Has the 'Tech City' backlash begun?
It's been a rocky couple of weeks in Tech City. Not only has Eric Van Der Kleij - the man in charge of the government-backed Tech City Investment Organisation (TCIO) - announced his imminent departure from the organisation, but the government's...
Of course, that's nothing new. Ever since David Cameron announced the government's vision for a technology hub stretching from Shoreditch to the Olympic Park in 2010, he has been accused of jumping on the bandwagon and taking credit for the growth of a cluster that was already developing organically.
However, the tone of the debate is changing. Whereas previous commentators dismissed the government's interest in Tech City as superficial, more recent criticism seems to focus on the role that government should play within the cluster, suggesting that its involvement is being taken more seriously.
At the end of last week, former Dragons’ Den star Doug Richard slammed the government's “preoccupation” with technology start-ups, claiming that creative start-ups are being “profoundly under-served” by early-stage investors. He accused the government of trying to “shamelessly ape Silicon Valley,” asserting that London is “the Silicon Valley of the creative industries”.
Meanwhile, a report published by think tank Centre for London at Demos found the general attitude among East London technology entrepreneurs is that the government's high-profile efforts to support the cluster are “muddled, and potentially counterproductive”.
What is needed, according to the report, is not for government to try and guide the development of Tech City - in particular its expansion into the Olympic Park - but to support the growth of the existing cluster by easing visa restrictions for entrepreneurs, improving networking infrastructure and opening up new innovative finance tools, such as equity crowd-funding.
TCIO claims that many of the actions recommended in the report are already taking place, pointing to the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme, R&D tax credits, and the opening up of government procurement to support SMEs. However, it admitted that there is no simple formula for creating a successful high-tech cluster.
The future role that government plays in Tech City will be largely dictated by whoever takes over from Van Der Kleij as head of TCIO. Reports suggest that the role will be split into two - a CEO and a Deputy CEO. The CEO will be external-facing, promoting the East London hub, while the Deputy will organise events and promote the tech community within London.
Centre for London proposes TCIO should becomes a quasi-independent agency with its own budget, reporting jointly to Number 10 and the Greater London Authority (GLA). The Mayor's office has previously been a vocal supporter of Tech City but has had no involvement in dictating policy.
While this may seem like a subtle change, putting the Tech City initiative into the hands of the GLA would effectively downgrade it from a national project to a local project. No doubt, the creative industry would thoroughly approve of this, as well as technology entrepreneurs in other clusters throughout the country, who often point out that the attention given to East London is unjustified.
But what effect would this have on the cluster itself?
Most likely, no effect at all. Most London-based entrepreneurs welcome the attention and exposure the government's Tech City initiative has brought, but have very little interest beyond that. Start-ups will continue to cluster together in areas where rent is low, and larger firms will continue to take an interest in technologies that compete against and complement their own offerings.
The truth is, the primary beneficiary of the government's Tech City initiative is the government itself, giving it the opportunity to trumpet an area of the economy that is growing and distract from the financial turbulence in the City. So far, there have been no adverse effects, but no one is willing to let politicians direct the future course of the cluster.
Maybe it's time for the coalition to turn its attention to something else.