“Silicon Valley is the leading place in the world for high-tech growth and innovation,” said Prime Minister David Cameron as recently he launched plans to turn East London into a technology innovation hub. “But there's no reason why it has to be so predominant.”
I’m not sure if I share Cameron’s certainty. Sure, there is no physical law that dictates that IT innovation must take place on the West coast of America, and no shortage of brainy technologists here in the UK. And, of course, we already have a technology hub to be proud of in Cambridge (which we profile in the November issue of Information Age).
But wondering why we can't have an equivalent of ‘Silicon Valley’ of our own is a lot like asking why we can’t have our own Hollywood.
One of the main reasons is that Hollywood already exists. The film industry lives, works and socialises there, and anyone who wants to make it big in the movies knows exactly where they should be. In films, as in technology, the UK’s best talent often finds its way to California.
There are, of course, regions that rival Hollywood. The film industries of both Mumbai (Bollywood) and Nigeria (Nollywood) both produce more films than their US counterpart.
I would argue that the reason that Bollywood and Nollywood have thrived is that the films they create are very different to Hollywood blockbusters and serve different markets.
When announcing £200 million of investment in tech hubs across the UK in October, Cameron name checked “Skype, Facebook and Twitter”, fast growing web companies whose success, he said, might be emulated by UK companies.
I wonder whether that is a goal worth pursuing. Would it not be better to give the UK’s technology industry its own identity, rather than trying to compete in a race that has already been won?
So what does London have that San Francisco’s Bay Area does not? Most conspicuously, it has a global financial capital.
Many of the country’s finest technological minds can currently be found working for London’s banks and financial institutions. If the government could encourage these people to pursue an entrepreneurial career, London could quite feasibly become a financial technology exporter – to a greater degree than it already is – with obvious benefits for the economy.
To me, that seems like a more viable strategy than crossing our fingers and hoping that the ‘new Google’ will wash up on the banks of the Thames.