Old Street roundabout resounded with the merry tunes of mariachi songs. It was September 2017 and WeWork was trying to lure clients from rival coworking firm The Office Group with a savvy blend of membership discounts and Mexican music. That was in the before times. By March 2020, a pall of silence had fallen on the roundabout, as people across the UK holed up in their homes to stem the spread of Covid-19. The days of property players jostling for attention around Old Street has been put on hold. Coworking spaces across the area – including the eight WeWorks within a one-kilometre radius from the roundabout – lay empty. The fashionable, exposed-brick cafes were shuttered. No mariachi were in sight.
For the technology crowd congregating in the area, the coronavirus pandemic seems to have put an end to the dream of innovation and growth Old Street represented. But that dream was shattered many years ago. Before the before times, out of the ruins of the 2007 financial crisis, politicians looked at this roundabout in East London and imagined an innovation powerhouse; they ended up with a real estate nightmare instead.
How did that happen? Blame clusters. In the late 90s, Harvard professor Michael Porter published several landmark articles explaining that a country’s economic success is not decided by individual firms, but by innovative clusters of companies localised in the same geographical area and working in the same field – shoe-making, electronics, defence. The interaction between similar businesses concentrated in one spot produces competition, cooperation, the exchange of ideas, and ultimately innovation and success. Governments rushed to get in on the cluster game and looked for inspiration. In one of his articles, Porter mentions two places as the “world’s best-known clusters”. One was Hollywood. The other was Silicon Valley.
Today, over 70 places around the world are nicknamed “Silicon” something. There’s a Silicon Savannah in Kenya, a Silicon Oasis in Dubai, and a Chilecon Valley in Chile. Britain is no exception. At least 16 places in the UK have in some way or another earned the epithet. The most famous of them all is London’s Silicon Roundabout.
“We will use our power and influence to agitate for, cajole and inspire the change we want to see,” said then prime minister David Cameron, who saw something “stirring” in East London
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
It started as a joke. In July 2008, Matt Biddulph, the chief technology officer of Dopplr, a startup headquartered next to the dreary Old Street roundabout in Shoreditch, realised that other startups were also based in the area and fired off a tweet celebrating “‘Silicon Roundabout’: the ever-growing community of fun startups in London’s Old Street area”. The formula was amplified by the Evening Standard and, in January 2010, immortalised in a WIRED feature listing 85 startups near Old Street – many of them were, in fact, design studios and marketing consultancies with no obvious connection to silicon. The casual observation had graduated to media shorthand; soon it would make the leap to policy.
In November 2010, less than six months into the job, then prime minister David Cameron gave a speech at a Shoreditch coworking space. “Silicon Valley is the leading place in the world for high-tech growth and innovation. But there’s no reason why it has to be so predominant,” he said. The UK could take on Silicon Valley – and the startup ecosystem around the roundabout was the key. “Something is stirring in East London,” he claimed.
And Cameron said that his approach would be different. “We understand where previous governments have gone wrong. They believed that they could design and create a technology cluster from on-high.” In contrast, he would simply encourage what was already happening near the roundabout. He cited Richard Florida, another cluster theorist who had pegged a cluster’s success to its cultural scene’s attractiveness for young creative types. Cameron liked that: he would not spend a penny – convenient, in times of austerity – but toot the horn of Shoreditch and Silicon Roundabout. Cameron styled himself as a cheerleader-in-chief. “We will use our power and influence to agitate for, cajole and inspire the change we want to see,” he said.
He also announced a few measures to help the cluster prosper. He unveiled a new visa scheme for potential startup founders, intellectual property reform to allow for bolder experimentations, new procurement norms to allow startups to access government contracts. He promised to smooth over the infrastructural wrinkles slowing down the Silicon Roundabout community. And he revealed that a lot of technology big-cheeses, from Intel to Google to Qualcomm, would establish some kind of a presence in the area.
All that – to which, many months later, he would add tax breaks to foster investment in startups – would hopefully beget Cameron’s dream scenario, called East End Tech City: a technology hub snaking from Old Street all the way to the Olympic Park, an area that back then was still being developed ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games, and which Cameron generously characterised as “a few tube stops away”. (One year later, official publicity material would feature a map where Old Street and the Olympic Park in Hackney Wick were scrunched together, looking just a short walk apart, rather than a 40-minute train ride.)
With that speech, Cameron was doing many things at once. He was defining his premiership by spotlighting a sector that looked like a green shoot amid the post-2007 downturn. He was finding a role for the Olympic Park beyond the Olympics. And he was addressing a genuine request for attention coming from the nascent Silicon Roundabout. The driving force behind this was his then policy advisor Rohan Silva, a technology enthusiast who had grown convinced that the UK needed a cluster.
“In the previous 30 years, the government hadn’t been trying to support the growth of a single cluster,” Silva tells me in the restaurant of a Shoreditch hotel in February, a time when hotels could still serve breakfast without a care in the world. A lean man in his late thirties with black hair and an immaculate smile, Silva – now the CEO of coworking space firm Second Home – is slightly jet-lagged after flying in from the US. The yellowish light of spherical wall-lamps soaks the wood-panelled room as Silva talks. “Whitehall tries to spread everything out. And politicians hate focusing on one area because whenever they go anywhere else they hear: ‘Why are you focusing there?’,” he says.
The reason Silva decided to focus ‘there’ was that he had read WIRED’s Old Street guide and had grown curious and inspired. Talking with some of the entrepreneurs based near the roundabout, he had received an earful: there was a lack of investment, no way of bidding for government contracts, and patchy internet connections. Silva set about solving the solvable by introducing new laws, but the main pillar of his plan was making the country and the world know that, as Cameron had declared, “something was stirring” near the roundabout.
“We didn’t put any money into the thing at all,” Silva says. “I was very inspired by Michael Heseltine, who built the Docklands and helped regenerate Liverpool in the ‘80s. He said to me: ‘Look, the private sector alone doesn’t regenerate anywhere. The government has got to point at a place and say: ‘This is where it’s going to happen’.”
“I felt like all I’ve done was give real estate developers an excuse to build more skyscrapers,” says Benjamin Southworth, former deputy CEO of what is now known as Tech Nation
Barry Lewis/In Pictures via Getty Images
Let’s face it, the roundabout was not much to point at. A forbidding patch of concrete on the boundary between Hackney and Islington, its main distinction was as a dangerous junction known for cyclist fatalities. It lay at the heart of Shoreditch, a former industrial area that over time had attracted a crowd of creatives, architects, and designers who had set up shop in warehouses and lofts. The area was already inching towards gentrification when, in 2007, the global financial crisis hit. The most immediate result was that real estate near the roundabout became much cheaper. “Property devalued quite significantly, demand dropped,” says Jonathan Cuthbert, director of commercial agency for property advisors Strettons.
Properties were vacated and some of the remaining tenants tried minimising their costs by resorting to make-shift coworking. “Companies were struggling: they were tied into five-year leases or ten-year leases. And they had the idea as a self-protection to sublet space within their buildings,” Cuthbert says.
That was why startups started moving to Old Street: rent was cheap, the area had some nice cafes, and it was close to the City – convenient for entrepreneurs in search of funding. Plus, like every hipster paradise before the advent of tourists in Bermuda shorts, nobody really liked the place. “You wouldn’t put it on any publicity material,” says Cuthbert of Old Street. “It was a bit of a no man’s land.”
If you looked at Silicon Roundabout in 2010, you would see a conglomeration of technical and less technical small businesses taking advantage of underpriced office space, their founders bonding over coffee and beer while the economy outside struggled to recover. If you had looked at Silicon Valley in its early days, you would have seen the region’s growth propelled by research powerhouses like Stanford and UC Berkeley, and the presence of semiconductor manufacturers working for the US military-industrial complex. Regardless of the massive difference in size, looking at the former and seeing a portent of – or a competitor for – the latter required some squinting. Silicon Valley was the forge of Apple, Facebook, Alphabet, Oracle, PayPal, Netflix, Tesla, and Palantir. Out of the about 170 startups congregating near the roundabout in early 2011, over 100 (or 59 per cent) belonged to the media, advertising, or design sectors. The most prominent among them was arguably Songkick, a solid and successful app to discover music concerts in the vicinity. Number 10 needed to tell a story.
For that, they turned to Eric Van der Kleij. Born and raised in South Africa, Van der Kleij was an interesting mix of entrepreneur and civil servant. In 1996, he had founded a company – Adeptra – to detect credit card fraud, which would be sold for $115 million in 2012; in 2003, he had started advising UK Trade & Investment on entrepreneurship programmes. In 2011, he was asked to sketch out a plan for the Tech City Investment Organisation (TCIO) – a subsidiary of UK Trade & Investment whose goal was making East London a magnet for investors and entrepreneurs. “I was only hired to create the strategy for it, you know? That was all I was supposed to do,” Van der Kleij, a jovial man with silver hair and a thin goatee, says in February, as we sit in the Shoreditch coworking space from where he runs his technology consultancy, Frontier Network. In fact, he would stay on as CEO of TCIO for one and a half years. And, in keeping with Number 10’s light-touch attitude to cluster-building, the main pillar of Van der Kleij’s strategy was PR.
“The first thing was to identify the highest potential startups and shine a light on them, use government money to shine a light on them,” he says. “We went to interview all the founders and we did pieces and really pushed them – very intensely shining a light on what actually the community themselves would do. Why is that important? Because it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. People behave – society behaves – in the way society tells them it’s okay to behave.” With the economy in the doldrums, he says that Number 10’s Behavioural Insight Unit – better known as the Nudge Unit – was particularly keen to amplify any positive story about the economy, and provided some input on the importance of advocacy. “And the advocacy, if I’m honest, was purposely a little bold.”
It wasn’t all spin, to be sure. TCIO would be instrumental in promoting schemes such as the startup funding tax break, in providing guidance to entrepreneurs, and helping them secure startup visas. In its early incarnation, it was also a precious bridge between Silicon Roundabout’s tech community and a government that seemed to be interested in technology. “Our task was: how do we make sure that we encourage more of these startups? But also what do we learn as a government from these organisations that work incredibly differently to us?,” says Benjamin Southworth, a founder of East London’s technology events company 3beards (Southworth wears a luscious blonde beard), who in 2012 was brought in as TCIO’s deputy CEO.
Cameron himself would organise monthly breakfasts at Downing Street with members of the tech community. “The first Number 10 breakfast – was in a time of austerity so there was no breakfast,” recalls Elizabeth Varley, cofounder of the TechHub coworking space, where Cameron had delivered his liminal Tech City address. Everyone who ever attended one of those breakfasts agrees that they were generally useful. Cameron didn’t always stay for the whole event, leaving Silva to chair – but he would invariably dole out words of praise for technology entrepreneurs.
The breakfast’s aim was partly to connect the participants – thus consolidating the cluster Cameron had posited in the first place – and partly to listen to their concerns. One such concern, about the shoddy broadband coverage of the area, was directed straight at BT executives, also in attendance.
The government was walking a fine line there: it had pledged not to interfere with the cluster, not to try and engineer something from the top down. Most of the people who were present in those days remember how Cameron had self-deprecatingly cited a famous Ronald Reagan maxim, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’.”
But while refraining from big spending, Cameron was in fact orchestrating something: a marketing campaign, a place-branding exercise, and the attraction of big companies to the area. It didn’t always work: the lore wants it that a powerful tech executive – in some versions working for Huawei, in others for investment holding company Hutchison Whampoa – alighted at Old Street station, commented that it smelled like piss and hightailed back to their West London office, never to come back. “That was a big problem,” Southworth recalls. “How do you sell [the area] to billion-dollar companies?” The answer was only a real-world Google search away.
Among other things, a roundabout is not a great place for meeting up. The tech community had made do with cafes, offices and some budding coworking spaces like the Trampery – run by the founder of software startup Trampoline System, which would dissolve in 2019 – and TechHub, where Cameron had given his launch speech. But Silva felt something more was needed. “The cluster was very exciting but it was so very fragmented. There weren’t enough places and excuses for people to come together. There wasn’t enough of a sense of community, everyone was saying: actually, there needs to be like a community space, a place for everyone to come together,” he says.
To that end, in the autumn of 2010, just before the Tech City policy was announced, Silva travelled to Silicon Valley – with then digital secretary Jeremy Hunt in tow – for a meeting with then Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Silva did not even have a name for the cluster yet, but somehow hoped that Schmidt would be won over by the vision, and throw Google’s weight and money behind it. “I said we were going to do something really big to get behind this digital cluster emerging in East London. ‘It’s gonna be great, we would love for you to be involved’,” Silva recalls. Schmidt was curt: he had heard similar spiels before; he was not going to send Google folks to a business park in the middle of nowhere. Silva then rattled off the bountiful attractions of Shoreditch – its independent art galleries, its cafes, its clubs. “That cultural life of East London was what persuaded him,” Silva says. Schmidt initially proposed to buy the whole Olympic Park, but Silva convinced him to do something slightly less dramatic – open a Google-run space near the roundabout. The result was the Google Campus: a seven-storey coworking space – including free coworking in the building’s basement cafe – and event venue that opened on Bonhill Street in 2012.
The jigsaw was complete. Before, aspiring startuppers getting off at Old Street station would bemusedly peer around for a portal to the famed Silicon Roundabout; now they would head to the Campus cafe, grab a peanut butter brownie, and type on their laptops for hours, surrounded by tens of other people doing exactly the same. The government had pointed at the roundabout, and Google had made it a cluster.
Over the next few years, the neighbourhood would be set alight with ferment and the sacred fire of innovation. This being pre-techlash, everyone felt great about what they were doing, and the world was also telling them that launching a tech business was a quicker way to improve the universe. Headlines would extoll the virtues of founders like Moshi Monsters CEOMichael Acton Smith (“a rock star version of Willy Wonka”) and Richard Moross, the founder of bespoke business card business Moo. Prodigious exits, like that of non-Silicon-Roundabout-based DeepMind, in 2014, would make everyone feel stoked. People as disparate as future tabloid-fodder Jennifer Arcuri, future alt-right shock trooper Milo Yiannopulous, and future coronavirus conspiracist Brian Rose started their careers here. Silicon Roundabout thrived, well beyond the departure of Silva and – in 2016 – the downfall of Cameron. Or did it?
Low rents following the 2007 financial crisis bought a wave of startups and small business to the area around Old Street. It’s now home to eight WeWorks
Lubaib Gazir/Getty Images
There are two ways to look at the Silicon Roundabout story. One is that the roundabout was a symbol: the epitome of a bigger, more important story. The story being that the UK’s technology sector – and London’s technology sector in particular – was very promising and had the potential to become a leader in Europe. That was true. Today, London and the UK lead Europe in amounts of venture capital attracted, exits, and number of unicorns – some of which emerged from Shoreditch (FarFetch, TransferWise), some of which didn’t.
“Whatever causal role you ascribe to the government, the reality is that London’s – and indeed the UK’s – tech ecosystem have absolutely exploded since then,” says Matthew Clifford, cofounder of company-builder Entrepreneur First. “Do I think the actual place Silicon Roundabout, by itself, was crucial to that? I don’t know. Probably not.”
Even if the government did put too much emphasis on the roundabout, that’s no big loss. “If you look at the history of technology, what’s interesting is that even when things are overhyped, hype can have very positive consequences. If you attract talent and capital to a place, to a scene, then even if actually, there’s less there than meets the eye, you do get some positive spillovers,” Clifford says. Back in 2010, he adds, not many top university graduates would want to join a startup; after ten years of talking up London and its tech scene, that career choice has become the norm. “That cultural battle has been won.”
In this reading, the Old Street area was a place with an interesting but not necessarily fundamental clutch of companies that, by dint of being next to a roundabout, and having been noticed by some journalists, was elevated to the role of standard-bearer. Daniel Korski, who became Cameron’s adviser after Silva left in 2013, says that, while Silicon Roundabout was “an incredibly strong cluster”, its memetic power was also a factor in making it a symbol for London at large. “It was an incredible, visually attractive representation of what was happening,” he says. “A very easily comprehensible and visually attractive way to describe what was happening elsewhere.”
The other way of looking at the story is that the government’s policy was always about the cluster – that Number 10 aimed at boosting the entrepreneurs and creatives congregating around Old Street and Shoreditch. Accept that and the judgement on the whole operation is different. In a classic hipster truism, too much attention ended up ruining the scene.
As soon as Cameron finished his Tech City speech in November 2010, Strettons’s phones started ringing. “Literally overnight, the demand for property near Old Street changed,” Cuthbert says. “It was almost instant.” Back then, the average Shoreditch office rent hovered around £30 per square foot; by 2017, it had grown to an average of £54, with peaks of £70. Everyone wanted a piece of the roundabout. Coworking spaces thrived, even if they also had to deal with soaring prices. TechHub’s Elizabeth Varley says that almost every time she did a property deal in the area during the past decade, the rent doubled. Once, the landlord doubled her rent on the grounds that her company had made the area more valuable.
WeWork’s arrival in 2014 made things marginally better for startups looking for an office, and worse for smaller coworking spaces – which had to compete with the company’s Softbank-fuelled cut-rate prices, free membership offers, and guerrilla marketing techniques.
The branding offensive’s apparent effect on rents – the very element that had contributed to the cluster’s emergence in the first place – was one of the first pieces of criticism levied against the policy. It is also one that is usually dismissed by the policy’s architects. “I would rather be dealing with the challenges of growth in an economy than the challenges of contraction,” says Van der Kleij. “It’s a very basic law of supply and demand. And I don’t think this is a surprise to anyone.”
When figures unearthed by accounting firm UHY Hacker Young Group revealed that the number of startups setting up in Shoreditch was plummeting – falling by 80 percent from 2014 to 2017 – Gerard Grech, the CEO of Tech City (TCIO’s successor organisation, currently re-rebranded Tech Nation) retorted that anyone focusing on “the relative performance of a single postcode in East London is seriously missing the point.” By the time Grech was making that statement, Shoreditch-based Tech City had already had to move office four times.
In fact, the Silicon Roundabout cluster is still there – and it is bigger than ever. Ironically fulfilling Cameron’s prophecy, it has crawled all the way east, as people ran away from rising property prices. In merely spatial terms – how big the cluster has grown – the policy has been a success. But is that the right way of looking at it?
Max Nathan is an associate professor in applied urban science at University College London. Since 2009, he has been interviewing Shoreditch’s residents and business owners, watching from up close how the successive waves of design studios, digital firms, and technology startups slowly changed the neighbourhood – and how the government’s limelight transformed it. All that lionising, Nathan would later find, was having a perverse effect. Last year, in a paper drawing on almost a decade of research, and on data from the Office for National Statistics, Nathan took stock of the consequences of Cameron pointing at Old Street roundabout. Nathan’s premise was that a promising business cluster had indeed been shaping up near the roundabout, well before the TechHub speech. “Then there was a launch and there was a policy. And a couple of years later people were saying, ‘Policies have been massively successful’,” he says. “But, by 2010, lots of people in the know knew about this cluster, and you could see it was starting to grow anyway. So how much of this would have happened anyway? And how much of this was down to policy?”
To understand what was really going on, Nathan created what he calls – in a mischievous act of place-branding – “Synthetic Shoreditch”: a machine-learning model that, building on growth patterns of other tech-intensive areas across London, is able to simulate how the area around Old Street roundabout might have developed had Cameron decided not to point at it. What he saw was a success and a failure. The success was down to sheer size. Cameron’s Tech City was much bigger than Synthetic Shoreditch would have been. “The area would have kept on growing, but the growth rate was definitely steeper because of the policy,” Nathan says. “The cluster got bigger.” And it grew denser: by 2017 technology firms made up a larger share of the overall number of firms in the area.
The story changed when Nathan looked at the productivity of technology startups – defined as revenue per employee. Technology firms based in the area actually became less productive than those in Synthetic Shoreditch following the launch of the Tech City initiative in 2010 up until 2017, the last year for which Nathan has figures. With many more firms scrambling to move near the famed Old Street roundabout and rents duly skyrocketing – the initial benefits of the cluster vanished. Many companies, especially pure tech startups ended up being overwhelmed and closing shop; others left very quickly; the environment overheated and churn accelerated, destroying any semblance of a stable network of cooperation. “For digital tech firm productivity, I find suggestive evidence of a negative policy effect,” Nathan’s paper reads. “This suggests that policy weakened the net benefits of cluster location.”
The older, bigger companies working in advertising and media – while they were also often priced out of the cluster’s inner ring – appear to have benefitted from the policy all in all.
“The policy didn’t do as good a job as it could have done at helping the newer guys come in,” Nathan says. These newer guys – the tech startups – were exactly whom the policy was supposed to aid. Creative destruction, this wasn’t – Nathan has found no evidence that the cutthroat climate actually aided the emergence of high-value companies in any particular way. “If you just wanted the biggest cluster, it worked. If you wanted a better one, or you wanted the policy to help firms better, I think it’s much harder to say that it succeeded,” he says. “One counter argument might be that London as a whole has a bigger and more vibrant tech scene than it would have done otherwise. My counterpoint to that would be, well – let’s rerun my research on the whole city.”
The challenge of fostering a cluster wasn’t easy to start with. One of the biggest problems of cluster policy is that it is hard to do anything about a cluster without messing with it – after all, Silicon Valley and Hollywood were never planned. Cameron himself thought as much and had said as much in his launch speech: you don’t just go and make a Silicon thing happen – it doesn’t work. But it turns out that marketing, branding, and a benevolent steering are tantamount to doing something after all.
“This was a really rushed policy, which was designed to be light touch, but wasn’t informed enough by what was happening on the ground to make as big an impact,” Nathan says. “As a sort of way of drawing attention to an area I think it worked really well. As a way of making the cluster – the ecosystem – work better, it was problematic.”
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It would be unfair to assume that the people in Number 10 never thought about the issue of rents, and the general real-estate gold rush that played out in East London. Southworth says that, on occasion, he was “remorseful” about what he had done. “I felt like all I’ve done was give real estate developers an excuse to build more skyscrapers, to drive up rent, create more coworking spaces,” he says. “On the other hand we did create a lot of jobs, a huge number of jobs, within this area.”
A government-commissioned report by consultancy McKinsey published in March 2011 underlined that “rental prices, for example, are likely to rise further as the popularity of the area grows. Yet their current low levels are one of the reasons why the area is currently attractive”. To stave off damage, the report suggested implementing “subsidies and seed grants” to help smaller firms cope with rising prices.
Korski also remembers rents being a frequent topic of discussion. “We spent a lot of time trying to think through what we could do in that space. I don’t think we found an answer,” he says. At some point, he recounts, the team at Number 10 toyed with ideas like introducing subsidies, or even creating a whole village just for startuppers. “We had this idea of a startup city – to create modular housing products where you could live and work and run your business,” he says. “We didn’t know which site but we looked at a bunch of different sites.”
If that never came to pass that is partly because by the time those discussions were coming to a head, something else had happened. On June 23, 2016, Cameron fell on the sword of his EU referendum, which – with the decisive help of then London mayor Boris Johnson – had resulted in a small but conclusive victory for leaving the European Union. Cameron was replaced by Theresa May who had little time for his techno-optimist funfair in East London. The Number 10 breakfasts with the tech folks dwindled and the general impression was that the government almost despised the sector.
“In the immediate aftermath of Brexit, I remember that, in Number 10 – it was just absolutely extraordinary,” Clifford recalls. “Someone relatively senior told me: ‘You know, isn’t one of the lessons of the referendum that actually we need to slow innovation down?’,” he says. “I thought they were joking.” Eileen Burbidge, a venture capitalist who by 2016 had become the chair of Tech City, remembers meeting May only a few times. “May’s government had other massive priorities,” she says. “Everything was about Brexit.” (Burbidge resigned from chair in January 2020.)
That was true – and it was bound to impact the prime minister’s relationship with Tech City. In a way that conflict was ideological. May wanted to end free movement and was the advocate of a draconian approach to immigration. But immigration, especially from the EU, was regarded by many in Shoreditch to be the fuel for the cluster’s vitality. A book that came out in 2015, The Flat White Economy, devoted several chapters to East London, and called the arrival of young Europeans “the UK’s secret weapon”. Under May – and Brexit – that was over.
What was also over was the government focusing its efforts on hipsterland while the so-called “just about managings” across the UK were rising up. Tech City was instantly re-branded Tech Nation – and its remit changed to fostering technology entrepreneurship in the whole country. A former Number 10 staffer says that the Silicon Roundabout did not need encouragement anymore. It had served its purpose, and now the whole country should benefit from tech.
Silva, the original architect of the project, is sceptical. “Now they say that every city should be a Tech City – but [the specific cluster] was the entire thing,” he says. “Actually, what we should be doing, is helping cities build on the things they’re brilliant at.”
Under May, cluster policy was effectively dead. Left to its own devices, the Roundabout’s property scene continued to spiral out of control. There are now eight WeWorks in the area. Google Campus, the original quasi-public space at the centre of the cluster, restricted its access in early 2019 – it is now called Google for Startups, and only vetted members are admitted.
Silicon Roundabout came to prominence at a time in which people – and politicians – were looking for a sign that the worst of the financial crisis was behind us, a beacon of hope amid the gloom and despair. The fundamentals, admittedly, were there. But boosterism might have ended up spoiling the ecosystem – smothering some of the good work under shrill press releases and glistening real estate gold. And then the vagaries of politics and election cycles cut short any attempt to deal with that.
Today, the challenge is even more fundamental: in the age of coronavirus, does the concept of cluster – of tying your hopes to a place – still make sense? Or is the next technology cluster coming in a Slack channel near you?
The current prime minister, Boris Johnson, was not an architect of the Tech City initiative, although he was certainly a beneficiary – giving speeches at technology events, and slipping the Roundabout under his mayoral belt as his achievement. While Johnson is not famous for his grasp of technology, Dominic Cummings, his right-hand man, is. It is hard to tell whether they will ever turn their attention to East London. More likely, they will pick something else as a new beacon of hope to give the country confidence in the post-Covid crisis era. Hopefully they will pick carefully.
As forr the roundabout – it is being remade into a pedestrianised peninsula.
Gian Volpicelli is WIRED’s politics editor. He tweets from @Gmvolpi
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