Tilting at Silicon Valley's windmills: A visit by a Spanish delegation of technologists

I had a fascinating conversation a couple of Sundays ago with a visiting delegation of Spanish business and technology leaders from the region of Asturias, in Northern Spain.I was very flattered and honored that in their very busy three-day tour of Silicon Valley's top companies, universities, and research institutes, they wanted to meet with me.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor

I had a fascinating conversation a couple of Sundays ago with a visiting delegation of Spanish business and technology leaders from the region of Asturias, in Northern Spain.

I was very flattered and honored that in their very busy three-day tour of Silicon Valley's top companies, universities, and research institutes, they wanted to meet with me. This is one of the wonderful pleasures of my job, finding out that I have readers in places that I didn't know I had readers...!

Asturias is a former coal and iron mining region with about one million inhabitants and it is the fourth fourth fastest growing IT region in the European Union. It is always good to get an outsider's perspective on things. It has a rich, wonderful history, especially its role in the defense of the republic during the Spanish civil war (please see additional info at the end of this post).

The delegation included Jose Manuel Alonso, Spain's head of the W3 Council, which is the only Hispanic country that hosts the web standards body, and thus handles *all* Latin American duties. There were also representatives from  the CTIC Foundation, the local university, and a representative of Arcelor, the world's largest steel company, with more than 350,000 workers.

All of the six delegates, and their translator, Andreu Veà, a postgraduate at Stanford university, were born and raised in Asturias and spoke of the region's beauty.  Their goal is to develop Asturias into a healthy, diverse  economic region that includes a significant high-tech prowess.

A key part of that goal is to be able to build a collaborative infrastructure that can pull together university, government, and private industry, into developing important services for their communities.

They came into town to meet with Google, Yahoo, Mozilla, Intel, Stanford University, SRI, and other companies, to talk about collaboration and to show off some of <b>their</b> technologies.

Community is a big focus for this group. It came up in our conversation time and again. They were interested in how to use technologies in creating new services for all of their community, from grandmothers to shepards. To them, technology should be invisible, and it should be highly useful, and I couldn't agree more.

We spoke for many hours and although I don't speak Spanish, we did speak in a common language. We spoke about how to use technologies to make life better for people, and not technology for technology's sake.

The wonderful thing about such meetings with outsiders, is that it provides a fresh perspective on what is going on in Silicon Valley. Often, it is too easy for us insiders,  the companies, the people, and the investors here, to get caught up in our small world, breathing our own exhaust. It is always good to get an outsider's perspective on things.

Here are a few subjects and questions that we discussed:

What is all the fuss about Web 2.0 companies? What are these companies offering? I had to agree, this Spanish delegation can smell hype and BS from 6,000 miles away!

Why are Silicon Valley startups and investors not taking risks? This one took me by surprise, but I quickly realized that they were right.

Investments in Silicon Valley move in a herd-like fashion. There is very little risk-taking from the investment community, in terms of running large pilot programs to test out technologies, markets, or researching users and their online behaviors. The VCs make many bets hoping that a small number of them will succeed. It is a wasteful method but one that does produce results--eventually.

Surely Silicon Valley will go away or become much less important? My view is that Silicon Valley has been written off many times since I arrived in 1984. And each time, Silicon Valley has come back stronger than before.

Silicon Valley enjoys a perfect storm of capital, culture, colleges, and skills. It sucks-in the smartest, brightest and the most talented people from everywhere. And it is very difficult to recreate such an environment anywhere else.

The delegation met with Mozilla. They were told to wait while the Mozilla Director of Giving (handing out grants) came over to join them.

But the Spanish delegation were not looking for a handout They wanted to set up collaborative partnerships. In fact, they showed off a web browser tool bar that they had developed, and that very much impressed their hosts at Mozilla, and also at Yahoo.

They also spoke about Mozilla as potentially providing a brand. They saw a lot of value in engaging developers in Asturias, in Europe, and in the US, within a "brand" that celebrates open source software and collaborative development.

I think this is a great idea, the creation of a brand that encompasses the best qualities of the open source movement. It would motivate a lot of people in ways that money does not. But they said that this concept was not readily understood by Mozilla.

Why is cell phone reception so bad and why are US cell phone models a couple of years behind what is available in Asturias? A great question. I said it had to do with density of population but I couldn't figure out why cell phone reception in Silicon Valley continues to be so bad. I keep running into the same black spots time and again, year after year after year. The carriers have done nothing to correct these black spots which indicates their arrogant attitude towards their users, IMHO.

What about WiMAX? Why aren't there many pilot projects? One of the delegates said WiMAX was like an unicorn, many people speak of it but no one has seen one :-). Again, I had to agree, WiMAX is supposed to be the next really important technology, but where is it? Does it really work?

This delegation really wants to be able to partner with Silicon Valley companies, research groups, and universities. And they have a lot to offer, a smart, IT savvy community, and a keen awareness of technology and its applications for ordinary people. We need more of that kind of thinking around here.

- - -
Contact: Andreu Veà, PhD andreu@stanford.edu http://www.veabaro.info/default-e.htm

At the meeting:

Pablo Priesca Balbín            Director General CTIC                  
Antonio Manuel Campos López     Director de I+D+i                      
Carlos de la Fuente García      Director de Tecnología             
Nicolás de Abajo Martínez       Knowledge Information Research Center Arcelor   
Jose Manuel Alonso Cienfuegos   Resp Oficina Española W3C    
Marta Tamargo Valdes            Directora Financiera

Additional reference:

This is from Wikipedia:

The Industrial Revolution came to Asturias with the discovery and systematic exploitation of coal and iron resources. At the same time there was significant migration to the Americas; those who succeeded overseas often returned to their native land much wealthier. These entrepreneurs were known collectively as 'Indianos', for having visited and made their fortunes in the West Indies and beyond. The heritage of these wealthy families can still be seen in Asturias today: many large 'modernista' villas are dotted across the region, as well as cultural institutions such as free schools and public libraries.

Like all Spain, Asturias played its part in the events that led up to and including the Spanish Civil War. In 1934, the left-wing workers' movement fought the right-wing government of the Second Spanish Republic in the so-called 'Revolution of Asturias'. Troops under the command of Francisco Franco were brought from the North African colonies to put down the rebellion and a ferocious oppression followed. As a result, Asturias remained loyal to the democratic republican government during the war, and was the scene of an extraordinary defence in extreme terrain, the Battle of El Mazuco. With Franco eventually gaining control of all Spain, Asturias — traditionally linked to the Spanish crown — was known merely as the 'Province of Oviedo' from 1936 until Franco's death in 1975. The province's name was restored fully after the return of democracy to Spain, in 1977.

In 1982 Asturias became an Autonomous Community within the decentralized territorial structure established by the Constitution of 1978. The Asturian regional government holds comprehensive competencies in important areas such as health, education and protection of the environment.


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