Little loft on the Silicon Prairie | Bleader

Monday, October 1, 2012

Little loft on the Silicon Prairie

Posted By on 10.01.12 at 10:00 AM

Wave of the future?
  • Wave of the future?
The big story in the local tech world this week comes courtesy of David Lepeska's "Silicon Prairie Redux: Will Chicago's Tech Boom Last?," from this month's issue of Chicago magazine. Lepeska uses 1871, a nonprofit space for nascent tech startups, as a flash point/omen (depending on your prediction) for the prospective future of the tech industry in Chicago. For a feature that's under 3,000 words, the article does a good job of touching on many different ideas and debates revolving around the local tech scene.

What seems like the most salient point in the article has to do with something that Aaron M. Renn talked about in his controversial article "The Second-Rate City?" from the spring 2012 issue of City Journal: the tendency for talented recent college graduates to head for the coasts. In Lepeska's piece, it's referring to computer science graduates and engineers heading to either Silicon Valley or New York City. One reason cited is pay, but another, and it's a gutsy move for Lepeska and Chicago to suggest it, is that programmers in Chicago are just not as talented as those on the coasts.

Another key point, which is more related than the piece lets on, is a "midwest mentality" among local startups:

More vexing than the talent shortage may be what critics call the Midwest mentality: an alleged predilection among local tech entrepreneurs and investors to play it safe. Even Chicago veterans concede there’s some truth to it. “There are, in general, less risks taken on speculation about mass-market consumer products here,” admits Yagan, who has worked in New York, Boston, and Palo Alto. “What is our Google or Facebook or Twitter? I can’t think of any.”

Those three companies were revolutionary; the typical Chicago tech startup isn’t. Instead, it uses technology to enable more practical nuts-and-bolts services, like delivering food (GrubHub), finding jobs (CareerBuilder), or booking travel (Orbitz). The growth potential is inherently limited. That’s part of Groupon’s problem. After all, who among us is not feeling a bit of daily-deal fatigue?

It's odd how "nuts-and-bolts services" bears a connotation with "midwest," or how the latter is also associated with "playing it safe." Even weirder is this passage:

One of the ways Emanuel plans to make the city more appealing to such people is by adding new bike lanes in the Loop. That may sound laughably small-bore, but don’t knock it, says Richard Florida, head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and author of The Rise of the Creative Class. “Focusing on quality of place, quality of life, especially when it doesn’t cost too much, is a good idea,” he says.

Is that really the first thing anyone thinks of when they think of ways to improve "quality of place" and "quality of life?" Richard Florida seems to think so. Then again, his pontifications don't always go over so well.

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