London could be the new Silicon Valley

Anthony Browne
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GOOGLE, Yahoo, Amazon, eBay and Facebook. What do they have in common?

Yes, yes, they are all giants of the internet age, brand new companies worth hundreds of billions of dollars as they transform the world economy. But they are also all not British. London – with more top universities than any other city in the world and producing more Nobel prizes than France – has claimed to be the ideas capital of the world.

But despite our entrepreneurial, innovation-loving culture, which has meant London has for centuries been at the cutting edge of economic developments, we have been slow off the blocks in the digital revolution.

I won’t dwell now on the “why”, because things are rapidly changing. There are hundreds of digital start up companies in London, some of which are coming of age. They may not be valued in the billions, but Lovefilm, and others are valued in the hundreds of millions.

London’s digital cluster, much of it based around Old Street, has been gathering pace under its own steam, and the world is starting to pay attention.

In November, the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister launched the joint Tech City East initiative to promote London as the undisputed digital capital of Europe, enabling us to rival the world’s biggest digital cluster, Silicon Valley.

London has huge starting advantages. We have top universities pouring out top IT graduates and are home to a quarter of all the UK’s IT professionals. We are already a major creative industry cluster, with a big film, television and newspaper industry providing content for new digital services. We are the venture capital and the advertising capital of Europe, providing advertising revenues that drive many digital businesses. We are also very digitally enabled as a city in terms of broadband access, smartphone usage, and the development of e-commerce.

Since City Hall and Number 10 started working on this agenda, the interest has been almost overwhelming.

At a conference last week, the air was audibly crackling with electricity as universities, big technology firms, venture capital companies, and start ups – all the different elements of the digital cluster ecosystem – swapped ideas and contacts.

Small companies are seeing interest from investors soar, one had a quadrupling in its share price, while big companies are stepping up their investment plans. Plans are being discussed to turn the Olympic Park – a 500 acre space in central London – into Europe’s largest high tech cluster. This week, the Mayor and I are in Davos speaking to digital companies and others interested in investing in London.

The role of government is not to pick winners – we are the groundsman, not the umpire or players. We can promote, facilitate and encourage. But as we stagger out of recession, it is clear our digital sector will be one of the driving forces of recovery.

Anthony Browne is an adviser to the Mayor of London