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Design & Tech City I

Design & Tech City I

9th November 2011
In partnership with Creative Industries KTN, of the Technology Strategy Board. SpeakersDiane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke NewingtonGraeme Evans, Cities InstituteEric Van Der Kleij, Tech City Investment Organisation Aims/ agendaFor Place and Space: What’s Happening in East London?, the APDIG brought together key stakeholders involved in the development of what has, perhaps misleadingly, been labelled ‘Tech City’: the cluster of innovative, largely digital, but almost always creative, businesses in and around East London. The event set out to explore the extent to which the digitally-focused language omits the crucial contributions of other creative industries. Our assumption was that the importance of design in particular isn’t talked up enough, a premise that the following discussion more or less confirmed.  HistoryStarting with a historical look at why this cluster of industries developed here rather than somewhere else, Graeme Evans (Cities Institute) pointed to embedded cultural traditions, related to the area’s freedom from City of London guilds’ control. Small, innovative, and often industrial enterprises migrated east, taking advantage of spaces large enough, and cheap enough, to provide living accommodation and commercial premises. With like-minded individuals and businesses in close proximity, the area nurtured tolerance for, and room for, innovative, often counter-cultural practice: an area of high cultural production. A strong example of this is the design-driven print and publishing industry, which settled in East London, leaving a lingering vibe of radicalism and non-conformism.  DevelopmentNurturing this kind of cluster is of course reliant upon a decent understanding of its character. Government has in the past made a comparison with Silicon Valley, and the need to create a European version of it, and jumped on the name ‘Silicon Roundabout’. This label has some value in as much as the word ‘silicon’ carries connotations of innovation, but in more literal terms it’s not a great fit. The hybrid mix of digital and creative industry in London is more culturally diverse than the Californian counterpart, both in terms of economic profile and community. How the area develops now requires some monitoring, which is where the Tech City Investment Organisation comes in. Far from being an exclusive self-serving cluster, the digital businesses in East London feed and are dependent on a wider national, European, and global creative and cultural economy through expansive networks. This needs nurturing – Eric Van Der Kleij (TCIO) was quite clear that it would be negligent not to – because such a hub in London can be a magnet for businesses investing across Britain.  So, what are they key things that need monitoring? 1. Not being a zone of privilegeGetting the balance right between being a centre of excellence and an open and accessible community is naturally tricky. But as local MP and discussion chair Diane Abbott was quick to stress, ‘tech city’ grew from the inherent character of the area, so it must give back to the area’s local community. At present, those descending on this area – Shoreditch, Hackney, Bow, Bethnal Green – tend to be of a rather narrow demographic: white, male, middle-class. The local community could be a source of diversity, if new business communities can be made to connect with, for example, young people in local schools.  2. Space to GrowIncreasing numbers of businesses will limit workspace available, and prices. Rent is therefore increasing rapidly, which risks pricing small start-ups out of the area. Affordable and flexible work-space was highlighted as one of the most crucial elements of maintaining growth in the area. Co-working space is an important characteristic of this cluster, mirroring the collaborative, creative ways of working that these companies have developed. Additionally, as many of these start-ups find themselves growing rapidly, flexible premises, or the ability to expand into new ones at short notice, is important. Keeping flexible structures and possibilities for easy and quick changes in work spaces means not overdesigning buildings. The TCIO is keenly aware of this and taking measures to either bring more space online, alert businesses to more low-cost options, or encourage flexible licensing. 3. Big and small fishWhilst attracting big companies into the area is a goal – indeed the first ones have announced their intention open offices there – it needs to be managed carefully. It could make many small companies worry about attracting and retaining talented staff, and about maintaining the areas counter-cultural identity. It cannot be denied, however, that large corporates will play an important role both as client and commissioner, supporting and nurturing SMEs and microfirms, in training new talent, and in pushing for school-based programmes. 4. Keeping the talent supply flowingConcerns were raised almost unanimously about a shortage of talent. Jobs are proliferating: ‘Silicon Milk Roundabout’, a graduate fair, recently advertised 500 newly created jobs in the area. But there are concerns about the skills supply. Recent changes to the Higher Education funding system are causing apprehension, particularly around whether the increased costs of HE will deter students from entering creative disciplines. There were general concerns around how to encourage and promote entrepreneurialism. There is also a belief that (alongside engaging with local schools) creative subjects on the curriculum need updating and promoting, to inspire children at an early age. Making is key – both practically with their hands, and digitally with their computers. For example, NESTA has published a recommendation to include ‘code’ in the curriculum: there is no point in teaching 14 year-olds only how to use MS Word and Excel, when other kinds of digital literacy are more likely to up-skill the local workforce in a way that is complimentary to industry. The APDIG will continue to explore some of these issues in greater detail in forthcoming work – with a particular emphasis on lessons that apply to other cities and clusters around the country. Please contact jocelyn.bailey@policyconnect.org.uk if you would like to be involved.