By Michael Baxter
They used to talk about the bells of Shoreditch. You might recall the words ‘When I get rich, say the bells of Shoreditch’. Better than the oranges and lemons offered by the Bells of St Clements.
These days the area is more known for its roundabout, or silicon roundabout as it is called. For this has come to symbolise an attempt to create a rival to California’s Silicon Valley in the east end of London. The UK government has come together with Tech City Investment Organisation to try to realise this dream.
On Sunday, a Vice President of Facebook — Joanna Shields — who also happens to be Managing Director of Facebook Europe, Middle East and Africa, was chosen to be the new head of the Tech City organisation.
She will start in January.
As a dotcom star, her credentials are impressive. Ms Shields has been a President at AOL, responsible for social and communications businesses, and previously served as chief executive of Bebo. She has also been Google’s Managing Director for Europe, Russia, the Middle East & Africa.
On the news of her appointment she said: “Throughout my career I have had the privilege of working with great entrepreneurs and innovators to create thriving new businesses and industries. The seeds have been sown in East London for a dynamic and successful cluster: we have the infrastructure, the technology and the talent, now we need to accelerate the growth. I am looking forward to leading the Tech City Investment Organisation in the next phase of its development. With the right boost now, there is no reason why we can’t make London the number one location for tech in the world.”
Bold words indeed! If her stated objective can be realised, then for once we would have to cast aside cynicism, and say “well done”.
But right now there are critics. For one thing, Facebook has not been paying much tax in the UK. It’s been in the media this week. Last year the company apparently only paid £238,000 tax from sales of £20.4 million. It’s an embarrassing one for Ms Shields to explain away. She admits she has received some pretty stroppy emails on the subject, but suggests that now it’s different. Since the government is actively promoting the area, its tech occupants will be happy to have their tax domicile in the UK. It’s a kind of quid pro quo. “We do this,” says the government, “you reciprocate.”
But there are other criticisms. James Dyson, for example, says that all the government is doing is forcing up rents in the region, making it all but impossible for other companies to operate. Those are companies which produce real things, things you can see and touch; things like… I don’t know… vacuum cleaners perhaps.
And that brings us to another criticism.
What does Facebook produce? Some say nothing, literally nothing, it produces ether. It trades in a kind of Ponzi scheme, in which its one real asset is popularity, and it’s popular because… well because it’s popular.
For that matter, these same critics might say the same of AOL, Google and Bebo. So goes their critique: how can a woman who has excelled in selling ether do something real, like create a hub to power the UK economy?
Then there is the anti-London argument. ‘Why London?’ they ask?
And finally, the anti-immigration brigade can always be called in to support the ‘no to silicon roundabout campaign’. For the Cameron government plans to allow certain rules making it easier for budding tech entrepreneurs in silicon roundabout to migrate to the UK.
Some of the criticism may be fair. Most may be off the mark.
On the topic of immigrants, hubs like London’s tech city need them. For that matter, so does Silicon Valley, which to a certain extent was built by immigrants . Not literally built, but the ideas and the social network, and Silicon Valley’s culture was built by them. But the US is tightening up on rules regarding immigrants — really tightening up. From Uncle Sam’s point of view it’s a highly dangerous move. After all the US is a country of immigrants. It is they who made it so dynamic. It is no good bringing up the drawbridge and expecting the US to continue to enjoy economic dominance. So the mistake in the US is the UK’s opportunity, though no doubt the ‘Daily Mail’ will try to stop it.
As for the argument that Tech City is based on vapour ware companies, well that is surely wrong. You would hardly expect ‘Investment and Business News’, which exists solely because of vapour ware, to agree with that.
The thing is that the UK does produce excellent designers in tech. Remember Jonathan Ive? He’s the man behind the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad. Even Steve Jobs recognised how crucial he was to Apple. He still is crucial, of course. Then there is ARM, the chip company that designs the chips that sit in so many mobile devices, including Apple’s products. AIM itself grew out of 1980s computer company Acorn.
The UK’s problem is that it has failed to convert design brilliance into creating British companies that shake the world. For Tech city to be a true success, it needs to create some of the can-do spirit that encapsulates Silicon Valley; the real dynamism that sees investors willing to consider most ideas, and a culture immersed in the idea of innovation.
Silicon Valley was not deliberately created. It created itself. But that is no reason to think that trying to create something similar in London, one of the most important cities in the world, isn’t a dream worth pursuing, or indeed is an unrealistic dream.
This article is ©2012 Investment and Business News, who also offer a fantastic newsletter that you can sign up for at http://www.investmentandbusinessnews.co.uk/
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