Cities are in competition over many things, whether it’s attracting business or edging into the top spot of a quality of life ranking. It’s the urban age, where cities rather than countries face-off for investment, tourism and industry. A think-tank or two have even thought to divvy up Olympic medals by city rather than country, to gauge where the real talent pool lies.
And among the city races taking place, one is to become the world’s new tech hub. London is a top competitor.
There are already 24,000 information technology businesses in the city today (about 9,000 more than across the Channel in Paris) and the number is growing and spreading, mostly into the east of town.
The potential of tech as an economic driver for London has caught the attention of Westminster and City Hall. Massive investment is going into beefing up what has become the core of London’s tech cluster: Old Street roundabout. It’s home to dozens of small companies but the power-players are setting up shop here too: IBM, Microsoft and KPMG are soon to move in. Nicknamed “Tech City” or “Silicon Roundabout”, Old Street will soon have a £50m makeover, largely focused on a new multi-use complex for both the multinational corporations and entrepreneurial start-ups. It will be a place for them to encounter one another and share ideas and resources.
Such a big investment begs the question: if it’s the future of the world economy, can you buy yourself a tech hub?
There’s more to it than money of course. As Boris Johnson said during the funding announcement, London is also blessed with “the vibe”. That intangible asset which is the foundation of attracting the silicon-sort: you need to be able to have fun, too. It’s not unique to London, of course. The city’s top tech competitors are New York and Tel Aviv – both, arguably, also in possession of “the vibe”.
So, two ticks: investment is good and London is lucky to be a great place to play but there are other fundamentals to growing our tech potential.
The biggest fault of Tel Aviv, for example, is how difficult it is for a foreigner to legally live and work there: the visa process of Israel is a strict one. You not only turn away those hoping to set up a business but you miss out on the energy that comes with having a truly international, transient and fluid city. One where people can come and go, where ideas cross-pollinate from around the world.
In the UK, we too are at risk of an overly restrictive immigration policy. As it becomes harder and harder to get a foot physically in the door of this country we’re closing off opportunity and cutting up the lifeblood of “the vibe”.
The next generation of tech entrepreneurs do of course need capital in getting off the ground. But if London’s tech ambitions are global, it will need to let the world in.
If Tech City is to become a true success, it won’t be through a shiny new building.
David Michon is managing editor for Monocle.