What does "digital Britain" really mean for the UK? We have become so obsessed with building our own mini-Silicon Valley in London that we’re not focusing on what we are really good at. Silicon Valley is clearly a great concept but that doesn’t mean it’s right for London.
London’s "Silicon Roundabout" – the small area near Old Street roundabout – is a long way from Silicon Valley, with its huge open spaces that can accommodate the large campuses of companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple. Apple Campus 2 will be able to house 13,000 people over approximately 2.8 million square feet. There isn’t enough space for US tech businesses to park their European headquarters around a roundabout.
What has been happening around Shoreditch is more akin to what happened around the Greenwich Village area of New York in the 70s. Fifteen years ago, it was a smaller community of Londoners doing what they do best – fashion, design, art and music, all with a quintessentially British style. Does that sound like Silicon Valley? It doesn’t mean that tech does not have a place in Shoreditch. If you add tech to this creative mix, then you get something really interesting. Web design, user experience, social media and mobile app development are just some of the things that Shoreditch does as well as any place in the world and, in my view, often better. Steve Jobs always said that what made Apple great was that it "operated at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts", and nobody does the liberal arts better than Shoreditch.
Tech City should rip up the idea of the wholesale importing of the Silicon Valley concept
Clearly, the set-up in Silicon Valley could teach us a thing or two. For starters, the education sector and the corporate world are far more intrinsically linked there, with universities such as Stanford and Caltech now acting as feeder schools for tech giants and as incubators for budding entrepreneurs. The venture-capital community is also heavily invested in developing talent, with venture capitalists and founders often teaching at university level. Now, try to name any educational organisations that have the same kind of role in the success of digital Britain.
Tech City should rip up the idea of the wholesale importing of the Silicon Valley concept but learn lessons about what made it a success. It should help to close the funding gap for businesses trying to raise £500 to £3 million. It should support local talent nationally to blend technology with what each area does best – whether this is design-led tech ideas in Shoreditch, financial tech in Canary Wharf or pure tech solutions in the wide open spaces of Cambridge. It should focus on helping the UK create ideas that we are able to export to the rest of the world. And it should find a new place for Google to park its campus other than the cramped and now overpriced office space around the Old Street roundabout.
Richard Townsend is the managing director and co-founder of Circus Street