It’s suddenly fashionable to say that Silicon Roundabout is on its last legs, so it was with impeccable timing that last week London’s mayor Boris Johnson swung by the neighbourhood last week to talk up the capital’s tech prospects.
“We are seeing extraordinary things happen particularly here in London. We’ve got more tech businesses here in London than any other city in Europe,” he said at the event to launch a new office space for tech businesses.
Actually, it’s easy to mock politicians for wanting to cosy up to something like the East London startup scene; it’s cool, has created jobs and a few millionaires already, and has almost accidentally regenerated an unlovely part of the city.
But for once the politicians should be allowed take some credit; by shining a light on the nascent tech scene in east London they actually did a pretty good job of focusing interest on the area and reinforcing the organic growth with what was effectively some shrewd marketing.
And certainly the tech scene across London has never been stronger: there are now more than 30 different accelerators in London and while it’s hard to get detailed numbers on investment and employment there is plenty of momentum.
As Michael Acton Smith, CEO of Mind Candy and part of the mayor’s new ‘tech ambassadors group’ said at the event: “Confidence in London is rising, startups are flourishing, you can feel the crackle of energy and potential in the air.”
Silicon Roundabout was originally a pretty defined area – the neighbourhood around the grimy Old Street roundabout. That’s now grown into the government-backed ‘Tech City’ brand which has proved a much more malleable concept – first interchangeable with Silicon Roundabout, but now used to lasso any tech startup from Farringdon to Canary Wharf to Croydon. That’s in keeping with the mayor’s interest in taking that startup magic dust and spreading it across the city.
So what about Silicon Roundabout itself? There are fears that even as Tech City spreads its tentacles across the city, its beating heart is turning to stone.
The arrival of the tech startups has undoubtedly given the area a facelift, and better coffee. But already some of the startups that have grown into medium-sized companies complain they can’t find enough decent office space, while the smaller ones fret about being priced out. I’ve heard of startups moving into the City because they’ve been priced out of Shoreditch. Small businesses are stretching north into Hackney and even London (Silicon) Fields – an awful long way from the roundabout.
And one of the biggest fears is that the characteristics that made the neighbourhood so interesting to artist and then to the hackers will be lost as the old buildings are torn down and replaced with gleaming office space. Will Silicon Roundabout’ scruffy potential be replaced with stolid respectability, hipsters ousted in favour of bank workers and students?
Community has been a key element of the success story of London’s tech startups so far, allowing them to share ideas and problems. Spreading startups across London makes that harder but not impossible.
It’s understandable that some mourn the old Shoreditch spirit, before success arrived. And there are good reasons why London’s tech renaissance started there and nowhere else. But there’s no reason why it has to stay there forever, and there would be little point in preserving it as some kind of monument to London’s tech pioneers.
In fact, the biggest threat right now to London’s tech startups is not gentrification but a lack of late stage finance, the sort of money that can give medium-sized successes the funds to become giants. Without that there’s a real risk that the whole thing will fizzle out again.
Tech workers who rail against the gentrification ought to be reminded that they are just the latest in a long line of industries to set up in the neighbourhood, flourish and then move on. Many of the artists who made the area cool to start with have already moved on again, and it’s entirely possible the tech companies will follow where they lead, again (Docklands? Deptford? Margate?).
Silicon Roundabout has plenty of life in it still, but there are also plenty of places in the capital (and outside) that would welcome Shoreditch-style makeover. The success of Silicon Roundabout was really to show that tech innovation was alive and possible in London – but that doesn’t and shouldn’t mean it’s the only place it can happen.
- First came the artists, then came the hackers: The strange history of London’s own Silicon Valley
- London’s ‘Tech City’ in photos
- Not all ironic moustaches and artisan coffee: Tech City’s cash and jobs really are on the upAre these 25 companies the next wave of tech superstars?