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Can East London rival Silicon Valley?

Posted by Danny Whatmough on 4th November 2010

Whatever you think of the current government (and indeed politicians in general), the announcement today that parts of East London are going to be transformed into one of the “world’s great technology centres” has surely got to be welcomed.

But is it all too good to be true?

For those that fear this is just an attempt at political maneouvering following some pretty harsh cuts might be appeased by the fact that the government is putting £200m (of already allocated money) behind the venture and commitments to a range of measures that should make it easier for foreign IT talent to move to the UK including entreprenurial visas, more intra-company transfers and even far-reaching change to intellectual property rights.

The move is supported by Google, Facebook and Intel although it remains to be seen whether any of these giants will consider opening offices in the area!

Reaction from the tech community has been mixed. Rory Cellan-Jones at the BBC feels the main challenge centres around helping UK start-ups grow while still retaining their local identity:

“Right now, east London has nothing more than a shoal of hopeful minnows, so a few giant fish will at least give the area more of a hi-tech identity. The government says that we are not bad at starting firms, but not so good at growing them into world-beating giants. The problem is that the likes of the music streaming service, a Silicon Roundabout success story, get to a certain size and then sell up, often to an American giant.”

Writing on his Computer Weekly blog, editor Bryan Glick does sounds yet another note of caution:

“I hope it is a huge success, I really do. But… Nobody in California decided one day to turn what was a pretty dull, lifeless area around San Jose into what we now know as Silicon Valley. Its growth was organic, a phenomenon that came out of the entrepreneurial culture of California, from rent increases in San Francisco forcing small businesses out of the city, and the proximity of super-smart tech graduates at places like University of California, Berkeley – one of the pioneers of Unix and open source development.”

So are we just trying to ‘engineer’ something that will only ever be an artificial political soundbite, or is there genuine cause for optimism? Glick suggests an alternative:

“If you really want to build on an established tech base, then what about Cambridge and the so-called Silicon Fen? This was another area to receive much government focus in the past, and through its connections with the local university has been home to some of the UK’s best tech businesses, such as Autonomy, CSR and ARM.”

So it remains to be seen whether this bold commitment will actually make a difference long-term, but it is still positive to see a government, that has been lambasted over much of its tech policies, making moves to promote and grow the UK’s tech community.

Danny Whatmough