For the more cynical among us, it is tempting to peer into the windows of east London’s new workspaces and sneer at the juices and mindfulness workshops, all the while muttering something about the second dot com bubble under our breath. Even for the less judgemental amongst us, tech often seems like something other people do, like making your own bread or running 5k before 8am.
But before you know it, a couple of guys you graduated with have received series A funding for have an app they created while you were still busy interning. You find yourself evangelising about CityMapper, an app whose success is founded on the availability of Transport for London data, to a couple of tourists who stopped to ask you directions. You think nothing of jumping in an Uber, despite previously opting for three night buses and a half hour stagger, rather than taking a black cab.
The urban and digital economies can no longer be viewed as separate entities. As such, the success of its tech sector should not be viewed in isolation from the strength of London’s more established sectors – from financial services in the City and Canary Wharf to media and advertising in Soho. Getting this right means that in addition to nurturing a growing tech sector, London is emerging as a centre for productive and creative innovation.
As the global economy becomes increasingly digitised, the economic and social success of London is inextricably bound to the capacity of the city to innovate. This is why Centre for London has partnered with Tech London Advocates and techUK.
Together, we’re producing a tech manifesto for the 2016 mayoral election. We’re also hosting a hustings dedicated to debating not simply what the mayor can do for the sector, but what the sector can do for London, and what a digital London can do for the UK
As technology is shaping the world around us, it is vital that policy makers get tech. This goes beyond simply understanding the size and nature of London’s tech sector. It means being able to think beyond the framework of the sector, and understanding how London’s economy is being digitised – and how the application of technology is blurring the divide between fashion, technology and manufacturing. It means understanding how data can be used to improve service delivery, and working with developers and innovators to find solutions to London’s most pressing problems.
Of course, the mayor cannot predict the innovations that will shape the city they inherit. From the rise in cybercrime to 13,000 Uber drivers on London’s roads, many of the debates now taking place in City Hall simply weren’t on the agenda in 2012.
But the mayor can anticipate, and ensure City Hall has a regulatory framework than can handle anything that innovators throw at it. None of this will be easy, and nor will it be without controversy – but in a time of rapid change, the mayor’s role as both conciliator and champion matter more than ever.
The mayor can’t predict the types of jobs that will fuel London’s economy in the future, or the exact skills needed to fill them, either. Of the 10 most popular job titles among LinkedIn users that didn’t exist five years ago, eight are digital in nature.
But encouraging a well-skilled workforce – through engaging with the private sector, supporting digital learning programmes and collaboration with schools – means equipping Londoners with the skill and opportunities to participate in the digital economy. A skilled population is one in which Londoners are not left behind, and in which a demand for skilled workers inspires a push for digital inclusion, rather than segregation.
Technology may not save us, but it will shape how we communicate, how we work, and how we move around the city we call home. London needs a mayor who understands the potential of digital London, and is willing both to address the challenges the tech sector faces – and ensure that London gets the best from tech.
Kat Hanna is research manager at the Centre for London.
The Mayoral Tech manifesto launched on 25 January and the DebateTech hustings take place on 9 February 2016. You can register here.
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