Book Review- The Rainforest Blueprint: How to Design Your Own Silicon Valley
Venture Capitalist, consultant, and entrepreneur Victor Hwang has put together a book for developing complex, dynamic organizations and groups of organizations that encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.
I say ‘put together’, rather than wrote, because this book is full of pictures, charts, diagrams, and relatively few words. To Hwang, a farm grows one type of plant, in the metaphor one type of idea or outcome, and farms are organized suitably for that purpose; in a rainforest, though, there are thousands of plants interacting unpredictably, products of a set of conditions that continue to give opportunity for further plants. Similarly, an innovation ecosystem does not produce one thing (a killer app, a vital restaurant, etc.), but instead has a whole range of innovations happening constantly. This book discusses the potential of creating a community that can develop, and bring to fruition, that diversity of creativity.
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Seed, Cultivate, Nourish
Hwang is concerned with the development of ideas, so the process by which ideas are developed into productive long-term initiatives is critically important to this book. Many people are good at creating initial ideas (the seed stage), developing the ideas into full projects (cultivate), or maintaining them (nourish), but all of these steps are equally important to the health of the ecosystem. Part of the book is dedicated to describing how to identify these various partners, to create the ‘fertile soil’ that will allow ideals to grow and flourish. In related topics, the book talks about the discovery process of knowing yourself and your community, and the value of a diversity of opinions. For each of these insights, a photo is included (of a Buddhist monk for the self-knowledge piece, for instance), and a short explanation is given, sometimes indicating that there is research to back this up. Hwang also indicates there’s another book, with a fuller set of footnotes and greater explanation. I am predisposed to believe Hwang’s assertions, but I personally would have liked at least some indication as to where the information Hwang is basing his assertions on are located. For this book, Hwang erred on brevity and clarity of message rather than fullness of explanation; his other book “The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley” is a more robust treatment of these same ideas.
Soft stuff is hard; hard stuff is soft
After having established a definition of what a strong ecosystem looks like, and the process by which the ecosystem can encourage the development of ideas into sustainable projects, the book focuses on how to assess the functioning of the ecosystem itself. Just as an individual project must be nourished, the major project of creating this entire system must also be nourished. To that end, the book has assessment to periodically grade some of these soft metrics for success: “Calculated risk taking is viewed positively” and “Leaders are effective t communicating their visions and agendas to their constituencies” are two of the many areas to be graded on. I think this is one of the strengths of the book, providing tools and steps for capturing what can be a very nebulous process.
Should you read it?
Though this book is ostensibly talking about how to design a Silicon Valley, which implies a very specific type of tech-based entrepreneurship, instead its really focused on the development of a more broadly defined innovation ecosystem—the kind that might suit the goals of an economic developer, or a large company, or anyone that has many different teams to pull from. If you run a small shop, that doesn’t pull from a variety of places or interact with many potential partners, this book might not help you much. But if you see yourself as part of a wide web of players all working together to create new and great products or services, this book could be helpful in helping you to first conceptualize the goal of developing innovation capability, and also to plan the steps to carry it out.