Shore to Shore

Text by Yishan Lam
Illustration by Amaris Chen

It’s been 12 hours of flying, and the plane is steadily making its descent into San Francisco International Airport. I’m gazing out the window, and the thing that strikes me is the fog—how thick and billowy it is, a massive cotton blanket floating over the undulating terrain, hovering low over the city’s pastel townhouses. Like a David Casper Friedrich romantic landscape painting, full of purple and orangey sunset hues.

To the north lies wine-growing country, and to the south, Silicon Valley, where I’m staying for the next few months. This is land that’s as fertile for cultivation as it is for creativity, a breeding ground for food, wine and innovation alike. California emerged as a player on the French-dominated world stage of wine in 1976, when at the mythical “Judgement of Paris” blind-tasting competition, Californian wines unsettled each major category. Just a month earlier, that spring, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniack started Apple Computer—like Hewlett Packard four decades earlier, starting as guys tinkering away in a garage.

Such is the brand of the valley. A place where ideas are nurtured through the metaphorical fog of ambiguity to the moment of breakthrough, then bottled and shipped to us. A region whose successes from IBM to Xerox, Facebook to Google, Dropbox to Evernote, Airbnb to Uber, have prompted many observers, planners and the aspiring to ask, what are the valley’s innate properties, and are the secrets of its successes replicable elsewhere, in creative capitals across the world? From the historical presence of research institutions to the readiness of venture capital, to the influence of 60s counterculture and so forth, how did the ecosystem foster the conditions by which world-leading innovation could flourish?

Yet we know that innovation can also thrive under wildly different circumstances, and entrepreneurial spirit be found in the most original and surprising of places. Just a month before flying to the US, I was in Jakarta with my work buddy to get inspired by e-commerce trends in Indonesia—not only the world’s fourth most populous country but one whose middle class is expected to double to over 141 million people by 2020.

We were stuck in traffic, a state that the majority of Jakarta’s have come to accept as a routine part of everyday life. There was not ethereal fog outside the window: rather, the faint smog of exhaust from the sea of vehicles, winding around one another in slow progression, or resting at a complete standstill. It was all decidedly very non-linear. We were on our way to what seemed like a slum village in the outskirts of the city, to meet a young lady at her grandfather’s house.

Now mother to a newborn baby, she started her first Instagram business while in high school, selling trendy clothing to girls her age. She did this at virtually no startup cost, by going to wholesalers, modelling the clothes there, taking photos of herself in said articles, and purchasing them only as and when orders were made. She may have been at school, but was already earning a decent return, as an “early adopter”. Soon, everyone around her would be opening their own Instagram stores too, an explosion of sellers from hobbyists to serious, in a hugely diverse market.

Indonesia loves social media. With over 40 million Facebook users among its 240 million-strong population, an increasing number of small business owners are connecting to their customers online. We met a young father and serial entrepreneur who was riding the wave of Internet opportunity. Inspired by his wife’s woes of the lack of inspiring maternity wear during her pregnancy, he set up a plus-size clothing store on Facebook, collecting payments through ATM, online and mobile money transfers.

To us, it was clear that infrastructural limits hadn’t quenched the entrepreneurial spirit of Indonesians one bit, but rather fueled them. (Just like the traffic, the mobile Internet connection is also very slow!) Adopting easily-available social and mobile technologies that were first invented overseas, the people we met tuned in to local needs to co-opt them for income-generating opportunities.

In April this year the BBC published an article about “Silicon Bali”, a nod to the tech entrepreneurs, freelancers and coders moving to the island to set up shop where a nice beach is always within easy reach. The following week, we were there for the next leg of our project, so I met up with an Indonesian friend who came back from Copenhagen to do a short stint at one such user experience agency on the island. Over drinks one night, the conversation came to his hopes for the nation. “It’s easy to say how things are screwed up here or there,” he shared. “But there is so much more creativity in our culture that’s yet to be unleashed.”

The sun’s already set, and we can see the stars. The ocean is roaring, somewhere close. And in it, a plethora of ideas are being trafficked from shore to shore.

From The U Press N˚7 (Singapore edition).