Watch out, Silicon Valley

London’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ is biting at your heels. But is the tech for real?

Topics: London, Silicon Valley, technology,

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

LONDON, UK — The Old Street traffic circle doesn’t look like a place you’d want to linger. A three-lane gyre of fast moving vehicles built over a gloomy subterranean shopping precinct and a forgettable metro station — this is surely London at its most unprepossessing.

So you could be forgiven, as your black taxi cab whizzes across on its way somewhere decidedly less prosaic, if you fail to realize that you have just passed through the epicenter of the most technologically innovative business community in Britain, perhaps even Europe.

Any doubts about the credentials of Old Street were put to rest this month when the Silicon Valley Bank — which claims a role in seeding Californian tech brands such as Cisco and Mozilla — announced it was launching a full UK service to capitalize on this burgeoning start up scene.

Global Post

Greg Becker, the bank’s chief executive, described his new London branch as “a significant step in the evolution of the technology sector in the UK,” and predicted “remarkable things” from his clients in based around the east London intersection.

Such backslapping was repeated this week in London, when bank executives mingled with Britain’s young digital sector at Le Web, the first ever summer offshoot of Europe’s largest technology conference, held every December in Paris.

If that wasn’t enough, London has been listed — after Silicon Valley and New York City — as the third most successful digital innovation “ecosystem” in an influential study attempting to map the “startup genome.”

Such is the buzz around Old Street, that efforts to brand it as “Tech City” have largely been ignored in favor of the catchier “Silicon Roundabout” — an epithet that neatly sums up the ambitious bravado of its denizens while raising an ironic eyebrow to the quotidian surroundings.

“When you get someone like the Silicon Valley Bank setting up, it is definitely a validation that London and the UK are very much at the center of the tech and digital renaissance,” says Eric Van Der Kleij, chief executive of the government-funded Tech City Investment Organization.

Prime Minister David Cameron has already claimed the bank’s interest as a coup.

“Look what’s happening in east London,” he told his Conservative party last year. “Europe’s financial capital is now matched by Europe’s technology capital in Tech City. Facebook, Intel, Google, Cisco — even Silicon Valley Bank, seeing our potential and investing here.”

Yet, even amid claims of a recession-busting miracle, there are concerns that such confidence is misplaced. As with all internet-based success stories, the “bubble” word lurks in the background. Is there really a market for all these new ideas, and is Britain the place for them?

Van Der Kleij is unsurprisingly bullish about the Roundabout’s prospects, claiming more than 700 companies have set up shop in the neighborhood. Among them are success stories such as TweetDeck, a microblogging tool that sold to Twitter for $40 million, and music site, which was acquired by CBS for $280 million.

“It does seem to be expanding,” he told GlobalPost. “It’s increasingly becoming an incredibly important engine room for growth. Tech City is leading the charge in this type of growth and the sector itself is probably the one that is going to lead us out of the economic challenges we have.”

But for every start up company that hits the big time, there are dozens more struggling for investment. While Silicon Valley Bank’s presence and changing attitudes among major UK lenders will help, they won’t curb the unrealistic expectations that are regularly heaped on the internet sector.

An interactive map created by Tech City generates both hope and doubt.

The map pinpoints the locations of more than 1,100 digital companies in the vicinity of Old Street. It’s a good indication things are on the up — and growth statistics are expected to be independently verified by the Centre for London think tank later this year.

But with many of the names on the map belonging to tiny, unheard of ventures often supplying services to other digital start-ups (in some cases they belong to art galleries and nightclubs) there is an inevitable vulnerability.

Van Der Kleij, however, insists this ecosystem is less fragile than it looks. He says innovations such as cloud computing and low overhead — in what’s still a relatively cheap real estate market — give new businesses plenty of breathing room. Despite state encouragement, it is, he adds, largely self-sufficient.

“It’s an organic cluster — it was created naturally, not by government diktat, evolving because it wants to be there. If you nurture it just a little it can grow a lot more sustainably than, say, a cluster which you try to artificially create.”

Also weighing heavily in its favor is location. As befits a busy traffic interchange, it is well connected with other key economic hubs in London. Both the main financial district and the heart of the city’s powerful advertising industry are close by.

Not only that, but Old Street forms the gateway to the hipster districts of Shoreditch and Hoxton, where bars and coffee shops are filled with young creatives sporting ironic facial hair and retro spectacles — a fact that will please Google chairman Eric Schmidt.

Schmidt, in a speech last year, chided Britain for failing to commercialize its tech innovations, but said the answer lay in bringing “art and science back together.”

Van Der Kleij agrees: “Those creative classes rubbing shoulders with the technologists — at that intersection point you’re getting innovation taking place. That’s what gives us our secret sauce that makes us different from Silicon Valley and that’s what gives us the potential growth.”

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>