Thursday, December 16, 2010

Randomly Silicon Roundabout

Policies need to be made of dream stuff, particularly in these difficult times. Reality is always hard to believe and good words are usually handy to keep away wrong statistic: Like the drop in real incomes for middle classes for a decade or the very current drop in employment numbers. But this is the way of the world - or, as Stephen Covey puts it, an area of concern - and the decent thing for plain folks is to get on with it.

What makes the Old Street roundabout Britain's answer to silicon valley? The place is indeed run-down, ideal for new property development. It is rumoured that Russians are now moving in and buying the Bangladeshis out. Commercial Road is becoming, well, commercial. Indeed, there are so many other creative hot spots in Britain, and as a friend rhetorically put it, why not Brighton, that one wonders whether the vision of a silicon valley in Hoxton has anything to do with creative enterprises, or is it a clarion call to beleaguered property developers.

I must apologize - property developers are not beleaguered. In fact, commercial property in London is alive and well and rents are back to their pre-bubble zone. So, if anything, this is a call to conquer new territories, and turn an eyesore into something more palatable, just in time for Olympics. In fact, no one may actually mind - why would I mind if I had a flat in commercial road where prices shoot up - and overall, there will be an extension of city towers, which are already raising their heads around Bishopgate. The supply will rise, the prices will drop and the demand will rise again: This is indeed the little Simcity that the government can afford to play.

But what about Britain's digital future, if there is such a thing? The point is such digital future has more to do with people than spaces. David Cameron is not alone in visualizing the silicon valley or roundabout in terms of shiny offices; most policy makers across the world see software industries as columns of newly built buildings. The hard fact though is that it is the social attitude that makes or breaks the 'industry'. It is about education, and not just university education I must add. It is the quality of schools and sixth form colleges which will determine the game. Besides, this has lot to do with social attitude. I would argue that you can't get an open standard, world beating industry, any industry, while promoting inward-looking social attitude.

One needs the best and the brightest in the world to converge to create a best-of-class industrial cluster. The problem is that you can't just get the best and brightest: They are always in demand and they will choose the country to go to on the basis of how friendly the environment of the host country is. With Britain's current obsession of 'securing the borders', it is hardly the friendliest place to come to at this time.

I am obviously excited by the talk and believe that British Creative Industries have a lot of unexplored potential. I agree with the basic premise that a little bit of focus on the industry will enormously help. After all, the creative industries together are Britain's second largest export industry, but it does not get the credit for it. However, unlike the banks, where the rules can be bent and bail-outs are all too common, creative industries are brutally competitive, where only the best can survive. In a word, it is not for the faint-hearted. Besides, it is more about people and thoughts than the banks ever are. So, to succeed, the industry will need an open environment - not the kind of quibbles a Musician has to get into these days about bringing their instruments in - and not just soundbites. In a way, the silicon roundabout is already there: The cosmopolitan mix of people, the creativity, the buzz, the feel, the energy. The politicians' pledge, the Russian investors, the building contractors may end up stealing it.

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