A few weeks ago, I received a call from my friend Robert Neelbauer at about 11 pm. He wanted to talk about innovation and technology startups in DC. For those who live around here, you know there’s not a lot of them. Mostly project-type things that entrepreneurs who work day jobs have cooking. And of course, even though DC is home to Launchbox Digital an accelerator program in the order of Techstars or Ycombinator, there remains a dearth of Silicon Valley style startups.
This call got me thinking about the landscape in DC. It is, as it always has been, a center of government. Those of us who live here joke about the difference between Washington, the center of government, and the District, a wider culture of arts, nightlife and activity outside of government. The reality is, however, that the two are inexorably fused at the hip. Spending Friday nights enjoying nightlife inevitably means spending time among people connected in Washington, on Capitol Hill or other parts of government. It is difficult to live in this city without being part of the Washington-culture somehow. More after the jump.
Today, with the Obama administration and its embrace of internet culture, the advent of “Government 2.0″ has come about. Government 2.0, a term describing the second generation of government using the faux-fashionable way of versioning, describes an embrace of web technologies and culture to advance the mission of government. Without getting into my feelings on Government 2.0 as a whole (my thoughts are well-documented), it’s difficult to escape the reality of enterprise in DC.
DC is not a city lent to Silicon Valley-style innovation. We will never house the next Twitter and Google only exists here as a lobbying arm of the Mountain View, California search giant. It is a city dedicated to practical innovation. We will never have the sex appeal to attract the innovators in California here. It’s not our style.
What we do have is an opportunity for innovation as it pertains to agency mission. We do have the opportunity to develop products that meet the needs of elected government, established government and citizens in a time of economic uncertainty. We do have the ability to build products and services that meet the needs of Washington, but as long as we try to meet the needs of the country and the world, we run the risk of barking up the wrong tree.
Yahoo made a massive move last week, announcing a search deal with Microsoft. Carol Bartz, the CEO of Yahoo, suggested that Yahoo could not compete with Google anymore in search and the deal would allow Yahoo to focus and innovate in the areas they could compete. If you haven’t been paying attention to me since 2007, then you would have missed my thoughts on this. Yahoo came to grips with the realization that they couldn’t compete with Google but they could own another niche. This is the same realization that DC has to come to for itself. We can’t (nor should we) compete with Silicon Valley. Besides the fact that they are dwindling in relevancy as the spotlight shifts to other cities and reasons, we have something they can never have.
And while Silicon Valley warlords aimlessly try to find their relevancy and foothold in Washington, we have the ability to use our real connections, our real knowledge of the inside-the-beltway world, and our real grassroots abilities that we displayed in getting our President elected to bring new and relevant innovation to government.
By the way, the first person who suggests government agencies need wikis and Twitter to be relevant, is banished back to California.