Digital Desert Hub – Can The Downtown Project Create Silicon Strip In Vegas?

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While thousands of people swarmed all over CES, I went off-beat and headed north to downtown Las Vegas. This is the old part of the city where once gamblers at slot machines listened to Sinatra wafting through the Casino doors rather than Beyonce. This area of faded glory is now the scene of the Downtown Project, an initiative by Zapos CEO Tony Hsieh to transform the area from an unloved poor relation to the famous Vegas “Strip” of huge casinos and hotels down the road, into a hive of tech startup activity. Silicon Strip, if you will.

The timing couldn’t be more interesting. As governments around the world look to the continuing boom in technology to revive their battered economies – from ‘Startup Chile’ to ‘Tech City’ in East London – Hsieh’s project could well become a blueprint for others to follow. After all, if you could re-create the fecund atmosphere and economic success of Silicon Valley in the middle of the American desert, surely you could do the same anywhere in the world?

Hsieh has pledged to personally invest around $300 million dollars to realize this vision and the idea is to bring to bear the 2,000 Zappos employees working in the area to help it it transform. It’s already attracted startups like Romotive and local marketplace Rumgr. The area even has its own startup blog, Vegas Startups.

Hsieh’s view is that urban density can improve innovation. “It turns out that the same principles that work for improving company culture actually work for driving productivity and innovation in a city,” he has said. Walking around you realise that it is far more pedestrian-friendly than the usual car-obsessed Las Vegas.

Home to the city’s arts district and friendly hipster coffee shops like The Beat, Downtown certainly looks like it might be a fun place to live and work on a startups, though it’s still clearly early days. However, by subsiding housing for startup entrepreneurs/developers and building a private jet link with Silicon Valley, Hsieh hopes that Downtown’s shabby chic can turn into sparking startups.

A director of the project, Zach Ware, who joined me for a chat on the interview below, says shaping the area in this way could end up being a talent pipeline for Zappos. A better place to live attracts talent you can use. He says building an “ecosystem” of startups instead of the traditional big-company campus – like the Googleplex – could be a new way to support your company goals.

The project as also attracted former TechCrunch writer Paul Carr, who showed me around the area in the video and has certainly taken a liking to the city, given he’s basing his startup there.