Swings and Roundabouts

It was on the tip of everybody’s tongue, Matt Biddulph just gave it a name. Silicon Roundabout has actually been thriving for over a decade, with hundreds if not thousands of digital businesses in the East End starting up, thriving, failing and starting up again. I’m a fan of the Government’s idea of a tech cluster in East London. They haven’t actually done anything yet — which is fine — but the idea of focusing efforts on one area and clustering support and incentives in an area where something is already going on is a good one.

Last week I was invited along to a meeting at BIS organised by McKinsey where a whole host of London tech and policy bigwigs got together to talk about what the Government should actually ‘do’ to promote the cluster in East London. There were several ideological clashes in the room, most prominent was the idea that Government should do absolutely nothing and just get out of the way. But there is no industrial cluster anywhere in the world that has developed without Government help. Silicon Valley, although held up by this group as being the example, would never have existed if it weren’t for masses of Government money after the Second World War and it continues to thrive because of defence contracts, SBIR grants and public funding of many of its universities.

I talked a little bit about how networks grow and I think they expected me to say everything was terrible but I actually don’t think there are many problems. East London is awash with people plotting new projects and startups and if you want investment and are right for investment, then it’s certainly not impossible to get. There are so many meetups going on it would be impossible to go to all of them. Minibar has been going for five years, Berg and Huddle do their drinks things (as do many other companies) and Seedcamp provides a focus for early stage investing as well. Of course there is far more room to grow and I think the number of tech companies in East London could grow by a factor of ten quite easily provided that the talent keeps coming and the infrastructure keeps improving.

There were a couple of other things I thought were important. First was how it would be better to focus on ‘founders’ than ‘entrepreneurs’. One of the great things about the tech world in the UK and elsewhere is how collaborative people are and how people in this scene realise that the businessy bit of starting something up is only part of it — you need fantastic coders, designers, writers and strategy people to make something work and they’re all equally valuable.

The other thing I talked about was how we could do with a big showpiece digital festival in London. I think we need to make it a celebration: much more of a SXSW than a trade fair so it should be in town and definitely not somewhere like the ExCel. We should also time it to coincide with other great things going on in London and the UK to attract people from around the world who want to launch their products and see what’s going on in the Roundabout.

Finally, the name East London Tech City needs to go. Let’s stick with Silicon Roundabout and be proud.
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