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Posted on December 6th, 2013 by Nicole Kobie

Tech City: Easy to score when you move the goalposts


Today is the third anniversary of the government’s Tech City project — I know, I’m excited too — and with that comes another report crowing about the success of the Silicon Roundabout project.

Among other stats, the report suggests that 27% of new jobs in London since 2009 were created off the back of Tech City. That’s right: all those ironically moustachioed, fixed-gear bike-riding hipsters are saving the economy.

Well, not quite.

Before I start picking apart the numbers, let me say two things: I understand that the whole Tech City project is a PR play to get investment into the country, and that’s good. Getting other’s people money into our pockets to kickstart an industry as lucrative as technology is a clever move.

Secondly, there are clearly some excellent, innovative, hardworking tech-heads working out of East London — and many of them don’t even wear skinny jeans.

Those caveats aside, there are two major flaws (and many minor ones) in the latest Tech City report, the first of which is evident in the title: “Tech Powers the London Economy”.

As you may recall, when this project started out, it was about East London. Now, to help keep the numbers ridiculously high, the report counts not only Stratford and the City, but all of London. That’s right: Tech City isn’t just the Silicon Roundabout any more, it’s the entire capital.

Clearly this is moving the goalposts to get a higher score, but in some ways it’s a more honest approach than the original claims. After all, this city has innovation happening all over it, not only around Old Street. Yet that’s not how the report describes it:

“Tech City grew geographically and expanded well beyond East London. This broadening of scope was a reflection of the growing presence of start-up activity across the city, and the increasing convergence of digital technology with London’s other key industries: finance, fashion, music, advertising, media and others.”

The report makes tech start-ups sound like an infection, spreading across the rest of London, as though finance, fashion et al only discovered the internet in the past three years. Disingenuous, at best.

Secondly, there’s those job stats. Not only is there no evidence that the jobs were created because of Tech City — would that growth really not have happened without PM David Cameron’s regular Tech City Breakfasts at Number 10? — the figures include a much wider swathe of industry than what most of us would count as “tech”.

Counting it up

In the report’s methodology definition — which, to its credit, it does detail — it’s revealed that its figures for “tech/digital” jobs take in industries as varied as newspaper publishing, radio broadcasting, architectural activities, computer repair and public relations. My own job is likely included. The reason?

“Traditional technology, IT, media, and communications industries have been selected for the analysis because they demonstrate higher levels of digitisation than other industries.”

Yet the report doesn’t only count the staff doing “digital” work at those companies. It includes everyone — the accountant, the cleaner, and so on:

“When we refer to employment by industry, we are accounting for any employee of a company classified within this industry.”

The report also includes financial companies, but here, in the name of “soundness of the numbers”, it does attempt to include only those working in tech/digital/media roles in banks and other head offices. While it wins a point for at least acknowledging a potential problem with the numbers, it stills count new PR jobs at Barclays as a boost to Tech City.

None of this means that London isn’t a tech hub, or that it isn’t creating jobs. It does however mean the government is putting huge pressure for unattainable growth on an industry that’s much more long-term than many realise. It’s all well and good making jobs out of seed funding, but how many of those jobs will be here in 15 or 20 years? I don’t know, and neither does David Cameron.

Cambridge love

Earlier this year, I interviewed ARM’s departing CEO Warren East. He told me it would take decades — maybe 50 years — for Tech City to truly rival Silicon Valley. Such a result is surely worth the wait, even if it doesn’t help Cameron in the next election.

Speaking of ARM, it’s worth making the point that there already is a real tech hub in the UK, namely Cambridge. Yet the Tech City report mentions Cambridge a mere seven times, twice in reference to a new train station near its Science Park. There are more photos of graffiti in the report than there are mentions of Cambridge, and not a single mention of ARM or the Raspberry Pi — the British computing phenomenon that’s sold two million devices worldwide.

Maybe when Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton grows a silly moustache and has breakfast with Cameron, our existing success stories will get a bit of love. Until then it looks like we’ll just have to pin our tech hopes on the online media agencies of East London.

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Posted in: Random, Rant


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One Response to “ Tech City: Easy to score when you move the goalposts ”

  1. wittgenfrog Says:
    December 6th, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    Very good piece.
    As ever the politicians & their spin-doctors think we’re all a bit too thick to see through this pie-in-the-sky.
    We aren’t.

    Its quite sad really because if the figures are so bad they need this kind of massaging, Britain Plc. is in worse trouble than I thought….


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