Walking through east London this summer, the beating heart of the UK’s tech ecosystem had become a ghost city, with empty streets, co-working spaces and cafes.
Like most industries, the Covid-19 pandemic has driven the sector behind closed doors. Yet, bubbling below the surface is a defiant community of tech entrepreneurs that will prove absolutely critical to the UK’s national economic recovery – they are just not where we previously expected them to be.
The city’s digital economy no longer relies on the success or failure of Old Street. The story of London’s thriving tech sector now stretches far beyond the confines of Shoreditch. With the future of work set to a dynamic hybrid of both remote and physical integration – it might be some time before we see Shoreditch bustling with tech workers at pre-lockdown levels. Yet, that might be no bad thing.
The diversification of London’s tech hubs and centres of innovation across the capital will prove essential in truly realising the potential of our sector and holds the key for it delivering more for Londoners. This week is London Tech Week – Europe’s largest festival of technology that brings together all aspects of the tech community. It highlights the sector internationally and showcases the challenges and opportunities at play in the industry. A landmark event in this year’s agenda is London Borough Day – which will see us championing local start up heroes, established tech companies, social enterprise initiatives, innovators and educators in tech.
What this day ultimately represents is the potential to work together and deliver the benefits of tech for all Londoners. At a time when commuters are re-considering their work-life balance and corporate HQs could become a relic of the pre-Covid era, we could see tech hubs flourishing everywhere from White City to Wandsworth, Stratford to Southwark.
To realise the vision of an economic recovery driven by a citywide emergence of tech companies, we need to address some of the essential issues surrounding infrastructure, the role of City Hall and the private sector.
Connectivity has been a major roadblock for tech companies scaling across London boroughs. For too long, the capital has fallen victim to “not spots,” and great disparities in internet speeds across locations. Now, the next big question mark will hang on the rollout of 5G networks. At the end of last year, the organisation I founded, Tech London Advocates, revealed there was a troubling lack of preparedness in local authorities to support widespread 5G connectivity. We must ensure that the digital infrastructure is in place to enable growth from north to south and east to west London.
Where we have seen progress and a sizeable commitment from City Hall is in Smart Cities and the mayor’s declaration to make London the smartest city in the world. In practice that means effectively leveraging data across both the private and public sectors to enhance our transport systems, reduce carbon emissions, improve the provision of skills training and education, utilise data-driven solutions to improve the everyday lives of Londoners, and most recently to combat Covid-19. We will now see the London Data Commission release a new London Data Charter to pave the way forwards – a vital next step for advancing London as a Smart City.
One of the most important objectives for diversifying tech across London is making the sector more open. To date, the industry has failed to right its wrongs and to improve diversity and inclusion to a sufficient level. There are too few women, too few members of communities of colour and too few individuals who have disabilities holding roles in tech across every level.
And the most frustrating part of this reality is that the diverse talent is there in abundance – tech companies must step up and engage. If we can see more tech hubs – businesses, industry bodies, investors – scaling across London’s boroughs we will start to create meaningful progress in tech representing society at large.
The potential for tech in a post-pandemic world is enormous and London can lead the way for the country and internationally. Celebrate what has been achieved, champion the resilience being shown at this time and come together to take on the challenges.That is my message as a Founding Partner for London Tech Week this year.
Russ Shaw is founder of Tech London Advocates & Global Tech Advocates