The next wave of global innovation won’t come from just one place.
Silicon Valley is dead, and people can’t stop talking about it — at conferences, dinner parties, and venues all across the internet.
The next question is always the same:
“So where’s going to be the next Silicon Valley?”
Let’s take a look at the questions behind that question:
- Where will the next set of game-changing ideas come from?
- Where are the most talented and ambitious people flocking to?
- Where should companies base their offices to stay ahead of the curve?
The answers vary depending on who you speak to.
Some Americans argue San Francisco will reinvent itself. Others offer an underdog narrative about some former industrial city embracing tech and inspiring the world.
Sinophiles will tell you we’re living in the Asian century, and that Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen are the next big innovation leaders. Africa’s development is rapidly accelerating, which directs attention to emerging cities like Kigali, Nairobi, and Lagos.
I have little doubt that all of these cities will be prominent players in the century ahead, but the idea that any of them will be the next Silicon Valley is fundamentally flawed.
Globalisation turned the world into an enormous network, and the internet has made that network visible and accessible. We’re more interconnected and interdependent than ever before — and that shift should reframe our conversations about how innovation happens.
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 networked Knowledge Cities. And in this new status quo, one continent already has an edge: Europe.
Cities as knowledge clusters
Politicians and journalists talk about the European Union as a collection of 27 nation-states. In reality, it’s better understood as a hyperconnected network of 800 cities.
In that sense, it’s the biggest, most successful, and best-sustained collaboration the world has ever known. A shared currency and regulations make it easy to test and scale ideas across the continent. The free movement of goods, services, capital, and people does too.
In the 2010s, European cities began establishing innovation specialisms. Every urban hub is on a journey to become a knowledge leader, no matter how tiny or peculiar the niche.
Policymakers recognised the potential of the global knowledge economy years ago and started building it into their urban strategies. Since then, they’ve developed business ecosystems that tap into it and beavered away on plans to attract and keep hold of the world’s best talent, capital, and companies.
The immense connectivity, interaction, and collaboration the EU facilitates means even small cities and their residents can thrive. Money is available for cross-border projects serving common goals, enabling cities of any size to experiment, specialise, and receive recognition.
The result? Taken as a cluster, Europe’s cities have more innovation potential than anywhere else on earth.
But success is about more than just the ease of doing business. It’s about human desire too.
Borderless work, mobile talent
Talent is now more mobile than ever.
This is especially true for knowledge workers — think writers, designers, programmers, strategists, and any other role that was once office-based. The uncoupling of work and location has led people like me to become Global Nomads; knowledge workers who build careers while travelling the world.
But people aren’t just working differently. They’re thinking and living differently too, bringing fresh values, priorities, and considerations to the table. Cities that hope to attract and retain the best talent can understand how people navigate these new possibilities by looking at the behaviour of Global Nomads.
So, when you could go anywhere, how do you choose a place?
The Good Life 🤗
Firstly, there’s quality of life. Global Nomads are interested in the good stuff: culture, food, vibrancy, walkability, air quality, and just about any other utopian ideal you can use to compare locations.
Transport Infrastructure 🚈
Secondly, 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 human connectivity too — in their work and play.
High Value 🤑
Thirdly, there’s value for money. It’s not about somewhere being cheap, but about the balance of the offer. Housing, healthcare, taxes, equality, and political and economic stability all play into this.
Europe leads the world in these metrics. Its cities are highly desirable. In the years ahead, the number of knowledge workers on the continent will increase. This concentration of talent will feed innovation and showcase European cities as a powerful grid of incubators and accelerators for pioneering ideas.
The next Silicon Valley is not a single place, but a network of places.
How exactly the story unfolds remains to be seen. But the energy, mindsets, and solutions that result will reshape the world — just as Silicon Valley has over the past two decades.