Information Technology and Large Cities

In my book Between the buyer and the seller, officially released exactly a year ago, I have a chapter on cities. In that I explain why industry clusters form, and certain cities or regions become hubs for certain types of industries.

In that, I spoke about the software industry in California’s Silicon Valley, and in Bangalore. I also mentioned how the Industrial Revolution wasn’t evenly distributed around England, and how it was clustered around textile hubs such as Birmingham and Manchester. I also used that chapter to talk about the problem with government-mandated special economic zones (this podcast¬†with Amit Varma can help you understand the last point).

Back when Silicon Valley was still silicon valley (basically a semiconductor and hardware hub), it wasn’t as concentrated a hub as it is today. It was still fairly common for semiconductor companies to base themselves away from the valley. With the “new silicon valley” and the tech startup scene, though, there is no escaping the valley. It is almost an unwritten rule in US Tech startup circles that if you want to be successful with a tech startup, you better be in the valley.

And this is for good reason, as I explain in the book – Silicon Valley is where the ecosystem for successfully running a tech startup already exists, including access to skilled employees, subcontractors and investors, not to speak of a captive market. This, however, has meant that Silicon Valley is now overcrowded in many respects, with rents being sky high (reflected in high salaries), freeways jammed and other infrastructure under stress.

In fact, it is not just the silicon valley that has got crushed under the weight of being a tech hub – other “secondary hubs” such as Seattle (which also have a few tech majors, and where startups put off by the cost of the valley set up) are seeing their quality of life go down. The traffic and infrastructure woes in Bangalore are also rather similar.

So why is it that information technology has led to hubs that are much larger than historical hubs (based on other industries)? The simple answer lies in investment, or the lack of it.

Setting up an information technology company is “cheap” in terms of the investment in capital expenditure. No land needs to be bought, no plants need to be constructed and no machinery needs to be bought. All one needs is an office space (for which rent is paid monthly), and a set of employees (who again get paid a monthly salary). Even IT infrastructure (such as computing power and storage and communication) can be leased, and paid for periodically.

This implies that there is nothing that stops a startup company from locating itself in one of the existing hubs. This way, the company can avail all the benefits of being in the hub (supplier and customer infrastructure, employee pool, quality of life for employees and investors) without a high upfront cost.

Contrast this to “hard” industries that require manufacturing, where the benefits of being located in hubs is similar but the costs are far higher. As a hub develops, land gets expensive, which puts off further investors from locating themselves in the hub. This puts a natural limit on the size of the hubs, and if you think about it, large cities from earlier era were all “multi-purpose cities”, serving as hubs for several unrelated industries.

With information technology, though, the only impediment to the growth of a hub is the decreasing quality of life, information regarding which gets transmitted in indirect means such as higher rentals and commute times, and poor health. This indirect transmission of costs to investors results in friction, which means information technology hubs will grow larger before they stop growing. And as they go through this process, the quality of life of the hub’s residents suffers!