The thing about government ambassadors is they are so relentlessly optimistic.
In an effusive speech at Queen Mary University's Mile End Group earlier this week, the Prime Minister’s ambassador to Tech City, Ben Hammersley, said that the East London technology cluster could “improve the lives of this whole area, this city, the country and in fact the whole world”.
Now, I am a big fan of the Tech City project and have great confidence in its future success, but I can't help thinking that Hammersley - who is also editor of Wired magazine - has got a little caught up in all the government hype. There's some cool technology coming out of Tech City, granted. Some of it is even ground-breaking. But I haven't yet seen an app for curing famine or solving world debt.
Having said that, Hammersley did raise an interesting point in his speech about society's obsession with data. He said that, rather than focusing on numerical measures of success, we should be embracing diversity.
“The tech investment community talks an awful lot about how we need more developers in the same way as we used to need more labourers in the fields,” he said. “Well this may be true but we also need more poets and more artists and more hoodies and more kebab shops, more people in the rag trade and more academics.”
He said that the technology industry has isolated itself for too long, hiding first behind a “geek culture” and then behind numbers and investment targets. This has led to the creation of isolated clusters like Silicon Valley, which Hammersley described as “a really interesting place to have a look round and shudder”.
“Silicon Valley was farmland before Silicon Valley appeared. There really isn’t anything there apart from the tech community,” he said. “It's really boring, but we forget this because we admire their numbers.”
I must admit, I have lost count of how many times I have been told that the number of technology firms in East London had risen from 200 to 700 since 2010. It is perhaps no surprise that the government is a big advocate of the Tech City Map - an interactive platform that keeps a running tab on the number of companies in the area.
The fixation on numbers goes beyond cataloguing companies, however, and transmutes into an obsession with money. Hammersley said that the tendency to prioritise getting rich over everything else is a reflection of American values, and fundamentally unsustainable.
“We look at the one billion dollars that Facebook paid in imaginary money to Instagram and, without asking why enough times, we attempt to import their values, and then wonder why they don’t stick.”
Hammersley said that, while most of the other tech clusters around the world have been built as office parks, East London is “a place of extraordinarily richness in depth”. He said the thing that will make East London Tech City a success is not the Tech City part of it, but the East London that it grows from.
He then went into another hyperbolic rant about pavement cafÃ©s and pretty girls on bicycles, and how we are on the verge of the biggest revolution in the history of humanity, but I'm sure you can read about that in other articles.
The point is that the success of Tech City cannot be measured in terms of numbers. If its only achievement is to coax a few techies out of their geeky bubbles and break down some of the cultural barriers between science and art, then it is an initiative worth supporting.
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