Who Will Lead London’s Tech Future? And where do Universities Fit?

London’s Mayoral Candidates woo the Digital City

Here East, London | 9 February 2016

On a crisp winter’s afternoon, London Tech Advocates, TechUK and the Centre for London welcomed the great and the good from the city’s tech community to Here East for Debate Tech – an event launch for their collective 2016 Mayoral Tech Manifesto, “London’s Digital Future”, and a hustings for five of the leading Candidates in the upcoming Mayoral Election. Entrepreneurs, investors, industry magnates, consultants, and public officials filled a newly-opened auditorium to promote the impact of the tech sector on London’s economy and find out what the candidates’ for Boris Johnson’s current job are going to do to support them.

The location was symbolic of the event itself. For CEO Gavin Poole Here East epitomises London’s changing business landscape. The process of reconfiguring the 2012 Olympics Media Center into a tech-enabled complex will be completed later this summer but it is already assembling the physical and social infrastructure of a “dedicated campus for innovation”. Such spaces, Poole continued, are essential enablers for London to realize its latent potential as global tech city. Nurturing the ascendency of digital London would be the event’s leitmotif. Russ Shaw, the CEO of London Tech Advocates, opened proceeding by stating his desire to build a fully digital city with technology embedded in the fabric of London, for all Londoners. This task, according to Shaw, requires a supportive regulatory environment and the city’s government to transition from merely enabling the tech sector’s work to fully promoting it.

Debate Tech

During the hustings, all the candidate on stage we more than happy to pledge their allegiance to this cause. First to the podium, the Liberal Democratic candidate, Caroline Pidgeon, called for London to lead on tech within the right business environment – including staying in the EU. As mayor, she would look to convene public and private sectors to ensure broadband provision, tackle restrictive visa requirements and pursue the devolution of skills funding from central government to promote tech training in London. UKIP’s Peter Whittle contorted the tech sector’s concerns into those of businesses drowning in regulation and red tape from Brussels, suggesting there’s little point in London increasing trade missions when the city doesn’t control its own trade. He did stress the importance of putting a ‘tech champion’ in ever school, but also reiterated a disconcerting call to abolish tuition fees soley for students taking STEM subjects.

The potential of tech to be harnessed for the public good clearly excited Sadiq Khan. The Labour candidate – who vowed to be London’s most business-friendly mayor ever!? – declared tech will soon stand alongside finance as a driver of London’s prosperity. As mayor, he would actively work to develop new workspace built and be a strong advocate for the industry. Khan framed the tech sector’s needs as essential to London’s future, asserting that rather than worrying about who would pay for London’s needed superfast broadband infrastructure, “the fact is we can’t afford not to build it”. The Green Party’s Sian Berry stressed her industry credentials as the only candidate who had worked in a digital start up. She talked the language of the tech community and recognized a need to accommodate specialized industries in new development projects. Berry flagged the importance of promoting domestic financing so London’s start-ups don’t get bought out by American companies when they begin to take off. At the same time, she also focused on social inclusion and embraced the potential of digital democracy. Conservative Zack Goldsmith expressed his desire to work with the tech sector on challenges facing London by opening up Big Data: after all, “good data makes good administration”. Moreover, he would break up City contracts into smaller parts to increase bidding opportunities for tech SME’s in the public sector. Goldsmiths’s key talking point though was security: cyber-crime and tech ability to counter radicalization. Tech, he suggested, should be used by the public to report, map, and monitor crime while the police replace their notepads with IPads.

A Lukewarm Response

There was widespread support from the candidates for Mayoral Tech Manifesto, and for the use of open data to support public decision-making. Public-private collaboration emerged as a near-universal policy pledge, with the role of local government being to create the appropriate regulatory environment for tech to flourish. Each candidate spoke of the need support increased apprenticeships and digital literacy for all Londoners, and talked enviously of New York City’s Tech Talent Pipeline. Indeed, the tenor of the discussion focused more on extolling the virtues of technology for the city than debating the substantive political issues surrounding infrastructure provision and financing, social access and inclusion, future-proofing, and the consequences of enabling (and dealing with) digital disruptions. Proxy skirmishes did arise around the provision of housing, the relative merits of EU membership, and converting commercial space to residential acorss London. But it was apparent that while they were an influential community to be courted, the interests of those assembled in the Here East audience were somewhat marginal to the candidates’ broader agendas.

The audience response, in turn, was somewhat tepid to the whole discussion. A tech expert panel gathered immediately following the debate voiced concerns that the candidates did not really ‘get it’ when it came to the needs of the city’s entrepreneurial technocracy and the challenges digital disruptions pose to the city. Goldsmith and Khan, though, were commended for their performance. However, it seemed to me Berry and Pidgeon were more knowledgeable on the issues, and more concerned with addressing questions relating to social exclusion, and the potential challenges facing a data-driven public administration in City Hall.

What Role for Universities in London’s Tech Future?

For all the talk of building a ‘Tech Talent Pipeline’ to rival – and surpass – New York City’s, one of the key actors central to New York’s tech ascendency was conspicuously absent from both the mayoral candidates and the Mayoral Tech Manifesto 2016: universities. Mayor Bloomberg’s Applied Science initiative actively courted universities across the world through an open competition. Cornell University and the Israeli Institute of Technology Technion are now building a new applied sciences campus – Cornell Tech – on Roosevelt Island. Elsewhere, New York University is leading the development of the Brooklyn-based Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP); a novel institutional space working on data analytics at the intersection of the municipal government, industry, and academia. Similar models now exist in Amsterdam and Singapore, with King’s College London a leading partner proposing to set up shop in London. Such initiatives ought to appear more clearly on the the next mayor’s radar.

London’s wealth of Higher Education Institutions provides a critical mass of knowledge and talent to bridge the gap between the top global talent (including the people being infringed by the UK’s restrictive visa requirements) and the longer term pay off that might be realized by prioritizing digital literacy in schools and through apprenticeships (the work of activists like Mark Martin should not be overlooked here). Universities are fertile breeding grounds for spin-offs and entrepreneurs but their role in London’s regional innovation system must not be limited to technology transfer and a steady flow of graduates into the labour force. Universities and colleges need to be strongly and purposefully engaged by London’s city leadership around the possibilities of adjusting pedagogies and course offerings to expand mid and upper level training. Collaborative efforts are required to open universities’ doors and expertise to community leaders and non-traditional student populations as much as to the wallets of venture capitalists. London’s universities have the capacity to serve as vital ‘boundary spaces’ and act as key convenors for a civically and socially driven London tech agenda – and this potential must be tapped more systematically than at present.

A Chief Digital Officer for London?

“The tech genie is out of the bottle”. But this does not mean we should abandon the city to the rising tide of technocratic urbanism.

One key recommendation forwarded in the Mayoral Tech Manifesto, the appointment of a Chief Digital Officer for London, received particular support from the candidates during the hustings. Such a figurehead could advocate London’s tech bona fides on the global stage while leading an Office of Data Analytics, again, to rival New York’s. According to the Tech Manifesto, the position would serve as a “single point of contact for London’s digital community, receiving and acting on feedback”, with remit including: the promotion of digital innovation across City Hall; encouraging the dissemination of open data; and establishing hackathons to leverage the city’s assets. Yet whoever is selected to this new post might want to also consider more rigorously asserting a civic mission back onto the tech industry itself. This agenda ought to resonate in the industry  to some degree. Many tech companies – following Google’s ‘don’t be evil’ manifesto – desire to pursue a higher mission: changing the world for the better rather than being beholden to shareholders (even though they fundamentally are once publicly traded...). Institutional mechanisms are needed to not only enable the tech industry give back, but ensure the links between government, industry, and citizenship do not dissolve with the entrepreneurial ascendancy of the ‘science of cities’. Digital disruptions – Uber, AirBnb – have tested the civic fabric of the metropolis. Indeed, there is a strong libertarian politics aligned with Silicon Valley – despite the Bay Area’s progressive reputation – which strains the bounds of civic participation and social responsibility. The candidates did not do enough to clearly articulate how they would address, embrace, or regulate these challenges – which is problematic as this is a key area where the interests of city government and private tech companies are likely to diverge. London is a great place to foster innovation because of its social and intellectual milieu and urban vibrancy – not simply because of regulatory loopholes and tax breaks. So, tech companies: pay your taxes. Hire local apprentices and run training session in schools and universities. Agree to contribute time and expertise (via hackathons etc.) to address public challenges even in the absence of a clear profit opportunity. The tech community assembled at Here East clearly has a strong sense of its importance to London’s economy, but we need to think a little more forcefully about what their responsibilities to the city ought to be.

The city does not just consist of things: buildings, roads, rails, power grids, sewers, fibre optic cables and so on. These material and digital artefacts are a concretion of myriad political decisions, social relations, and interpersonal encounters. The city is a social political space and consequently, is inherently contradictory and contested. It develops unevenly and access to infrastructure – including digital – is highly variegated. Big data, open data etc. have a lot of potential to benefit London (and other cities). But an apps and analytics to get the buses to run a little more regularly are not a panacea to the socio-economic disparities they limit the mobility – and social opportunities – for the working poor, the elderly, women, and new immigrant communities.  While no-one at Debate Tech suggested they could in so many words, the pervasive rhetoric of technological utopianism – making tech work for all Londoners, getting it into the hands of all Londoners etc… – downplays the fact that apps and open data won’t reach, or impact, London’s eight and a half million inhabitants in the same way.

The tech genie, as Khan argued, is out of the bottle. But this does not mean we should abandon the city to the rising tide of technocratic urbanism, or set the strategic agenda of the city in accordance with the priorities set by the titans of the booming knowledge economy. This isn’t simply a case of not wanting the data tail to wag the policy dog – there are deeper and more profound political questions at play here. As urban scholars Colin McFarlane and Jonathon Rutherford recently argued, what is at stake “is not simply the provision of infrastructure, but the conceptualization of the city, and the nature of social justice”. The solutions for the city’s problems cannot be solely found through quantification or adjustments to the metropolis’ sociotechnical fabric. Such approaches can have a positive impact, but they need to be embedded within a political framework attuned to a progressive social agenda. London’s next mayor and their Chief Digital Officer need to understand this. And make sure the tech sector does too.

  • Jean-Paul Addie
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