Silicon Valley, Stratford?
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.
- U.K. To Create Silicon Valley in East London (blogs.wsj.com)
- Google, Silicon Roundabout – and a call to regulate the web (telegraph.co.uk)
- Silicon Valley – but in the East End, promises PM (independent.co.uk)