The M4 corridor was a byword for high tech long before the Shoreditch scene had even been imagined, says Tech City CEO Gerard Grech
On a recent train trip to Manchester and Newcastle, the man sitting next to me asked what kind of business I was travelling on. “I’m visiting tech start-ups in Manchester and Newcastle,” I told him. “I thought that sort of thing was happening in East London,” he replied. I set him straight. “Tech is happening all over the country,” I said.
It is true that when it comes to tech, London has grabbed many of the headlines. The UK’s capital city is one of the world’s most vibrant tech clusters, set to create £12 billion of economic activity in the next decade, and grow 5.1 per cent year-on-year, according to research from Oxford Economics and South Mountain Economics respectively.
And in financial technology, Greater London can now claim status as one of the world’s largest Fin Tech clusters, with a recent Bloomberg Philanthropies report showing that the greater capital has 44,000 Fin Tech employees compared with 11,000 in Silicon Valley and 43,000 in New York.
London capital gives us a brilliant story to tell, supported by plentiful evidence of growth and innovation.
But digital technology in the UK does not begin and end in London, nor has that ever been the case.
The M4 corridor was a byword for high tech long before the Shoreditch scene had even been imagined. Cambridge famously houses two of Britain’s biggest tech success stories in Autonomy and ARM Holdings. The Cambridge tech scene comprises around 1,400 companies employing over 53,000 people. ARM, through their chips, powers over 90pc of the world’s smartphones.
Tech clusters across the UK are excelling in their own right and at the same time demonstrating complementary strengths: hardware in Cambridge, digital media in Manchester, gaming in Newcastle, artificial intelligence in Edinburgh and Southampton, to name but a few examples.
During my trip to Manchester, I was struck by the innovative approach being adopted by many of the entrepreneurs I met. Take Eudora Thompson, CEO of Bright Future, a software developer house. Her company employs school leavers and graduates who work alongside highly skilled experts to provide custom-made software solutions at off-shore prices. Nearby, at Manchester Metropolitan University, the faculty of computer science is developing a digital innovation hub that will help accelerate ideas and bring young graduates, entrepreneurs and businesses together.
Meanwhile in Newcastle, the opening of Campus North is providing a valuable hub for start-ups and investors to meet and share ideas. The northern tech buzz comes together at the Thinking Digital conferences, where speakers and audiences exchange ideas in a TED-like forum that articulates the energy of this rapidly growing sector.
The opportunity now is to make the most of our cities’ respective digital strengths. Too often a false opposition is generated between London and Cambridge, Manchester, Edinburgh and our other outstanding clusters. Perceptions of distance play a part in this: the journey from London to Liverpool say, is treated as a pilgrimage, where North Americans might simply see it as an everyday commute.
As the Chancellor recently pointed out, in order to create a “Northern powerhouse” that links up the UK’s northern cities, the most urgent need is to move on from an economy of disparate ‘hotspots’ to one that benefits from a comprehensive growth infrastructure. These are the hallmarks of an economy that is developing strongly in parts but not yet as a coherent whole.
The UK is not so big that we should be worrying about how one city or region rivals the next. Every city is a tech city, with its own unique DNA. Cities need to build up their local tech skills and infrastructure, while forging deeper links with other tech clusters across the country.
I like to think of Britain as one big brain, with different tech clusters – like different parts of the brain – talking to each other and sparking off innovation.
That is why at Tech City UK, we’ve created the National Tech Cluster Alliance. Its aim is to accelerate the growth of digital businesses in cities around Britain, share best practices, spread opportunities and link up groups across the country engaged in digital innovation.
The tech clusters across the UK are exciting. But we will raise the game even higher when we start working with each other, to create a national network of digital excellence. We’ve built Tech City. Now let’s build Digital Britain.