Here in London we're all very proud of the progress made over the last few years. Having come back from 4 years in Boston, I have been surprised by the level of maturity that we have achieved and how far we have come.
But London is a city of 9 million and our efforts and mindshare right now are still very much focused around Mayfair, Soho, City and the City Fringes. The question is: how do we successfully take innovation into Dalston, Hammersmith or even Croydon?
Perhaps the fast and furious progress London has made is best highlighted by the following data in the recent trade mission led by Mayor Boris Johnson (in collaboration with London &Partners):
- UK tech firms based in the capital attracted more than $1.4 bn in VC funding in 2014, double the amount in 2013.
- The UK has produced at least 11 technology companies worth more than $1bn (£590m) since 2000, including London-based firms Just Eat, ASOS, Zoopla, Shazam and Markit.
- London attracts the best talent from all over Europe and the world; it has 6 of the world’s top 100 universities (Imperial, LSE, King's, UCL), including 2 in the top 10 (Oxford and Cambridge).
- London has the largest IT sector in Europe, more than twice the size of any other city. Today 382,000 people working in computing, gaming, telecoms, film and media, second only to fin tech. London is now the world's largest centre for FinTech, with 44,000 people working in the sector – more than both Silicon Valley and New York.
- The tech giants have followed : both Google and Facebook chose London to build their largest hub outside of the Valley.
The next challenge for London is to drive innovation deeper into the natural clusters that have formed inside and around the capital. The TechCity initiative, launched in 2010, smartly decide to espouse what was already happening on the ground by aligning itself with the burgeoning cluster of Shoreditch and Silicon Roundabout. With proximity to the City and a high density of digital companies, funky bars and coffee shops, this was pretty much a no-brainer. But as Cory Doctorow pointed out, the pressure to give to more and more commercial developments (witness the sad fate of the Truman Brewery) creates exciting opportunities for the likes of Peckham and, perhaps, neighbouring Croydon.
Croydon Tech City, anyone ?
I was recently approached by Francois Mazoudier, who is leading a team currently bidding for the design and management of a new Croydon Tech City initiative. His ideas around what it would take to make such an initiative successful got me thinking too.
Croydon is a large town about 9 miles south of Charing Cross and a populous part of Greater London, yet most people have no reason to venture there. So if you are sitting in the shoes of the town councillors, how do you think about developing a vibrant and sustainable cluster ? I am going to assume that the town's objective is not to create a vibrant community of makers, artists or small digital agencies but really to put Croydon on the map as a destination for the best tech companies, so that the next Transferwise or Shazam decides to build and maintain HQ down there.
The easy part
These days setting up, running and operating a co-working space cum incubator is not the operational challenge it once was. Technology is highly standardised, funky fire-rated furniture readily available and SaaS services to help you run your co-work space cheap and varied. The logistics are really nothing more than table-stakes and will not set you apart. In fact London is teeming with co-working spaces and incubators of various guises with varying degrees of success.
Adding value through space & experiences
Most co-working spaces in London are standard issue. Rows of workstations, cell block meeting rooms, a tired ikea sofa and a ping-pong table for the lame cool factor have become the co-working norm - not exactly inspirational. The proper design of a work environment, carefully thinking through fluid use of space, way finding, noise constraints etc. can turn a boring utility into a haven for creativity and community. Frank Gerhy's hand in designing the Facebook's office in London reflects the hacking values of the company in the physical environment (unfinished stairway, completely unstructured communal spaces) and mentally encourage employees to continue to experiment. At the extreme end of the spectrum, you will find next-gen co-working environments like NeueHouse with its rotation art installations, exceptional barista and state of the art digital studio. As designer Haley McLane would say of her Clypd offices : "I don't design offices, I design experiences. The space and amenities serve the purposes of generating experiences that innovators will enjoy and thrive in".
The message is this: A deep understanding of the unique dynamics of co-housing vibrant startups in a single well designed hive, serves to move the experience well beyond the traditional co-working space. NeueHouse would call it (a) "giant machine for creating".
Adding value through Community
The best co-working and incubation spaces are distinguished by the quality and vibrancy of their home-grown community. The features list of their office environment are secondary.
The most extreme example of this is Y-Combinator, which does not have a residential program but thrives through its exceptional network of mentors and alumni. This network has become a magnet for the world's best emerging entrepreneurs (see this infographic). I mean, where else do you get to hang out with Dropbox founder Drew Houston ?
Facilities-based co-working spaces need to rely on both internal community (startups, exec team) and external community (mentors, investors) to thrive.
Community is a concept easily thrown around but it has become a loaded word for me. Because entrepreneurship has become so aspirational, it is easy to get together a large posse of wantrepreneurs, B-list mentors and assorted group of people who feed off innovation but don't actually contribute that much to it (which is why you will hear credible guys like my former partner Chris Lynch vent anger at the wannabes sometimes).
I think that if one is serious about achieving a high quality, sustainable community with startups that not only get off the ground but scale, being selective and intentful about community creation is a core requirement for success. This means getting the top angels, the VC's, the entrepreneurs who have actually built companies from scratch engaged with your startup community. Success breeds success.
Putting on your A-Game
So as I am sitting here thinking through how to make Croydon Tech City successful, here is the advice I would recommend to follow:
- Facilities are table stakes and, frankly, commodity. Anyone can deliver great wifi and software to book meeting rooms and organise events. It's all in the cloud and it's all cheap. Well-serviced desks are a requirement but not a differentiator.
- Push the boundaries hard on smart space design. The physical instantiation of you co-working environment becomes your brand and drives the experience of the space.
- To the extent possible, be ruthlessly selective about who comes into the co-working environment. The list of startups working inside your space should be aspirational in itself. Great people will attract great people.
- Strive to get the A-Listers. If you can get the top angels, mentors and venture capitalists in the London ecosystem to engage, your virtuous circle will kick in. Seed financing programs and business mentors are a dime a dozen, but those who have been associated with real, meaningful successes are few and far between. Find a way to get them to engage and really put Croydon on the map.
There is much for towns like Croydon to do. The challenge cannot be underestimated but Rome, as they say, was not built in a day and the opportunities abound. Perhaps the next Zoopla, Deepmind or CSR is being built right there, right now and waiting to be discovered.
With the right ingredients, level of ambition and clarity of intent, there is no reason why London cannot continue to deliver world class innovation clusters away from Shoreditch and in areas that are at face value less obvious, just like Croydon Tech City.