Three Powers to Support Ecosystems – Reflections from Stanford

A summer studying at Stanford University has left me with numerous insights, new ideas and connections to build on, as well as a first-hand impression of the famous Silicon Valley ecosystem, which serves as a showcase of entrepreneurial success around the world.

Photo: Will Sundquist

Natasha Pokidko, 06.09.2017

Different people gave me different ideas about the ingredients of this ecosystem. I found three issues particularly powerful and interesting.

1. The power of stories

More than a hundred years ago, a woman in a faded dress and her husband, dressed in a plain suit, visited the president of one of the leading American universities with the intention of presenting the university with a building in memory of their child who had passed away. “A building!” – said the University president – ”do you have any idea how much a building costs? We have more than seven million dollars in the physical plant at our university!”

The woman turned to her husband and said quietly, “Is that all it costs to start a university? Why don’t we just start our own?” Her husband nodded.

This parable, although untrue, informally circulates around Stanford University warning against the folly of judging others based on first impressions. I believe that this and many other stories about Stanford University and Silicon Valley help to explain the unusual openness of people in this area. This openness is visible everywhere, including the courses and workshops held at Stanford. You might come across the CFO of Tesla, a California State Innovation Officer, or a legendary retired professor spending time with Stanford students and faculty pro-bono.

2. The power of shared experience

“Stanford University is so startlingly paradisiacal, so fragrant and sunny, it’s as if you could eat from the trees and live happily forever.”

This is the impression that many get when they first visit Stanford campus. But when you dive beneath the surface, you see how much hard work is hidden beneath this beautiful picture. Everyone wants to stay in this paradise and many pay a very high price for it. Famous for its entrepreneurial ecosystem, Silicon Valley hosts numerous startups at different life-stages – some successful, some aiming for success, some learning to fly, others pushing hard to stay afloat.

You can see the same pattern among students of Stanford University –Stanford Duck syndrome, where everyone appears to be gliding along effortlessly, but below the surface are putting in a lot of effort to maintain this state. It seems to me that most people in this area understand how much it takes to stay in this paradise. This understanding is transformed into cooperation. Surely, it is easier to stay afloat and paddle towards the unexplored shores when you are not alone but are a part of a strong community.

3. The power of “updates”

Today, most of our computer software receives constant updates to keep up with the latest technological developments. But how often do we “update” ourselves?

Artificial intelligence largely resembles the human pattern-matching logic and it is evident that both artificial and human minds require constant updates for their development. Residents of Silicon Valley seem to have a very good understanding of the importance of such updates and involve themselves in constant learning. It is not uncommon to meet a wide range of people who regardless of their intense workload, extremely busy schedule, or superior competence, participate in the workshops and courses offered at Stanford University.

I believe that these three issues are as topical for Aalto University and the growing industrial ecosystem around it as they are in California. We are living through an exciting time of emergence and growth of this ecosystem. Similar to Stanford and Silicon Valley, I see some success stories (e.g. the Design Factory, Start-up Sauna, Slush, and others) which together with numerous other pieces constitute the emergence of a unique University identity and organizational culture. It remains to be seen which stories will become parables and what values they will promote.

As in Stanford and Silicon Valley, many Finnish companies realize that despite their differences, they benefit from close contact with each other, especially when working with innovative projects in unexplored territories. The ongoing Aalto EE Consortium programs well illustrate the benefits of such cooperation, not only for small startups but also for large and well-established companies in search of innovative solutions and competitive advantage.

And similar to Stanford and Silicon Valley, the developing Finnish ecosystems will benefit from the balance between artificial technology and human development. The growing interest in educational services in Finland serves as a good indicator for this balance. The professional education offered by Aalto EE contributes to the balance by providing the tailored “updates” for human minds across different organizational settings.

These are my personal reflections about Stanford University and Silicon Valley and their similarity to Aalto University and the ecosystem evolving around it. I believe these patterns are worth exploring further and invite readers to join one of Aalto EE’s programs to explore these similarities in breadth and depth.

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