Revolutionary Measures

Silicon Valley, Stratford?

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So David Cameron today announced plans for the East End of London to rival Silicon Valley, using the legacy of the 2012 Olympics, the existing Silicon Roundabout media community, and promised support from the likes of Facebook, Google and Cisco. Now I do a lot of my work within Silicon Fen, the Cambridge tech cluster that has given us the likes of ARM, Autonomy and Cambridge Silicon Radio. So, yes, I freely admit to being biased as I passionately believe in the innovation and potential around the area. That said, I don’t think Cameron’s plans will succeed because they ignore the fundamental fact that, unlike an Olympic Park, you can’t build a tech cluster through government directives and bricks and mortar. And there is no additional cash on offer. For me a tech cluster has to have five key things:

  • Universities. These act as a magnet for people with ideas and provide the environment to carry out research and come up with new concepts. Obviously places such as Cambridge, Dundee, Oxford and Newcastle tick the box here, as does London with Imperial College – but this is on the other side of town from the East End. Consequently you won’t get the same level of cheek by jowl interaction in London as you do in other tech clusters.
  • Cheap space. Not just cheap business rents (which Cameron is promising for London), but cheap places for start-up staff to live and bring up their families. Cambridge may not be inexpensive to live in, but it’s a damn sight cheaper than London.
  • A broad range of talents. To build a company you need different people with a range of skills, such as finance, marketing and sales alongside programmers and inventors. This to me is the real mark of a cluster – people willing to help each other, not always for money, to get great ideas to the see the light of day. A great Cambridge example of this is the Pitch and Mix group and its forthcoming Skills Bazaar. The existing Silicon Roundabout has this community, albeit focused on media, so the key will be scaling this up to meet the new plans.
  • Cross-agency co-operation. Public bodies need to share the tech cluster vision, realise its importance and work together over the long term to deliver joined-up support. Ireland (and in particular Dublin) is looking to do this in a very smart way, but in the UK Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) are being abolished, and while new hubs and partnerships are being introduced the timescales are vague.
  • Lack of choice. Really a question of big vs small. As a smart person in London there are a hundred and one jobs or sectors you can work in – not just technology. In Cambridge the economy is focused on academia, science and innovation. And a bit of punting for the tourists. It stands to reason if you stick around Cambridge you’re focused on what you are doing and consequently want it to succeed.

    Don’t get me wrong, I want innovation across the UK to succeed and deliver a diverse range of tech companies that lead the world. But simply sticking a new label on the Olympic Park and expecting it to create the new Google isn’t going to work.

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    November 4, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

    22 Comments »

    1. I don’t see why we can’t have a new media cluster in East London at the same time as a technology cluster in Cambridge. After all, London is where the media are (and many of the London startups are much more about media / social networking than the technology). But personally I would love to see something a lot closer to (my) home; how about Silicon Suffolk? (but don’t mention IP-City – I never trust a site where the latest news is undated)

      Comment by Nigel Thomas | November 4, 2010 | Reply

      • If this was being pushed as a media cluster that would be sensible and logical – but in fact (and look at the involvement of Cisco, Intel, BT) it is being talked about as an amorphous catch-all cluster ‘to rival Silicon Valley’. It just looks like an attempt at forced centralisation when clusters work best as groups that grow naturally in a particular place. That is exactly why IP-City failed – I think they’ve even taken down the sign that welcomes you to IP-City as you leave the A14 now……….

        Comment by Chris Measures | November 4, 2010 | Reply

    2. Very interesting post. I like your description of what a cluster needs. Describing yourself as a PR person undersells how much thinking you do. Do you tweet?

      The one thing I’d add is that it’s a mistake to think that Cameron or anyone in Whitehall actually believes he is creating a hi-tech cluster in London. He just has political imperatives (appearing pro-growth) that mean he needed a peg somewhere on which to hang a hi-tech press conference, and having the PM around can’t hurt the Olympic Park legacy stuff. See http://exquisitelife.researchresearch.com/exquisite_life/2010/11/how-to-read-david-camerons-speech-on-hi-tech-growth.html

      Comment by William Cullerne Bown | November 5, 2010 | Reply

      • Thank you William – I do believe that PR people should be thinking as well as doing, but I know that it isn’t always the case. Yes, I tweet – http://www.twitter.com/chrismeasures

        I very much agree with your analysis of the speech – it is about filling the Olympic Park and looking hi-tech/innovative. I hadn’t looked into the IP statements but it looks very worrying – I wonder if Google’s recent let-off by the Information Commissioner has anything to do with its links to government?

        Comment by Chris Measures | November 5, 2010 | Reply

    3. Good points Chris and thanks for checking out my blog about Tech City on BrandRepublic’s The Wall Blog. I’m remaining optimistic and hopeful that having the government throw its weight at the initiative to make East London a hi-tech cluster is going to fly. My home is in Hackney, and I can see the Olympics from my balcony. I love the idea of a thriving buzz of creative and innovative companies operating right in my backyard. During my days working in New York City’s Silicon Alley, I saw this happen over ten years, and think if such a crowded, expensive city like New York can manage it then London can as well. Here in East London you can really feel the potential the place has. It is still messy and rough around the edges, but it is changing rapidly. Places like Hackney Wick, the next stop down from Stratford, are already creative clusters for artists and really interesting small businesses. I could see tech companies really appreciate the big open loft spaces in this area, and the access to public transport. I’m looking forward to see what happens, and hope that something fantastic will result. It is frustrating seeing 9.3 billion pounds going toward the development of the Olympics, at a time of dire recession, so I really hope the promise of the legacy period following the games truly happens for East London.

      Comment by Lisa Devaney | November 9, 2010 | Reply

      • Hi Lisa,
        Thanks for the comment – I definitely do hope that the plan succeeds, but worry that the Government announcements might actually stop the buzz, rather than help it. Particularly as it strikes me that location has been driven by the need to fill the Olympics site…..

        Comment by Chris Measures | November 9, 2010 | Reply

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