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Saturday, August 04, 2012

London & Technology: The Mayoral 2012 Debate & my city's future direction

I'm a native of the world's greatest city. And despite my extensive travel schedule, I still live a mile from where I was born, right in the centre of London.

The Olympics - and Team GB's performance - are making me doubly proud of my home. And so I'm absolutely delighted to have been asked to take part in one of the "Mayor of London 2012 Debates" this afternoon - unsurprisingly, the one called "Technology: Disruption or Convergence". The lead speaker is Jimmy Wales, of Wikipedia fame. I'm down as one of eight "spotlight speakers" who will assist the debate with questions to him.

The theme of the event overall is this: "London has demonstrated resilience over many economic cycles, but what role will it play in the global economy as we shift to meet new challenges, and how can it incubate innovation?"

I've watched with interest in recent years as the technology industry in London has surged once again, especially in the parts of East London around Shoreditch - sometimes called "Silicon Roundabout", in reference to the Old Street road system. A bunch of interesting startups have emerged, companies like Google have set up shop, and - it's just a mile from the City of London - sources of investment have  filtered in. There's definitely a sense that innovation is indeed being "incubated", and there's certainly no shortage of encouragement for digital businesses in areas like e-commerce, social media and so on.

But I worry slightly that London focuses too much on the glossy - and rather emphemeral - part of the tech value-chain. It's very much "all about digital" - an extension of the city's heritage in media, advertising and trade. What's missing, to my mind, is hardware and other more engineering-led disciplines. While design is clearly critical to many firms' success (as Johnny Ive's recent knighthood highlights), there is also a need for nuts and bolts to underpin the sexier, flashier part of the Internet and mobile experience.

Ironically, there are no companies involved in silicon anywhere near Silicon Roundabout.

To me, the reason that Silicon Valley in the US has been so successful has been that it has had everything from university led research at Stanford, to silicon vendors such as Intel, and leading IT/networking players such as HP and Cisco and Apple and Sun, all alongside software (enterprise and consumer), finance and assorted supporting functions. Yes, media in the US tends to congregate in New York or LA, but the Bay Area has had pretty much everything else "on site".

I worry that London doesn't have the same depth - and despite having centres of excellence in places such as Bristol and Cambridge, there isn't the same "corridor" effect. Cambridge is almost exactly the same distance from Old Street, as San Jose is from Market Street in San Francisco. Yet the M11 motorway most certainly isn't Highway 101. While a drive from SF to SJ takes you past numerous famous tech locations - Redwood Shores, Cupertino, Palo Alto, Santa Clara - the equivalent trip in the UK embraces Walthamstow, Bishops Stortford and lots of pretty scenery - as well as some rather unpleasant bits of Northeast London. Although Stansted Airport is directly in between, most international travellers go via Heathrow, which is a battle with traffic and transport right across town.

In the past, UK technology seemed centred on the "M4 Corridor", from West London, past Heathrow, out towards Reading and Swindon and Bristol. Yet with a few exceptions, most of the many offices are just the UK sales and marketing HQ's for US or other international players. Not that much innovation and R&D happens there, and it also lacked the investment firepower (Not many VCs would want offices in Slough or Basingstoke - they're hardly Sand Hill Road equivalents). Not to mention the fact that London's rather sniffy media industry doesn't really fit with the business parks of Berkshire.

My question this afternoon is therefore going to be on these lines:

At the moment, London has a great deal of creativity and investment in the digital space, from mobile to e-commerce to social media. Yet despite the name ‘Silicon Roundabout’ to refer to the Old Street and East London technology hub, the one thing London lacks is expertise in the ‘silicon’ aspect – there are no IT hardware or semiconductor firms, unlike California. Can London’s technology sector continue to prosper without that hardware-engineering baseline – or can it rely on satellites such as Cambridge and Bristol to supplement its software and design competencies?
Personally, I'd like to see an East London / Cambridge corridor being considered in more concrete  terms, with better transport links and perhaps enterprise investment incentives being extended there, probably also including the Olympic Park legacy area around Stratford as well. Otherwise, I fear that for all the hype around London's tech renaissance, we're going to lose out on the synergies and self-reinforcement gained from combining all parts of the value chain. Semiconductors, network design and enterprise software might not appeal to Number 10 Downing Street's desire for photo-opportunities, but that's where a lot of success - and employment and tax revenues - could come from.
It might be the Internet age, but Silicon Valley proves that geography - and the chance for people to meet and travel - remains an incredibly strong factor in sustaining innovation and the relevance of a local economy on a global stage. And the valuations of Apple, Cisco, Intel and their peers also illustrate that engineering and hardware make up for their relative lack of sexiness against social media in other - perhaps more important - ways.
I'd like to see London on its current success by extending its investment and innovation in both physical location, and new parts of the broader technology industry


Mike Butcher said...

No hardware companies in Silicon Roundabout? Really? Check out http://www.makielab.com/ for starters.

Andy Gibbs said...

Dean - first, I was a bit disturbed that I selected "preview" rather than "publish", and what I'd refer to as a deeply insightful mini-article with an embedded first-hand participation in Silicon Valley's post 1979 history - vanished. Poof. No preview. NO view.

Anyway, shortened, I'll now just hit the high points.

The gist of my comments suggested that the dependence on hardware manufacturers to create technology is diminishing. In the wake of the $2.5 billion (£ 1.6 billion) Apple v. Samsung here in the States, the value of technology giants is intellectual property - not tangible property.

Patent Strategists are tomorrow's entrepreneurs, By Patent Strategist, I certainly don't mean patent attorneys - all but a handful of which are anything by strategists. I'm referring to business specialists who have become expert in mining and analyzing 90 million of the world's patents.

No other source of technical / legal information provides such an exclusive picture into tomorrow's business landscape - assuming that one knows how to extract and analyze the information.

Being in the shadows of Bristol and Cambridge, I'd posit that Londoners are already intelligent enough to foster next generation technologies - and to strategically patent those technologies in advance of the market adoption.

Once that happens, finding a manufacturer to produce the goods is easy (or, on the other hand, enforcing those patents on large companies that evolve into the technology space would produce considerable royalty annuities.

Moral of the story - while brick and mortar built Silicon Valley over the past 73 years (Hewlett and Packard formed their company while Hitler was invading Poland), the technology centers of tomorrow will be built on intellectual property - patents and know-how. NOT having the baggage of a huge hardware infrastructure may have created the advantage for a lighter, more nimble, and more intelligent business model - based purely on patent strategy.

~ Andy Gibbs

Andy Gibbs said...

Footnote -

I found that this submission form does not like Chrome/Macintosh, or Safari/Macintosh. Posting success happened with the Firefox/Mac combination. Perhaps a code change?

Great, provocative blogs, Dean!


Dean Bubley said...

Mike: yes, I know there's some 3D-printing there, which is definitely interesting but not exactly the same as designing/building networks, servers or a $10bn semiconductor fab. (I'm exaggerating a bit - I don't really expect to see the next Cisco or HP emerge from Hoxton Square)

Andy: Thanks for an interesting viewpoint(& apologies for your posting problems: not my code for publish/preview, just standard Blogger). I'd certainly believe that patents & IPR are important, but I don't buy the idea that it's somehow more valuable than physical hardware. Even $2.5bn is a drop in the ocean for Apple compared to what it makes from selling flash memory, toughened glass & batteries.

Looking at companies such as ARM, I would say that the most successful IPR businesses are those which have both patents and usable (licencable) designs and sofware (or products). Going back to the comment above, we may not need a fab, but I think we do need more than just patent strategy to generate value - implementation of high tech is the real generator of future sustainable profitability.