Reinvention Against Replication Part 3
London is the popular girl at the school dance — a force of bewilderment and fascination for one half of the room, and an endless source of wishfulness, angst and ‘what ifs’ for the other. It is the city to be. The place to emulate; a nut of boundless prosperity simply waiting to be cracked.
And yet, despite our purported ability to pinpoint the source of London’s unrivalled success, strategising a way to emulate it within the troubled North has been problematic for those concerned, compounded by the very industries that have bolstered the capital city’s recovery. Here, we refer to the tech industry, which has helped London achieve further international acclaim and establish itself as one of the leading digital centre’s of the world (to be exact, the third biggest after San Francisco and New York City).
Tech start-ups are the success story of the recession. In 2010 total funding raised by such companies was an uninspired £10m. So far this year, meanwhile, it’s close to a billion. The exponential growth is nothing new for the tech world, of course, where each year new devices, ideas and innovations eclipse those of the last. But even so, the rate at which London’s tech scene gained momentum was and is outstanding, unsurprisingly attracting no shortage of retrospective investigation and analysis.
At the time, with the banking crisis still haunting investor prospects, tech start-ups added a sellable ingredient into the concoction of London’s infamous industries. It was a stem in the flow of wealth from the power-wielding financial services to the estate agents, who revelled in the capital’s growing luxury status and house price bubble.
However, what became a surging digital hive of interconnected start-ups had far more precocious beginnings. In 2008 the area known as the Silicon Roundabout, located between central and East London, was ironically coined. In a prudently affordable group of disused office spaces this new tech centre was borne — a gathering point where each company’s growth, success and failure became interlinked. Such a surge of growth in the midst of recession did not go unnoticed. When the government stepped in, it saw an opportunity to fan the flames of this great PR city - London, TechCity, in direct association to America’s best tech hotspots, became the highlight of the UK’s economic recovery.
In reality, the tech industry thrived as a hive does. It was a gathering, a centre-point of entrepreneurial people and start-up types, who sought to explore the seemingly boundless possibilities offered by the digital age. This interconnectivity cannot be overstated as a factor for its success. Growth became a byproduct of stagnation, and failure gave birth to new success. Companies evolved through loss — abandoned business plans gave way to new realisations, and the collapse of one company served as a lesson for another.
This worked exceptionally well for the government, allowing Cameron to boast of London’s unmitigated success stories, and ignore the thousands of failed start-ups that had paved the way. Silicon Roundabout, or TechCity as it became known, ceased to be a humorously spun slice of irony, and instead became a byword for the UK’s economic success, the centrepiece of what David Cameron has referred to as ‘Britain’s position as a global hub of technology excellence’.
For policy makers at Downing Street, the formula then to bridging the North-South divide became clear. It needed a transfusion of wealth; the entrepreneurial blood that had given life to the tech start-up scene needed to be pumped up North. As a result, plans for Tech North were announced earlier this year, to be located within Manchester, with the HS2 serving as the all-essential drip to London.
Around the same time, a government-backed report examined the growth in tech clusters throughout the UK. And this, when considering the effects of reinvention against replication, is now the all-important question and concern.
For all the money being invested in this new vision of the North, and the so-called Northern Powerhouse, such policies do not account for the original, organic factors behind the tech scene’s growth. This indivisible centre of knowledge-based jobs, where the exchange of knowledge became a day-to-day routine, did not exist because of government backing. The cause and effect relationship warrants a concern when considering the above-the-clouds ambitions for the North. To become the new London, cited locations such as Manchester, Liverpool and Belfast require more than wealth. The chancellor’s propensity for branding may have served well alongside London’s momentum, but the North will reveal whether marketing and investment can proactively create rather than harness such hubs and centres.