London is on the up. The capital’s population has hit an historic high at 8.6m people. The Mayor of London’s office predicts that by 2050 that number will reach 11m, with London serving as a magnet for talent from across the globe.
But London’s success also creates significant issues: not least how to create jobs for all these people – not just any jobs, but “advanced industry” jobs that create wealth, promote innovation and drive economic growth.
To achieve this, the government has rightly championed Tech City. The result is one of the UK’s greatest economic success stories, dubbed “Europe’s digital capital”.
All this is a significant achievement, but needs to be put into context. Trying to replicate the success of Silicon Valley is always going to be a struggle. In 2014, American venture capitalists invested $48bn. In 2013, the most recent year for which there are data, the UK invested just £406m in venture-backed companies.
How can London play to its strengths in the cognitive economy? One answer is to look at the capital’s strength in science.
London has a magnificent scientific heritage. At the Royal Institution in the heart of Mayfair, scientists such as Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday discovered or first isolated 10 elements on the Periodic Table. Eminent scholars such Francis Crick, Alexander Graham Bell, Joseph Lister, Roselyn Franklin, Alexander Fleming and Peter Higgs are all alumni of London universities.
To further develop this heritage, University College London, Imperial College London and King’s College London, the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust have created a consortium to build the Francis Crick Institute The £650m centre by Kings Cross will employ 1,250 scientists conducting ground-breaking research, turning laboratory discoveries into treatments.
My organisation, Elsevier, one of the world's biggest publishers of primary research in science, technology and medicine, has also recognised London’s potential as a science hub, and as a result we have chosen to invest in it. Yesterday, chancellor George Osborne opened our new headquarters in Shoreditch, with room for 200 staff.
But this is just the latest of our investments in London as a science hub. In 2013, we acquired Mendeley, a Clerkenwell-based academic social network, which now allows more than four million researchers to collaborate in over 180 countries. Meanwhile, at London Wall, in the heart of the City, we have located many of our leading journals, such as The Lancet.
Finally, we have invested millions of pounds to support the creation of the University College London Big Data Institute, which aims to discover innovative ways to apply new technologies and analytics to scholarly content and data.
But while London is already attractive to science-focussed businesses, there is more than the government can do to help foster an ecosystem that will help transform London into science hub. More than anything, it must create an environment in which universities’ discoveries can be translated into commercial products.
We know that collaboration between universities and small and medium-sized enterprises facilitates growth and job creation. In the US, Elsevier has started projects in North Carolina and Michigan to identify experts who might make good collaborative partners. The ultimate goal is to attract corporate research and development, and drive research commercialisation. We need similar projects here in London.