Why Tech City quick-fix will fail without underlying digital architecture

Tech development moves in dog years, says David Richards, so the UK needs to move fast to solve tech talent crunch and misdirected government efforts

For many in government, Britain’s burgeoning technology sector has become something of a poster child for the economic recovery, which has been led by the more than 500,000 new businesses started in the UK last year.

Figures released on the third anniversary of the Tech City initiative found the number of tech and digital companies in London increased by 76% between 2009 and 2012, growing from just under 50,000 to 88,000.

Some 27% of all job growth in the Capital comes from the tech sector, with approximately 582,000 now employed.

These are undeniably impressive figures and there is no question that London’s tech scene has been transformed since the turn of the century. But how much credit is the government really entitled to take?

In many cases, the UK is guilty of overselling its support, as Westminster has something of an erratic relationship with Britain’s tech sector – no matter how much it puffs out its chest and insists that it can measure up to Silicon Valley.

Tech City space is not the answer – talent is

Government can’t create entrepreneurs, but part of its remit is to make sure we have the right environment for those entrepreneurs to succeed.

On its founding, Tech City was positioned as the catalyst that would do just this, igniting UK tech and greatly increase the chances of the next Google, Facebook or Twitter being British.

In reality it has only fed a misguided belief that Silicon Roundabout provides the ecosystem that’s needed for Britain’s billion-pound start-up.

As a Brit at the helm of a tech firm based in California – albeit one with shared headquarters in Sheffield – I’m often asked what needs to change for the UK to catch up with the US. If there’s one thing I’m certain it’s that a quick-fix solution isn’t the answer.

The truth is that Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world – most notably India and Israel – and nowhere near catching up with Silicon Valley. This is not due to a lack of office space, as welcome as it is, but a shortage in talent: of the coders, analysts and data scientists that you find in abundance in places like California.

Universities failing to produce specialist graduates

While the government loves to bang the drum for all things digital, if it is serious about helping the UK make the step up then it needs to start thinking in the long term and ensure that its tech firms have the pick of the crop when it comes to specialist graduates.

Last year the chancellor stressed the importance of the UK supporting its digital entrepreneurs. From this September, the national curriculum will require that all students between five and 16 are given the skill they need to build apps and code.

While this is a promising start, no equivalent commitment has been extended to revamping Britain’s universities, many of which are teaching code that hasn’t been used in the Valley for years.

Having institutions like MIT, Stanford and Caltech is the reason why US tech is streets ahead, not because its schools are full of app developing kids. Without equivalent measures, Britain risks being left behind.

India and Israel provide examples of how it can be done. Both have dedicated centres of technology that regularly churn out some of the most talented specialists in the sector – and it works. Last year, Israeli firm Waze was sold to Google for $1bn, with the sale the latest milestone in the nation’s road to hi-tech success.

What’s happening with the Turing Institute?

In his Budget announcement, the chancellor suggested Britain might soon follow suit. In his speech, George Osborne pledged government support for the Turing Institute, a specialist centre named after the great computer pioneer that will provide a British home for Big Data and algorithm research.

“I am determined that our country is going to out-compete, out-smart and out-do the rest of the world,” he said, but more than a month on and details remain thin on the ground.

The cornerstone for technology isn’t just infrastructure, but a knowledge economy capable of producing the talent that’s needed to found, innovate and grow technology firms. We need a centre in the UK capable of nurturing the talent required to make British tech a world-beater.

If the Turing Institute is going to be Britain’s MIT then it comes at the right time, with big data front and centre on the commercial stage. Innovation is in the UK’s DNA, and I’m hopeful that the Turing Institute will be the first step to Britain realising its digital potential.

But there’s no time to lose. I’ve long believed that time in the tech-sector moves in dog years – developing at a rate that far outpaces other industries. If the government doesn’t make good on its promise to invest in talent it might just find the gap too big when it decides to act.

David Richards is CEO and co-founder of British Big Data firm WANdisco.

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