Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan need to champion the contribution tech can make to the capital.
The City of London website contains a list of the 110 livery roughly in order of their ‘precedence’, all the way from the Worshipful Company of Mercers (incorporated in 1394), through Tobacco Pipe Makers (1619) to Security Professionals (1999) and Arts Scholars (2014).
I’d suggest the list illustrates two truths about the capital. First, technological advance is continuously rendering skills and trades obsolete. Second, London has a remarkable ability to adapt to tech and economic change. Indeed, to a significant extent it makes the weather: it has long been an important generator of the new wealth-creating ideas, technologies and skills that destroy old ways of doing things.
These truths have never been truer than today. While new technology means that it is becoming ever easier to communicate remotely, innovation has been taking an increasingly urban turn, with London at the forefront of the process. So the capital has become, for instance, an important centre of digital innovation and life sciences – two sectors with huge economic promise.
The new Mayor will therefore lead a city that has become a scientific and tech power-house, fuelled by its great strengths in higher education professional services and creative industries. He (and the polls suggest it will be a man) will have every reason to help London build on this position, not least because its economy, for all its strengths, remains over concentrated in business and financial services.
London’s scientific and tech sectors face the same generic challenges faced by other businesses – infrastructure pressures, a chronic shortage of housing and work spaces, and uncertainty over the future of our relationship with the EU. But three more particular challenges stand out.
First, the skills required by fast developing tech-powered sectors are almost inevitably in short supply. London has done well in attracting and retaining young mobile talent, attracted by the capital’s universities and vibrant culture and social life. But as the capital becomes more expensive and developed, so they are inevitably looking elsewhere. The problem is compounded by a visa regime that has got much tougher in recent years – making it harder for businesses, especially small and medium-sized firms (SMEs), to recruit from outside the EU, and for non-EU entrepreneurs to set up in London.
In response the Mayor will need to work on two fronts at once. He will have to tackle housing shortages and nurture London’s public spaces and cultural life, to ensure it remains attractive for younger, high skilled entrepreneurs, ‘creatives’ and ‘techies’. And he will have to get behind efforts to grow young native talent. London’s schools have gone from strength to strength in recent years and there are lots of initiatives aimed at boosting tech skills among young Londoners, but there is clearly more to do.
Second, London tech firms struggle to secure the finance they need to grow, especially when compared to competitors in New York and San Francisco. As a recent strategic review commissioned by the London Economic Partnership puts it, ‘the UK has been less strong in equity financing than the US for a long time…banks drive only 19% of external long-term financing in the US, compared to over 80% in the UK’.
Third, research-intensive and tech firms, especially for SMEs, are being held back by London’s relatively poor tech infrastructure, broadband provision and affordable workspace. Property prices have also risen especially fast in Inner East London, once the epicentre of London’s vibrant tech start up scene. The new Mayor will have to work with boroughs and developers to protect appropriate works spaces, and ensure the provision of new ones in cheaper areas.
The agenda I have set out above is in some ways a familiar business one. But a Mayor who wants to make the most of scientific and tech opportunities can’t stop there, and should also pursue a parallel agenda to put technology at the centre of London government.
There are at least four imperatives here. First, while the GLA has been rightly praised for leading the way in opening up city data, there is much more it can do to collect and standardise data through working with the boroughs and other public sector organisations.
Second, the new Mayor should promote the digitalisation of public services. It is much harder to connect to London’s public services online that it should be, with very little joining-up between services.
Thirdly, London could make much greater use of the civic collaborative technology – including the crowd sourcing of ideas, and participatory budgeting. Other cities – New York, Seoul, Paris – have stolen a march on London here.
Finally the city has to get better at creating spaces where the tech, business, public and civic sectors can come together to develop new approaches to meeting city challenges, while at the same time promoting London’s ‘future cities’ expertise.
Given that neither Zac Goldsmith nor Sadiq Khan have displayed a strong interest in technology and innovation, the new Mayor would be well advised to bring senior people around them to champion this agenda. At Centre for London, we have argued that the Mayor would be well advised to follow Mayor Bloomberg’s team and appoint a Chief Digital Officer, who can act as mayoral champion of digital innovation and ensure that London gets the best out of tech advances.
The new Mayor should continue to promote London as a global science and tech hub, but needs to go beyond that – so that London can become a leader in applying tech advances to meet its problems, digitalising public services and empowering its citizens through technology.
Ben Rogers is Director for the think tank Centre for London.
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