Revolutionary Measures

Will the Eastern Powerhouse be a damp squib?

Devolution is all the rage in Whitehall at the moment, with areas outside London encouraged to band together, elect a mayor and take more control over their finances and future. The aim is to counterbalance the economic power of London – or if you want to be cynical to woo wavering Labour/LibDem voters over to the Tory party.

Flag of East Anglia. Made with parts from: 30p...

The first of these projects, the Northern Powerhouse, was trumpeted by George Osborne two years ago, and has seen powers over health spending devolved, plans for elected mayors take shape, and funding announced for transport improvements, although many remain sceptical until things actually happen.

In his last budget, the Chancellor spread devolution even wider, announcing plans for an Eastern Powerhouse, covering Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Except it isn’t all of Cambridgeshire since Cambridge City Council has said from the outset that it doesn’t want to be part of the agreement. And it turns out that it may not be any of the county at all as Cambridgeshire County Council rejected the deal offered by the Government at a meeting on 25th March, calling for the terms to be renegotiated.

In fact, Cambridgeshire was never part of the original plans, which were for an authority to cover Norfolk and Suffolk. But the Government deemed this not large enough, so pushed to add Cambridgeshire to the mix. The fraught negotiations, which involve 22 separate county and borough councils, demonstrate the difficulty of getting any agreement across such a wide area.

As someone who lives in Suffolk and spends a lot of time working in Cambridge I can see the Chancellor’s original idea behind the Eastern Powerhouse – use the energy and buzzing economies of Cambridge and Norwich to revitalise the rest of the East. But as a PR person I’m deeply sceptical of initiatives that are strong on bluster but short on details. I remember the Cambridge 2 Ipswich High Tech Corridor of 2000 which signally failed to generate much entrepreneurship between the two places. For the Eastern Powerhouse to work it has to be more than a paper tiger and, I believe, have the following attributes:

1. Proper investment in communications
The Northern Powerhouse has been criticised for slow progress on improving transport links, but at least there are motorways linking Leeds and Manchester. Roads in Suffolk and Norfolk are simply not up to scratch, and there is no spare capacity – if the A14 is blocked then forget trying to get from East to West in a hurry. Trains are lackadaisical when it comes to speed – you can get from York to London in about the same time as London to Norwich, despite it being almost twice as far away.

The other thing that the region lacks is 21st century (or even 20th century) telecommunications. Cities in the region may have 3G, or occasionally 4G, but in rural areas you are lucky to get any coverage at all. What brought this home to me was when I was in the middle of the Yorkshire moors, miles from anywhere – and I had a 4G signal. At home 2G is the norm. And you can forget Fibre to the Home connections – many villages in Suffolk have yet to receive any fibre connectivity at all. This is all despite BT’s main research labs being located in the county.

So, if an Eastern Powerhouse is to flourish it needs serious investment in transport and communications – potentially billions of pounds. And this isn’t just moving existing spending commitments to a new pot. This is going to have to come from central government and intoday’s straitened times I simply can’t see this happening.

2. Investment in skills
Both Suffolk and Norfolk languish near the bottom of league tables for school achievement, with inspections by Ofsted heavily criticising both county councils. Again, this comes down to investment – government policies have focused money on underachieving inner city schools but have neglected rural and coastal areas. Suffolk only got a university within the last decade, while Peterborough has been promised one as part of the Powerhouse proposals.

3. Change in leadership
Since I moved to Suffolk the County Council has shut my son’s school, tried to build a waste incinerator in an area that failed to meet its own environmental criteria and had to cope with a chief executive who received a six figure payoff after being accused (and cleared of) bullying that led to the suicide of another official. I’ve seen the damage cuts have done to its own education department and the slow speed at which vital decisions are made. Suffice to say I have an incredibly low view of its utility or the calibre of its elected officers. Yet, when there is talk of an elected mayor, it is widely believed it will come from one of the county councils. I therefore heartily agree with entrepreneur Peter Dawe, who says he will stand for the post of elected mayor of the region, criticising local councillors for “their myopic, parochial interests based on the past, and on keeping what powers they have, whilst carping about lack of money.” However I can see party machines mobilising to shut out an independent that threatens their candidates.

4. Change in attitudes
This is probably the hardest thing to change, but people need to be encouraged to realise their potential – and high achievers need to be encouraged to return to the county. More young people need to go to university or college, and more should be done to support innovative new businesses that deliver jobs to the region. This doesn’t just require investment, but a cultural change that opens up opportunities to everyone – however it does rely on the communications, skills and leadership change mentioned above if it is going to happen.

If the Eastern Powerhouse is to achieve anything it needs to address these four areas – otherwise it risks being a solely cosmetic extra and costly layer of government that will fail to improve the aspirations, careers, and lives of those within the region.

April 20, 2016 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The end to rural notspots?

Amidst all the hype about the rollout of 4G and the excitement around fibre optic deployments (note to BT – I’m still waiting, and you said I’d have it in June), the UK has a hidden issue when it comes to communications. Too many rural areas still don’t have a decent, basic mobile phone signal.

Cwm Rheidol Telephone Kiosk - geograph.org.uk ...

In my village, in the middle of Suffolk, only one provider has any reception – and that is just 2G, not even 3G. When the local mast went down for a month last year it paralysed rural businesses, as well as impacting on the lives of local residents. And this is not the Outer Hebrides – I’m less than an hour from Cambridge and Norwich, and 20 minutes from several major towns.

Given my experiences, the news that the Government is considering forcing mobile phone operators to share their networks (so called national roaming), to widen choice, looks like a positive move. Putting aside the fact that the starting point for the new rules was apparently David Cameron being unable to get a signal while on holiday in Norfolk, it should benefit anyone living in the countryside. It will help stem the growing gulf between rural communication ‘have nots’ and urban dwellers with 4G and superfast broadband. A similar system operates in the US, which has a lot more challenging terrain than over here.

Obviously the mobile phone operators are crying foul, pointing out that they have spent heavily on masts in rural areas, and being forced to share their infrastructure will jeopardise future investment. Frankly, I just don’t buy this. Everywhere else they have competition and somehow survive – after all, most people pick a network operator on price/what you get for your money, rather than “do I actually get a signal?” At the moment they have captive markets that they have carved up amongst themselves, forcing people to choose by postcode, not package. Sharing infrastructure makes it more cost-effective and opens up new markets. Additionally the government has promised £150m to improve areas where there is no coverage at all.

The government claims it has big plans to turn the UK into a skills-based, technologically literate society. Entrepreneurship is being encouraged (albeit focused heavily on the media-centric Silicon Roundabout), coding is being re-introduced into schools and infrastructure projects promise faster links between major cities. So far rural areas have been left behind – with high speed broadband projects running late and a lack of skilled jobs hitting local economies. It is time for the government to address these issues or risk creating a two speed economy that deprives those of us in the countryside of the same opportunities open to the rest of the United Kingdom.

June 25, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Cambridge Cluster – what’s missing?

Cluster (IA)

As I’ve said before, startup clusters are springing up all over the place and that’s great. There’s even one in my village (population 3,000) – well, two startups and a group of support services, including myself.

Clusters encourage innovation, particularly through external economies of scale – i.e. by providing access to the people, resources and infrastructure that startups need but don’t have themselves. And the more startups there are in an area, the lower the price of these services as they are shared across a greater number of companies.

A lot of these clusters seem to be driven from outside, particularly as both central and local governments realise that startup clusters are (a) sexy and (b) cheap. Why not give them a small pot of money/some space/a patronising visit to show you’re supporting innovation?

So, putting cynicism aside, what does a startup cluster require – and how does Cambridge measure up? I’ve been looking at Brad Feld’s work on building a startup ecosystem, based on 20 years experience in Boulder, Colorado. The aptly named Boulder Thesis highlights four things that these communities must have:

  1. They should involve entrepreneurs and feeders (people/institutions like universities, government, venture capitalists, lawyers, PR people). BUT they have to be led by entrepreneurs if they are to truly take off.
  2. Long term. It can take 20 years to build a community, so entrepreneurs need to stick around, even if they’ve built and sold their company long ago. And the same goes for those that fail – encourage them to stick around.
  3. They need to be inclusive, welcoming anyone, no matter what their skills or ideas.
  4. They need to be active, with a range of events and accelerator programmes to help encourage and nurture startups.

That’s Boulder. Let’s compare it to Cambridge.

Firstly there’s a large community of entrepreneurs and feeders in the city (so a tick there) and entrepreneurs are taking a leading role. And given the longevity of the Silicon Fen success story there are plenty of long term entrepreneurs who have stuck around, from Hermann Hauser to Mike Lynch.

It’s the third and fourth points where I believe Cambridge has issues. Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredibly welcoming people in the Cambridge community and some great events/accelerators that nurture startups. But, perhaps because of the size and depth of the community, spanning everything from medtech to green IT, groups can appear disconnected, with everyone focused on their niche. Some of this may come from the research-led nature of many Cambridge innovations, but, even in academia, cross-discipline working is becoming more normal after centuries of specialism. Compare this to places such as Norwich, which has a smaller (but still substantial) startup community that seems more cohesive, with greater communication between disparate companies with radically different ideas.

What Cambridge does have, and that I think is missing from Feld’s thesis, is the combination of new and old blood. The universities, and increasingly tech businesses, attract talent, much of which stays on and contributes to the ecosystem. But enough leaves to make space for new ideas so that things don’t go stale.

So, in true end of term report style, Cambridge needs to try harder when it comes to building a cohesive, overarching supercluster. It has the constituent parts, but what is needed is stronger glue to stick it together and help connect the bigger picture. Let’s see if 2014 brings a solution to this long term problem.

December 11, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Hubs, bridges and the discovery of America

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There can be a tendency in Cambridge to think that innovation ends at the city limits, and particularly that we’ve got the monopoly on tech startups in East Anglia.

Proof positive that this isn’t the case was on show last week at SyncNorwich, where more than 300 entrepreneurs, developers and members of the Norwich tech cluster talked about their diverse successes. This included market leaders such as FXhome, which produces special effects software for both Hollywood blockbusters and amateur filmmakers, Liftshare.com, the world’s most popular car sharing site and mobile interaction/payment firm Proxama. A whole host of newer startups, such as targeted mobile advertising company Kuoob, music community site SupaPass and educational software provider Wordwides (set up by a 16 year old) also talked about what they could offer.

There’s obviously been lots of activity in Norwich for quite a while (FXhome has been going for 10 years and Liftshare.com for 15), but what the evening did was give outside endorsement to the cluster. Mike Butcher from Tech Crunch came along and it gave everyone present belief that they were on the right road and that they should be shouting about it. In the days since, I’ve seen emails offering co-working spaces and there’s even a cluster name (Silicon Broads) being bandied about, along with a startup map.

Norwich isn’t the only cluster rising to prominence across Europe – the growth of cloud-based technologies, new agile development methodologies and a focus on entrepreneurship mean they are springing up everywhere. Some people see this as a bad thing – they point to the size of Silicon Valley and wonder how hundreds of disparate European cities can compete or scale. But as Butcher pointed out, the Valley has a 60 year head start and what is needed is to build bridges between the different hubs – after all takes 2 hours to drive from London to Norwich (or Cambridge), the same time to get from one end of Silicon Valley to the other.

What Europe needs to do is to use the nimbleness of having multiple centres to its advantage and turn disparateness into diversity. I’m reminded of the story of the ‘discovery’ of America. At the same time as Christopher Columbus was touting his plans around the courts of Europe, the Chinese Emperor was assembling a great fleet to explore the same area. Given the scale and backing put into the expedition it would have been likely that the first non-native settlers in the present day United States would have been Chinese, not European. However the Emperor died and his plans died with him – there was no alternative power that could take them on. In contrast Columbus, originally Genoese, travelled round Europe for years until he found a backer in the Spanish monarchy. The result? The world we know today.

So it is time that European startups (and political leaders) stopped dreaming of a single super hub that on its own can rival Silicon Valley. It’ll never happen and what we need to do is build bridges between the enormous variety of hubs across Europe. Making everyone aware of what is going on up the road (or further afield) is crucial to driving collaboration, unlocking opportunities and building a successful pan-European tech ecosystem that can break down barriers and silo working and deliver jobs and growth.

December 4, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Saving the planet with Facebook

Phathological form of twigs of Fraxinus excels...

There was a big surge in interest around gamification a few years back. Essentially improving the user experience and getting people to do things that weren’t that interesting by turning them into a game, it never really made it into the mainstream.

But now a new twist to gamification promises not to enhance the user experience but to actually help improve the world around us. Researchers at the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have come up with a Facebook game that will help in the fight against ash dieback, the fungus that threatens to wipe out Britain’s 80 million ash trees.

Players on the Fraxinus game have to match sequences of genetic letters represented by leaf shapes, helping sort genetic information into matching sequences and therefore pinpointing genetic variation in either the tree or the Chalara Fraxinea fungus that causes ash dieback. Those samples that don’t match will be flagged for further investigation to see if the genetic variation is linked to potential immunity to the fungus.

Of course harnessing the power of distributed computers is nothing new. Projects such as the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) use the idle time of home PCs to crunch data as part of the effort to find alien life.

However what is different here is that Fraxinus actually uses human intelligence, rather than just our IT. We’re actually a lot better (and faster) at recognising patterns than computers are, so the research effort relies on our skills to fight ash dieback. Obviously putting the game on Facebook provides a scalable, global platform that can be accessed by millions – and also gives a welcome boost to the profile of the research efforts at the same time.

It is early days to see if Fraxinus takes off, but it would be good to see other researchers adopting a similar approach – involving the crowd in their work doesn’t just help get it done quicker but it also makes it more real to people. Rather than science being something done by people in white coats it is all around us that we can all take part in. Being able to say that you’ve helped solve a scientific problem gives extremely powerful bragging rights for your status updates, compared to the norm. My only concern is timescales – research takes years and the attention span on social media is measured in seconds and minutes. So scientists need to break their work into bite sized chunks with defined goals if they are to engage with those on Facebook and Twitter. This can be easier said than done, but the benefits to individual projects and the scientific community could be enormous. Let’s hope that Fraxinus is the first of many games that do wider good.

August 14, 2013 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Networking in Norfolk

Judging by the turnout and discussions at yesterday’s Norfolk Startup Masterclass, the county has the potential to cast aside rural stereotypes and foster a new generation of innovation-based businesses.

The Startup Masterclass programme aims to equip entrepreneurs and early stage businesses with the skills and advice they need to turn their ideas into successful companies. Backed by ideaSpace, as well as number of local partners the programme runs across East Anglia, combining events, mentoring and online resources. In Norfolk local partners include Norfolk County Council’s Enterprise Hubs, the Norwich Research Park and Norfolk Network.

Monday’s event was the first event in Norfolk as well as the official launch of the programme and an audience of over 50 startups and business leaders gathered in the space age surroundings of the Hethel Engineering Centre to share their experiences and learn from a panel of four entrepreneurs.

Under the imposing shadow of a locally built, race-winning Lotus F1 car, which provided a reminder of the county’s engineering heritage, the evening focused on Stories from the Startup Jungle. Ian Doughty of StructureFlex, Andy Fisher of iPatter, Thomas Haizel from Anglia DNA Services and Tom Wood from Foolproof discussed what they’d learnt building their own businesses and shared advice for would-be entrepreneurs. Have a vision, be flexible and build the right team were just some of the points they highlighted.

What impressed me most (apart from the F1 car) was the breadth of attendees, which really demonstrated the range of sectors operating in Norfolk. From biotech through engineering to creative, internet and gaming businesses there was a real spread of ideas and companies.

On a day that saw the government announce My New Business, an online-only resource for startups, the event reinforced the need for face to face networking as participants shared their experiences and learnt from each other. Following the launch the programme moves into providing advice and mentoring in specific areas, such as valuing your business, protecting intellectual property and sales and marketing – to sign up to the next event simply click here to learn more.

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November 15, 2011 Posted by | Startup | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment