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Leaving 'Europe' for Silicon Valley

The U.S. has always been about improvement and innovation. Silicon Valley needs to continue that tradition of welcoming different "castaways" to push the envelope on innovation.

Stephen Fry, British author and host of a book/BBC series on his travels in the United States, offers up a paean to America in the May 9 edition of The Spectator. At times lightly scabrous, often hilarious, Fry gives a depiction of America that sounds much like Silicon Valley today:

[With some not insignificant exceptions]...America is comprised of the descendants of men and women who at some point over the last 300 years or so wanted to improve their lives. They left their miserable shtetls and peasant hovels and urban slums and blighted potato fields and sailed the Atlantic. 'We can do better,' they said as one. '___ Europe.' They were animated by a restless desire to move on and make something of their lives...A belief in improvability is written into the gene pool of their descendants, today's Americans....

We Europeans, on the other hand, we are descended from those who said, 'Oh, well, could be worse, I suppose. Not getting into one of those nasty ships and going to a new world. Typical of uppity cousin Frank to think he can just march off and start again. Who does he think he is?'

Regardless of whether you buy into Fry's depiction of Europeans, I think the first paragraph describes very well Silicon Valley's gene pool and, indeed, the gene pool of the wider technology community. It's no longer about becoming American, per se: it's about becoming a techie.

This is why it's so critical to open that gene pool further to immigrants, as Microsoft's Bill Gates has been arguing since 2005. It's also why we, as the technology industry, need to "___ Europe," as it were, by discarding a too plodding and careful approach to innovation.

Cisco is a good example here for the wider industry. Despite its massive heft, the company is using its cash hoard to attack 30 different markets, as BusinessWeek reports. Cisco could content itself with simply incrementally improving its network equipment business, but instead it's dramatically challenging the industry's status quo well beyond its core business.

We need more of this. We need to continue to push the envelope on innovation. We need to continue to import those modern-day pilgrims that leave China, India, Europe, and elsewhere and ensure that they want to stay.

That's what Silicon Valley and the technology industry have long been about. It's in our gene pool. Especially now, downturn be damned, we must do more.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.