There Is A UK Innovation Revolution — But Not At London Tech Week

Digital Catapult Centre, London Technology Week

At London Technology Week, serial digital entrepreneur Laura Brown makes an entertaining yet compelling argument for us to look beyond the corporate gloss and consider the real drive behind the 21st century’s fastest growing economy…

As Ferris Bueller said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it”. As with so many things, Ferris is bang on the money. This isn’t the only thing Ferris taught me, but it is one I think about quite often. And technology means life feels as though it is moving faster. Our attention spans are dwindling. See, you’re already Googling other Ferris Bueller quotes and you’ve forgotten what I was saying.

Technology has done this to us. It has shifted us. You know in Doctor Who when they say there are fixed points in history you can’t change, even if you have a blue box and the chance to go back or forward in time? We can imagine that moment when Tim Berners Lee pressed ‘live’ (or whatever he pressed) was one of them. We have changed.

And we keep changing, that’s the whole point. Technology simultaneously leads us by the nose, hand, wallet as well as running to catch up with our changing behaviours. We are uniquely evolving to strive. It is good, as Ferris says, to occasionally check in and stop to see it, before it all whizzes by and we’re on to the next thing.

“Innovation, derring do, the six-figure venture capitalist investors… here is a window onto a globally successful brand that is ‘London’s Tech Hub’”

This week is London Technology Week. It is a chance for tech firms, entrepreneurs, ideas merchants, developers, geeks, pitchers and venture capitalists to meet and greet in one place. It is, according to the website, ‘unique’.

‘No other festival of live events brings together as many domestic and international tech specialists and enthusiasts to London for such a variety of networking, social learning and business opportunities’.

And, wow; as a chance to reflect on the digital economy in London, it’s incredible. It is. Jobs that didn’t even exist when most of us left school are now pinpointed as the future of our economy. Shabby corners of London are now heralded as the future home to some of the biggest tech giants in the world. Innovation, derring do, the six-figure venture capitalist investors… here is a window onto a globally successful brand that is ‘London’s Tech Hub’.

“Except, out here in the sticks — i.e. anywhere outside London — it feels a bit …. So what?”

Except, out here in the sticks — i.e. anywhere outside London — it feels a bit …. So what? OK, this isn’t a microchip on the shoulder piece. This isn’t about shrugging off the impact London’s technological revolution has had on the world, never mind the rest of the UK. This does not ignore the VFX houses shaping cinematic endeavour (and scooping up talent and awards by the skipload), not does it ignore FinTech and its growing partnership with The City of London’s capacity and position as a doorway to the world. We’re lucky (we are) to have one of the world’s greatest cities on our shores. Without it we could be Belgium.

And yet.

London Technology Week: Capital's digital technology sector employs almost 200,000 people (image courtesy

London is always going to spend its time saying London is the centre of the universe, that you have to leave your home in order to ‘make it’. But technology isn’t about that anymore.

Take one of the sessions at London Tech Week, posing the question: ‘What must tech clusters outside London do to thrive?’ Well, I have a few ideas, but not one of them includes going to a workshop just outside Fleet Street to find out. I have a copy of the Tech Nation 2015 report on my desk. Tech clusters outside London are thriving. They need more venture capitalists, more investment and there is a strategy to be developed to attract that. They do not need London technologists telling them that what they need is more ‘London’.

“The sessions are great at London Technology Week, but where’s the showing off, the big ideas, the weird and the wonderful?”

As I sit in the second fastest growing digital economy in the UK — Liverpool — I look down the map to Bournemouth, the only place with more start-ups emerging than here. I look at Sheffield, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Newcastle, and I think technology isn’t about sitting on your perch anymore and telling everyone else that you’re doing it right. Tech is being driven by its clusters right now, and the festivals springing up outside of London are reflecting this much more accurately: from Thinking Digital to TechFestSuperbyteAbandon Normal Devices and GameCity. Creative, collaborative, innovative, interesting and interested.

The sessions are great at London Technology Week, but where’s the showing off, the big ideas, the weird and the wonderful? Where’s the inventions? The only thread you get that really taps into the real-life conversations happening in tech right now are from Tug Life, on what works and what hurts with start-ups, and what is the digital world doing to our minds and bodies?

If I was working in tech in London, or thinking about setting up a digital company like the one I have here, I’d be thinking one thing: how the hell can I afford to do this when I can’t afford to live here? It is really hard to innovate when you’re skint. And trust me, when you’re a start-up, you are skint a lot. Fear drives you and powers you through but it’s hairy. It is hairy when you live in a city where you can buy a four bedroom house overlooking a park for £150k and monthly mortgage repayments of £600. What’s the fear like when your rent is £1k and rising?

“The UK’s tech clusters are drivers of the country’s economy… from AI in Belfast to gaming in Liverpool, ed-tech in Birmingham and e-commerce in Bournemouth”

There’s a reason tech clusters are evolving and growing so fast outside of London; a generation of digital entrepreneurs realised they didn’t have to move to the capital to make good. Ignore government rhetoric of the Northern Powerhouse, of tropes to try to make us vote one colour or another. This generation of entrepreneurs is the generation that stayed, and it is building something truly exciting: an innovation revolution. We need local authorities to get behind the industry and the clusters (which is inevitably an upward struggle), but the support is increasing. These companies are creating jobs; a skilled and committed workforce and they’re sharing ideas.

London is always going to be a gateway to the UK; and, equally, it is always going to suck talent, resources and profile out of the rest of the UK. Some call that a cancer, others think it’s a boon. But there has been a subtle shift. It’s small but it’s significant, and London Technology Week, with its corporate gloss and big sponsors, isn’t reflecting it. The UK’s tech clusters are drivers of the country’s economy. Each cluster has its own story, its own background and its own specialism, from AI in Belfast to gaming in Liverpool, ed-tech in Birmingham and e-commerce in Bournemouth. It is easy for the media in the capital to portray London Technology Week as UK Technology Week, of course it is. But it isn’t the whole story.

Here’s another thing Ferris Bueller said: “The question isn’t: ‘What are we going to do?’ The question is: ‘What aren’t we going to do’?” That’s what technology feels like right now, and it doesn’t need the capital to lead it, either. And that’s how it has to happen, because otherwise, what’s the point?

Laura Brown

See London Technology Week at venues across London until 21 June 2015 

Read Digital Utopias — Reviewed

Read Off The Map: Liverpool’s Absence From The UK’s Creative Industrial Strategy

Posted on 19/06/2015 by thedoublenegative