speak to has an opinion on which city will win. The exodus of people from major American cities this year has given new momentum to the debate. If you believe the Twitter polls, the choice comes down to just three places: Miami, Austin or Denver. 

Of those, my money’s on Miami. Its mayor, Francis Suarez, has risen the ranks of VC Twitter in recent weeks, and his willingness to engage has prompted people to put their money where their mouth is. Welcome to the new era of influence, where the fate of entire urban populations rests on one dude’s ability to express himself in 240 characters or less. The 2020s are going to be a wild ride.

Anyway, back to this question of innovation hubs. When people weigh in about "the next Silicon Valley", what they really want to know is:

  • Where will the next set of game-changing ideas come from? 

  • Where are the most talented and ambitious people flocking to? 

  • Where can I go to meet the folks who are building the future?

The general assumption is that the US will immediately produce another global contender. But that narrative is false. The chapter of world history defined by American exceptionalism is drawing to a close. Emerging nations are more than capable of leapfrogging the West now, and the people of the world may finally start paying attention.

If you've ever played Sid Meier's Civilization 5 (that's not a typo, the sixth edition sucks), think of it like this: the US had a kick-ass unit for 50 turns, but can't sustain the competitive advantage now other players have their own special units. Before entering the fray again, they need time to focus and regroup if they want any chance of success.

Global networks

Globalization has turned the world into one massive network since the 1990s, and the internet has made that network ever-more visible and accessible. Humans are more interconnected and interdependent than ever before—and that shift should reframe our conversations about how innovation happens. 

For years, news headlines have declared everywhere from Amsterdam to Shenzhen to Nairobi the next global hub for tech, knowledge and talent. In reality, nowhere’s captured the imagination enough to make a meaningful dent. But the mainstreaming of distributed work, and by extension, distribution innovation, changes everything.

Ideas and opportunity won’t be concentrated in a single place this decade, or in the decades that follow. Instead, the future of innovation lies in global networks of cities and regions. 

Nomadic talent

Over the past two decades, the uncoupling of work and location led people like me to become digital nomads. We’ve chosen to create location-independent careers and businesses while travelling the world.

Talent is now more mobile than ever, especially in the knowledge economy—think writers, designers, programmers, strategists, and any other role that was once office-based. But just because you can work from anywhere doesn’t mean you won’t choose the place you work from carefully.

Success as a hub is about more than leading universities and the availability of capital. Technology enables more individual freedom and flexibility than ever before, and those of us at the fringes have wasted little time experimenting with the potential.

Navigating place

Now, distributed work has left governments and businesses scrambling to get up to speed. Nomads are a good place to start assessing how people will navigate the new possibilities of work, and to explore how cities and companies can attract and retain the world’s best talent. Nomads don’t just get their jobs done in outlandish ways. They also champion global values and viewpoints. Their mindset and understanding of the world are fundamentally different.

So, when you could go anywhere, how do you choose a place? That’s the question that policymakers worldwide are seeking an answer to right now—and, I’d imagine, what’s keeping Mayor Suarez of Miami awake at night. Well, that and the constant buzz of Twitter notifications. 

The cities and regions that thrive in the 2020s will be those that increase their metrics in key areas to make themselves desirable to the newly-remote global workforce, and then distinguish themselves against other destinations by specializing.

The remote mindset

Nomads are about the good stuff in life: culture, food, vibrancy, walkability, air, and just about any other utopian ideal you can use to compare locations. Then, there’s value for money. It’s not about somewhere being cheap, but about the balance of the offer. Housing, healthcare, taxes, equality, and stability all play into this. 

Then, there’s access to other places. Relationships, hobbies, and networks are no longer limited to a single, static place. Despite all the digital connectivity, people want in-person, human connection too—in their work and play. They want to go where the action is in the world and be part of it. Life in the 21st century doesn’t happen in one place, but in a series of places.

Remote workers spend more and stay longer than traditional tourists. At the heart of any innovation hub is collaboration and knowledge-sharing. Get the balance right and a place quickly has advantages over the West’s big, expensive international cities. It’s no wonder the list of countries offering remote work visas and nomad tax breaks is growing every week.

Nomads have already created networks of innovation hubs around the world, sometimes putting destinations on the modern map for the first time. Startups have been imagined and built from Bali, Chiang Mai and Medellin, and some of these companies have raised vast amounts of capital and gone on to become unicorns.

The next Silicon Valley is not a single place in the US, but a network of ever-more specialised places. The energy, mindsets, and solutions that result from these hubs will reshape the world — just as the Valley has over the past two decades.

Happy New Year 🥳

Thanks for being part of the Counterflows community this year, and for giving me this space to publish, experiment, and connect. If you enjoy what I do, you can buy me a coffee or share this newsletter with others to support my work.

I’ll be back next week with the usual curated format, plus the first in a series of exciting announcements about what I’m up to in 2021. See you on the other side!