Thoughts on the state of the "East London Tech City" initiative

Last Monday I was at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to explore the government’s “Tech City” scheme to do something to do with the technology industry in an area loosely defined as “East London”.

I’d been wondering before sitting down to write this how best to sum up my reservations about the scheme, not really realising that just writing that first sentence would actually begin to draw them out quite quickly. An initiative has been announced, a name has been given, but very few people seem to actually be sure what is being proposed, or where or at whom it’s targeted. That made it very hard to work out how to engage with the event.

There were a range of different interests represented, small development shops like ours, a couple of early stage startups, some academics, a few folks who’d been through the startup experience and emerged with successful firms, civil servants, VCs/bankers, and quite a few big tech vendors. It wasn’t hard to discern who fell into each group as time and again it became clear that there were quite distinct agendas in play, not to mention significantly different interpretations of the dress code. And it was a clear a number of those present could do with reading Alex’s politician’s handbook to East London, with requests for “free wifi to enable cafe working” suggesting people hadn’t spent much time in the current crop of cafes around Shoreditch.

There were a few stimulating conversations in the breakout groups but it’s sad that one of the most positive outcomes was that the lack of focus so quickly became apparent! Are we talking about encouraging tech firms to take over the Olympic Park post-2012, or are we talking about changes in Shoreditch? Are we looking to bring in foreign tech giants who are well capitalised and need a European office, or is the primary focus supporting the establishment and growth of indigenous companies?

Those are all valid questions to be asking when exploring what government can be doing to support the British tech sector, but it feels like they’re the questions that come before an initiative is announced with much fanfare and a variety of “commitments.”

It feels like the whole thing is starting on very poor footing. Early on there was a statement (which I’m not meant to attribute because we were under Chatham House Rules) that the name “Silicon Roundabout” had been dropped because “it doesn’t translate around the world.” That was indicative for me that there was no real commitment to exploring the uniqueness of London and the myriad tech communities that thrive within it. I’ve a certain fondness for the Roundabout moniker, though no deep commitment to it, and its key attributes in this context are that it emerged from the community of small tech companies in the Old Street area, and that it relates a certain commitment to and humour about the place. The idea of dropping it didn’t go down well among the locals I was attending with.

Understandably, the consultants from McKinsey running the event were at pains to push those of us there for some concrete answers to “what should the government do?” And given that the initiative is already under way we probably need to come up with some answers… I don’t have many specifics as yet, but I know I’d like them to start by:

  • splitting the initiative along geographical lines: East London isn’t a single entity and different neighbourhoods have different needs. Pick a couple of areas and produce tailored plans for each.
  • acknowledging that small companies generally generate more jobs than big ones (and that “rapid growth” isn’t the only way to be successful): where there’s an existing ecosystem of small companies ask them what they need without the implicit addition of “in order to become big companies”

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