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Lessons from Greenwich Village

Why genius tends to cluster
Lessons from Greenwich Village
  • One small village in Manhattan changed the world in the post-war years
  • Silicon Valley has changed the business landscape
  • Which cluster of genius is going to change the world next?

Described as “probably the most famous neighbourhood in America” in the 1960s, Greenwich Village in New York became the locus of global change. Though it might come as a surprise that the Village People were more than just a flamboyant selection of men in headwear, they were in fact a community of creative thinkers determined to shake up tradition. Much like a certain technology hotspot today.  

Sixties Greenwich experienced a ‘café culture’ boom, in which intelligent young people discussed ideas and performed in the village’s many coffeehouses. A key group of such performers were the Beat Generation. Many will recognise these poets from the caricatured film versions of Allen Ginsberg, lecturing a group of glassy-eyed students on the mystique of marijuana. In actual fact, the Beats had a fundamental influence on pressing political situations. They were among the first to question the presence of American troops in Vietnam and were heavily involved in civil rights. They were also central to progress in gay rights: the village’s Stonewall Inn was home to the very first gay protest.

Like the Beats, Greenwich’s folk singers are often dismissed by modern critics, this time on the grounds that they “don’t sing properly” or “aren’t very catchy”. Yet once you move past the raspy tones of Bob Dylan, you can appreciate the way his music has paved the way for today’s enormous hip-hop industry. The folk singers were far more than a bunch of teenagers mucking around on their guitars. In Joan Baez’s Desert Island Discs interview, she does not remember having a lot of fun in the 1960s, such was her determination to make a difference.

The 'Yippies' also made attempts to shape a new society, though perhaps with less lasting success. One New Years Eve, an inebriated group realised the delightful double meaning of the word ‘party’ and embarked on a quest to fuse hippieism with political protest via the Youth International Party political movement. It was unfortunately the same group involved in the infamously violent countercultural protests in Chicago. But as is the nature with clusters of genius, they tend to make a few mistakes.

 

Where should we look for clusters of genius today?

Now you are probably expecting the investment link to be with Silicon Valley. Perhaps 30 years ago you would have been right. But the thing about clusters of genius, is that the growing phase is what makes them most exciting.

Silicon Wadi (Hebrew for valley) is Tel Aviv’s answer to high-technology. After Silicon Valley, the area has the most start-ups per capita in the world and has led Israel to be nicknamed the start-up nation. The Wadi saw the development of a diverse set of software firms in the 1980s and each found niches which were not dominated by their US competitors.

In 1998, Mirabilis, which developed a revolutionary instant messaging program, was bought by America Online for $407m. The success triggered a dot-com boom in Israel, during which thousands of start-ups were established, leading venture capital raised by Israeli companies to peak at $3.7bn in 2000. During this boom, over fifty Israeli companies had IPOs on international stock markets.

As with Greenwich Village, much of Tel Aviv’s status comes from its students. It places a lot of emphasis on higher education, and many ideas are developed by graduates of Mamram: the Israeli computer corps. It was the first country in the world to offer a PhD in cybersecurity and is a leader in research and development. Israeli university graduates are twice as likely to become IT entrepreneurs or join start-ups than American graduates, who are also attracted to traditional corporate executive positions.

Today, Israel's venture capital industry has about 70 active venture capital funds. Additionally, 220 international funds – including Polaris Venture Partners, Accel Partners and Greylock Partners – do not have branches in Israel, but actively invest in Israel through in-house specialists.

As a parallel of Greenwich Village, Silicon Wadi is teeming with intelligence and energy. Soon all those bright minds will be housed in a 340m high elliptical building, designed by award-winning architecture firm KPF. The flowers of sixties Greenwich might be dead, but in comes an exciting new generation. Let’s call it tower power.