“Silicon roundabout” has our tech strategy going round in circles

High tech companies are the new target for major cities. There was a report this morning on “Silicon Allee” in Berlin and a reflection on why the arty, edgy city – with arguably Europe’s best film festival – is able to attract the world biggest players in the field, like Google.

The city has a perfect storm for innovation; there’s cheap property, a young and creative workforce that is seeking to define and re-define itself. It is a city, one commentator said, that thinks of itself as a start-up.

Much hand wringing followed when the report said it would be difficult to recreate this in London. “Silicon roundabout” – a Godawful phrase – that describes a collection of media agencies and technology firms in Shoreditch, Old Street and Hoxton. It’s part of the Government’s East London Tech City, an idea modeled on Silicon Valley in California.

The whole point, surely, of technological innovation, is that no longer are you tethered to one place? The Cloud means you don’t have to work in one location, you can travel, work remotely, file the same designs and initiatives from wherever you happen to be. It isn’t encouraging a brain drain from the UK’s regions which was the principle legacy from the last time there was a Tory government.

Perhaps it is a salve for the capital, frustrated over Media City in Salford. (The fact that you might have to allay concerns that the capital would still get the bulk of investment, support and still be the hub of innovation is baffling but not surprising). But most importantly it shows that, once again, this government just doesn’t get it.
To build one place as a tech hub is inherently a mistake as, for a start, it is based on someone else’s model. The whole point of technology and creativity is that it comes from something within, not something without. It is born, defined and developed as a response to one place. That’s what the big tech firms are buying into, isn’t it? The creative boom?

Video artists in the late 80s saw what MTV was doing and saw the technology as an effective way of communicating their ideas to an increasingly mediated youth. It reflected how people were talking to each other and viewing popular culture. It’s no coincidence that Liverpool was the first place to hold a major festival of video art in the UK, Moviola, which provides the roots for the city’s Biennial. This was a place too often defined by others. Video meant it could capture on screen how it saw itself, wrestling control from those who wanted to take the city’s destiny out of its own hands. Creativity is about control. Moviola led to the first centre for art and creative technology in the UK, FACT. In the 90s vein of using an arts venue to spearhead regeneration of place, FACT help encourage investment and the resurgence of the Ropewalks district – running from Berry Street and Bold Street through China town and down to the new Baltic Triangle, across to Liverpool One and the waterfront.

Creative control doesn’t stand still. So Liverpool’s creative community expands further into Baltic with companies like Apposing leading the way again. It isn’t the government strategy that’s there, it isn’t the politicians that are there it is the mentality that drives it forward. The desire to innovate, to stretch our legs, to realise you can’t wait for someone else to do it; that’s born out of a need, not a construct.

The impact of that mentality is huge. The present creative community in Liverpool is the first that didn’t have to move away to London to define itself. It’s now in its second generation. Instead of leaving to find jobs, investment and inspiration they sought it at home and gave the city a voice. Musicians, artists, writers, directors, designers, entrepreneurs and voices – all using technology creatively. They have stayed and they have shifted the margins and revitalized the city and its identity. And they did it because they had to, not because they were told by government to establish a place that would attract technology companies, but because they had to, it was born out of a need.

With “Silicon Roundabout” is begets a feeling that tech can only happen in the capital and it reflects a lack of understanding about how the majority of people are working in the industry. We are no longer tethered to that. The investment should be to make the access to technology the same everywhere. A quarter of Liverpool’s population isn’t online. Older people in the wider UK need far greater access to the possibility and the release of technology. Silicon Roundabout is an idea that makes us go round in circles. It’s far more important to see technology as a national investment that affects every street that can accommodate fibre optic rather than directing attention, chatter and finance on one London postcode.

2 Comments

  1. You’re completely right about Government not being able to dictate where things happen – Brad Feld’s “Startup Communities” book has lots of good stuff on how to do this properly. There’s been quite a bit of discussion of it here in the DoES Liverpool community, and I blogged my notes on reading it at http://www.mcqn.net/mcfilter/archives/computers/blog_all_dogeared_pages_startup_communities.html

    “Silicon Roundabout” is actually a good example of it working correctly, or at least was until a year or two back. Matt Biddulph, who came up with the name as a joke, outlines the history at http://gigaom.com/2012/12/11/how-londons-silicon-roundabout-really-got-started/ The Government only got involved when it was already thriving, and they wanted to be associated with the success. The “Tech City” stuff was them trying to rebrand and take ownership, and I guess the persistence of the Silicon Roundabout tag is maybe a lesson to how much difference Government can make 😉

    1. I guess you never fail to be surprised at the ability of governments to think organic growth is something they can be part of in any meaningful way. Liverpool, actually, is doing some interesting stuff in terms of facilitating conversations, introducing people to each other, which I think is probably a good approach. Anything else always feels like the ageing record exec seeing the new cool indie band and saying “rock on”.

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