Future of London teamed up with Work Foundation and the Big Innovation Centre to discuss the big challenges facing Tech City in East London. We convened 30 individuals ranging from policymakers, educational institutions, investment agencies, academics, tech companies and independent experts to unpack the scale of opportunity presented by Tech City, and what is required to realise that potential.
A coherent cluster, or a branding exercise?
The first of our discussion themes centred on defining Tech City, both in terms of whether it represents a genuine cluster of activity or whether it can best be understood as an inward investment branding strategy. Unsurprisingly, there was a multitude of views in the room, from those keen to emphasise the range of local activities currently going on in the Shoreditch/Old Street area and the key relationships and interactions that exist with broader creative industries, to those with a clearer focus on what is required to get major companies to locate in the area, and those neighbouring areas such as the Olympic Park and the Royal Docks. Participants recognised that this raises some difficult questions, as the needs of these two different kinds of firms (small start-ups and global mega-companies) will not necessarily align in terms of the infrastructure required to facilitate their work.
However, the truth of the matter is that these two interpretations of Tech City are not mutually exclusive; infact, they depend upon one another. Whether the current activity going on within the Tech City area represents a cluster as understood in academic terms is debatable, but there clearly exists a hub of small to medium creative enterprises within the Shoreditch/Old Street area. Our ability to grow this current level of activity into something more significant and potentially transformative for East London will inevitably depend on attracting larger, global, companies to invest in the area. The development of East London will continue as demand for additional housing and commercial space continues to grow, and property values in Shoreditch, Old Street and surrounding areas will also continue to rise, potentially pushing out these existing organisations irrespective of additional investment in the area from Google, Cisco or BT. So harnessing this potential investment to create affordable incubation space and new hubs of activity further East will be critical to maintaining the momentum that has already grown within Tech City. These kinds of companies are ultimately attracted by the consistent creation of new and innovative ideas, and by the potential to have access to those individuals driving them. Balancing the needs of these two different groups, and successfully brokering interactions between them, will be vital to the future development of the initiative.
Tech City’s got Talent
Our second discussion theme focussed on how the base of talented individuals currently located in Tech City can be maintained and expanded. Participants agreed that attracting and retaining talent is not straightforward, and there are limits to the influence that policymakers can have beyond creating the environment for success. Existing networks facilitated by London and national policymakers are valuable, but there was concern that rising property prices could force individuals from their current location. Ensuring that they are sufficiently attracted to emerging hubs within Tech City will be critical.
In addition, the kinds of activity currently in evidence within Tech City tend to focus on the development of electronic applications, rather than the development of new technologies per se. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it will potentially impact on the type of organisations attracted to the area, and the scale of investment they are willing to commit. Furthermore, should the empahsis of Tech City shift towards a other activities, such as, for example, hi-tech engineering, participants were concerned that far more will need to be done to ensure that UK nationals are equiped to take advantage of the economic opportunities arising out of Tech City, which may require specific skills strategies to be put in place. Central to this, participants felt there was much more to do in building and improving links between higher and further educational institutions and Tech City to further boost the mix of new ideas and talent in the area.
Silicon Roundabout and beyond?
This puts a further premium on bringing together the full range of actors engaged in relevant activities from across East London, and including them within the Tech City initiative. Participants felt that there should be a greater acceptance that Tech City as an initiative is geographically flexible, and can thrive if it takes advantages of the range of educational and other institutions in surrounding areas, including universities, and potentially, the financial institutions of the City of London itself. That is not to say that personal interactions don’t matter. The core of Tech City in Shoreditch and Old Street remains the interactions taking place between talented individuals – sharing ideas and innovating together.
Despite the growth of communications technology the need for face to face interaction is unchanged, and this has significant implications when considering how the Olympic Park in legacy mode, and the enterprise zone in the Royal Docks could one day be home to these very same individuals and activities. Creating the right physical conditions to attract these individuals will be key, and this requires not just a focus on issues like cost and infrastructure, but also one on place-making, and achieving the cultural feel that has attracted those creative individuals to Shoreditch in the first place.