Is Silicon Valley going east?

On Wednesday 4th November, Mr Cameron announced grand proposals to transform London’s East End into a new ‘Silicon Valley’, seeking to dethrone the world’s largest technology hub from its top spot. Addressing business leaders and entrepreneurs in Shoreditch, he set out his vision to create thousands of private sector jobs in the area enlisting the likes of big players Google, Facebook, Intel and McKinsey. Firms planning to invest in the area will stretch from Old Street to Olympic Park as the UK mounts its own challenge to the Californian hotbed of innovation and ingenuity.

The Golden State’s famed ‘Silicon Valley’ has been at the epicentre of technological advancement since the 1970s, nurtured by its links with the ivy-league Stanford University. Cameron’s ambition to tip the scales away from the region and its lion share of high-tech firms nevertheless signals his intent to boost British dynamism in industry. It also, perhaps more importantly, reengages with the issue of the East End’s uncertain future post-2012. With £9.3bn of taxpayers’ money spent on the Olympics, the government wishes to avoid at all costs the prospect of ‘white elephants’ clogging the skyline, something that has dogged previous games in Athens and Beijing.

Is Cameron’s threat to the Valley’s dominance of any real substance however? Though it is unlikely the proposals will have CEOs in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Mountain View quivering in their boots, the initiative will be welcomed with open arms by the capital’s smaller technology firms – known by some as the ‘Silicon Roundabout’. With the PM’s blueprint for technology underscored by the coalition’s £200m pledge of equity finance and further £200m for technology and innovation centres, Cameron means business. Stimulating the private sector will help to offset public sector spending cuts projected to have effect until as late as 2014.

The music streaming service, Last fm is a symptom of exactly what the government wishes to reverse. Following its meteoric ascent, the home-grown firm was bought out by American buyers and its headquarters were relocated to Silicon Valley. With the clout of blue-chip firms magnetising the East End, the government is eager to collaborate with local universities with Imperial College London being touted as the first to foster this bilateral link between graduates and firms. Establishing a sustainable environment for the UK’s high tech sector to expand and stay in British hands is central to the PM’s vision.

Plans to introduce a ‘new’ entrepreneur’s visa and revision of dated intellectual property laws are hoped to enhance the UK’s attractiveness in luring the brightest minds to its shores. But some commentators attribute its problems to a weak enterprise culture. How many people can name a British Zuckerburg or Jobs setting the country alight in recent years? Perhaps we’re not being fair and the UK requires time; the suitability of the East End as a world-beating nexus of enterprise, however, has been questioned altogether. The credentials of alternatives, Cambridge and Thames Valley have already been tested with both homes to large technology firms and the latter strategically positioned on the M4.

Whether Cameron’s rhetoric will amount to a fraction of his proposals, the East End’s call from the top of government will stir a hive of activity and speculation of the possible. If the UK can produce home-grown challengers alike to Google’s sun-kissed development is altogether less certain.


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