What can other cities learn from San Francisco’s urban tech migration?

Research Project Name

Downtown Tech Boom

What We Did

We investigated the strategies employed by companies moving or establishing downtown offices as a way of attracting tech talent, focusing on San Francisco as a case study. We began by interviewing various members of the local business community, followed by secondary research and case studies exploring various situations in which a technology company invested in a downtown location or headquarters. We used these case stories as a lens through which to understand what strategies spurred successful integration with the city and neighborhood, and which strategies created challenges or tensions worth considering as other companies pursue similar moves.

The Context

Not too long ago, discussions with technology companies in the Bay Area were largely focused on how to bring elements of urban living into the Silicon Valley. This trend has flipped—today, we more typically see suburban organizations exploring or executing moves into the city. Tech companies founded in San Francisco have seen tremendous growth, while companies located in the South Bay are considering satellite offices in the city in search of the young talent that resoundingly prefers urban living and working.

These moves have not been without their challenges. Local and national news continues to focus heavily on a growing tension brought about by the surplus of young tech workers moving into the city and driving up housing prices. And while the influx of a young, affluent population should bring benefits to local businesses, the traditional amenities strategy many companies brought with them from the suburbs—providing everything in the building to keep employees happy and working—stood in the way of many of the potential benefits to local neighborhoods.

The Results

As the urban migration of technology companies continues, and as many other industries look to technology companies as the vanguard of workplace strategy, it’s worth stepping back to reflect on lessons learned with the San Francisco technology community as a case study.

Follow the talent. San Francisco is increasingly being used as a lure for tech talent as more and more companies consider opening up satellite locations in the city. Policies about who gets to work from the satellite locations vary by company, and many are still exploring the optimal relationship between urban and suburban locations, but the message is clear—the young employees that companies are looking to attract prefer urban locations, and companies are following suit if they want the best people.

Neighborhood Integration. San Francisco’s “Mid-Market” area has seen the greatest influx of companies in recent years, often driven by tax breaks in return for improvement engagement with the local community. Companies have done this through various methods, many proving successful, including community service and education programs. Design strategies that offer a service to the public— making workspaces available to host not-for-profit or local events, creating shared amenities—have also been proved successful.

Challenges of Insularity. There has been a learning curve, however—not all strategies proved successful. Companies providing a bevy of in-office amenities that keep employees in the building have hurt local businesses even as property values rise, driving displacement and tension. Companies that provide food vouchers for use in local businesses and create spaces shared between their employees and the larger community—whether co-work space, event space, retail space—have fared better.

What This Means

Positive urban disruption. The opportunities for companies to create meaningful change and regeneration in the urban realm is huge—but so are the potential pitfalls. Change should happen in partnership with the community, and preserve not displace local culture and people.

Create a porous workplace. Insular suburban workplace models don’t translate to urban areas. Inclusive experiences that encourage employees to engage with the community, and vice versa, are more respectful and more successful.

Learn from other cities. The dramatic shift of tech companies toward San Francisco is a lesson to other cities for what change is possible, and where tension can arise. As cities from London and New York to Seattle, Austin, and Seoul support a growing tech market, these lessons will prove invaluable.

What’s Next?

As work, and life, continue to shift toward cities across the globe, we hope to expand this discussion beyond San Francisco to engage other cities in similar dialogues.

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Gervais Tompkin, Amy Kwok, Kristina Alford, Devin Koba, Adriana Phillips, Sheryl Samson, Brian Stromquist, Kimberly Wong

Year Completed