- London lags behind global competitors in terms of tech infrastructure and opportunities
- Farah London, independent candidate in the race to become the city’s next mayor, has a vision for the city to drive the “digital revolution”
- Should her campaign succeed, Farah will implement tech grants, motivate ‘Big Tech’ collaboration, and upgrade the city’s network connectivity
- “I’m a strong believer that tech is at the heart of everything, and above all else, I believe in changing this city” – Farah London
Whether you know it as ‘the Big Smoke’, the ‘Home of Big Ben’, or humble ‘London Town’, there’s no denying this city’s status as a global powerhouse. Looking at GDP, the UK played host to the world’s sixth largest economy in 2019, with London remaining a jewel in the crown of the nation’s economic growth. Home to nine million of Britain’s total 67 million, amounting to 13% of the UK’s total population, the city is responsible for a staggering 23% of the country’s wealth. ‘The Big Fog’s’ digital industry is a major force behind this financial contribution. According to the London Plan, the city’s technology, media and telecom (TMT) sector comprises 8% of the UK’s total GDP.
This all sounds great on paper, but you might be surprised to know that London lags behind many global competitors in terms of tech infrastructure and opportunities.
In December 2020, Savills Research published a report exploring the world’s Tech City Tiers. One impactful factor it considers is venture capital (VC) investment – something Savills lists as a “key lead indicator of the destinations that matter for tech”. The theory is that big capital contributions generally precede investments in people and places, so tracking where they go allows us to keep tabs on the world’s most up-and-coming markets.
At first glance, London’s performance looks impressive; not only is the city Europe’s top contender in this metric, but it’s the only representative of the continent to place in the top 10. That said, six other global metropoles take the cake in respect of VC funding, with Beijing, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Shanghai, New York and Hangzhou placing 1st to 6th, respectively, and Singapore, Boston and Shenzhen concluding the top 10 (8th to 10th, respectively).
To offer some perspective, London attracted some US$24bn in VC tech investment over the last three years, compared to more than US$83bn in Beijing, US$70bn in San Francisco, and US$59bn in Silicon Valley. To cement the city’s status as a true global focal point for digital, London must first match up to the tech-fuelled dominance of China and the US.
Farah London: a woman with a vision
But one ‘Swinging City’ native is on a mission to make the UK capital the world’s next best tech hub. Her name is Farah London – independent candidate in the race to become the city’s mayor in 2021. Born and raised in Croydon, Farah has a deep-held love for her hometown and an affinity for tech. This self-proclaimed “woman of action” has more than 20 years’ entrepreneurial experience under her belt, and her campaign to become London’s first female mayor this May is well underway. But what inspired her to take the leap and join the mayorship race?
“Why am I running? Because I really feel London has been let down by successive mayors,” she told me in an interview over Zoom. “We have too many politicians who are just interested in their own political agenda, or, as I like to call them, ‘career politicians’.” she added. “When they come with their own political agenda, they don’t represent the people. So, I want to be the next mayor because, firstly, we’ve never had a female mayor, and secondly, I want to bring the change we need to revolutionise London.”
For Farah, digital is a key driver of the city’s radical transformation. The Open University’s (OU) Bridging the Digital Divide report from June last year found that 88% of organisations – not just in London, but across the UK – are currently experiencing a shortage in digital talent, significantly hindering their ability to compete on the global stage. With the ongoing COVID-19 crisis elevating the importance of tech across social constructs and industries, powering our ability to work from home, to shop online for essentials, and to stay socially connected in turbulent times, the growing digital skills gap is a cause for concern. As technology continues to advance exponentially, the nation’s supply of qualified specialists is unable to meet demand. In the immediate to short-term, this could drastically impede the UK’s economic recovery in the fallout of the pandemic, as a recent study by Microsoft and Goldsmith’s University confirms. Long-term, failure to address the digital skills gap now could be catastrophic.
There have been attempts to address the nation’s shortage of tech skills: from Theresa May’s 2017 Digital Strategy, which aimed to instil knowledge, nurture specialist expertise and provide continuing professional development (CPD) programmes; to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s (DDCMS) Digital Skills Innovation Fund, which, as of March last year, had provided £1.1m to help women and small businesses acquire the necessary digital skills; and the government-supported Tech Talent Charter (TTC), a non-profit dedicated to promoting equality within the UK tech sector. But with the skills gap clearly growing, these initiatives simply have not been delivered quickly or effectively enough.
“From an education perspective, the tech grants are all about getting schools the equipment they need, and also teaching teachers the skills required to train the next generation” – Farah London
“The question is, why are we not doing something about this?” Farah exclaimed. “It’s why we’re seeing so many companies move over to the Philippines or Romania to try and get tech talent. So, I want to make sure we have the talent here to lead the way. It excites me – it’s about changing the curriculum and making tech more exciting; it’s not just about IT, because tech is so much more than that.”
Introducing ‘Tech London’
No other candidate in the mayorship race is placing such as strong focus on digital – an element that forms the beating heart of Farah’s current campaign. It’s a vision she calls ‘Tech London’, and it’s all about educating, supporting and empowering the city’s future digital workforce. How does she plan to execute this? Firstly, by establishing tech grants.
“From an education perspective,” she explained, “the tech grants are all about getting schools the equipment they need, and also teaching teachers the skills required to train the next generation.” While digital inequality is far from a new concept, the matter has been well documented since the first lockdown last March. As schools were forced to close, the sector migrated online, and while in April, education secretary Gavin Williamson announced a scheme to provide free laptops and tablets so disadvantaged pupils could participate in remote learning, The Guardian reported in June that 54% of secondary schools across the country were yet to receive a single device, with just one week to go until reopening. As the sector gets to grips with this ‘new normal’, which fundamentally depends on reliable, connected technology, Farah’s promise to provide crucial learning devices could not come soon enough.
But then there’s the matter of CPD – a conscientious move by the potential future mayor. Accessibility and inclusiveness for students is one thing, but their ability to learn is limited if their teachers lack tech knowledge and ability. Promethean’s State of Technology in Education Report from October 2020 shines a light on the significant lack of training in tech, revealing that the priority of CPD across UK schools has dropped by 23% in the last five years, with just 1% of Promethean’s respondents citing tech training as a priority. A recent YouGov and Microsoft study had similar findings, with almost half (47%) of participants saying they felt inadequately supported for the upcoming year. The purpose of edtech is to elevate teaching, but this considerable lack of know-how due to inefficient support and guidance leads to a shortage of confidence, easily breeding a culture of resistance when it comes to edtech implementation. CPD could be the difference between edtech as a hindrance and edtech as an accelerator. Props to Farah for recognising this.
“If we can solve all of this through tech grants,” she explained, “we’re actually going to see the digital revolution happen here. We led the industrial revolution, so let’s lead the digital revolution in London as well.”
Motivating ‘Big Tech’ collaboration
The reputation of London’s digital industry relies on the quality and diversity of the city’s future talent. To nurture this, it’s crucial that the capital is seen as a desirable location among the sector’s leading players. To initiate this process, Farah wants to replicate the success of Silicon Valley, building a tech ecosystem of the greatest minds. This starts with attracting ‘Big Tech’ companies to invest.
“I’ve already been having dialogue with the larger corporations that actually welcome Tech London,” she said. “I want to work with the major corporations like Apple and Google and set up tech coding academies all over London, so, no matter what your age, if you want to get into tech – whether that’s to be a full stack developer, front-end or back-end, we have the resources to teach you. I want us to be leading the way for artificial intelligence, gaming, robotics – even tech like electric cars.”
“I want to work with the major corporations like Apple and Google and set up tech coding academies all over London, so, no matter what your age, if you want to get into tech…we have the resources to teach you”
The plan is to elevate the relationship with companies that already have a physical presence in the city, while also drawing in more digital corporations from abroad to inspire global investment. These companies would sponsor specialist training academies scattered over the city, focusing on sought-after disciplines such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics – fields that have increasing significance on everyday life (accelerated, of course, by the ongoing impact of COVID-19). This, in turn, promotes accessibility and inclusivity – factors that have traditionally been lacking in tech-focused professions, hence the growing skills shortage – for people from all walks of life, thus transforming and enriching the talent pipeline of tomorrow.
“It’s about getting everyone working together, because you can’t do this on your own – you need people like Apple and Google on board,” Farah explained. “I will work collaboratively with these private companies towards one central point of view: becoming ‘Tech London’. Another thing I want to lobby with the government is special tax incentives for tech companies to come here. This is crucial, because it’s going to encourage investment back into our city. For this, we have to make sure we have the right talent pool and infrastructure in place. It’s the next logical step and it’s going to take us forward.”
Talking of infrastructure; I couldn’t help feeling that, while Farah’s blueprint for Tech London would no doubt be transformative, initiating the plan in practice would be a monumental task. Take, for instance, the region’s fibre broadband connectivity. As the mayoral candidate notes within her vision for the city, London’s coverage currently stands at just over 16%, while numerous cities in Asia have achieved almost 100%, according to figures from PwC. So, as one of the world’s economic and cultural centres, why does London’s broadband coverage lag so far behind?
“It’s quite simple,” said Farah. “It’s because no one has given it importance. When you get political parties running the show, they’re so busy arguing with each other that they miss the fundamental importance of what the city needs. That’s why I want to be innovative and progressive, solving the problems at the grassroots.”
Farah told me that, in their conversations, Big Tech corporations have welcomed the suggestion of upgrading the capital’s connectivity. “They’ve actually been shouting out for this, and no one has been listening,” she exclaimed, adding that their willingness means they’re keen to help fund the city’s upgrading process.
“When private companies agree to get on board and change the landscape of London, you really start to see that we have their support. But no one has capitalised on this – no one has reached out to these companies.”
It’s important to note the impact this would have on issues like the digital divide – a matter that has been exacerbated by COVID-19. In April this year, for example, The Guardian reported on one London resident who was consistently having to choose between purchasing data or food, spending almost half of her weekly household budget on top-up credit to support her teenage daughters’ home schooling.
“I want to make sure no child goes without connectivity,” said Farah, “because, as we saw during the lockdowns, some children did not have access to reliable internet or devices, which meant they couldn’t take part in online classes. So, I want to make sure, while working with the larger corporations, that every child gets a laptop, along with a dongle for internet, until we fully upgrade. No one should be without internet – even the elderly, who depend on this service in so many ways; from ordering things online, to accessing entertainment, or even just staying connected for their mental health. The internet plays an integral part in our society, not just for the younger generations, but for the elderly as well.”
‘Tech is at the heart of everything’
Looking ahead, I can’t help but feel optimistic for the transformation someone like Farah could bring. Unimpressed with bickering authorities and a resounding lack of focus on the needs of here and now, her commitment to her potential constituents and dedication to all things digital is both admirable and realistic. The future is connected, the future is high-tech, and the success of our future depends on the next generation.
“I look forward to bringing the pride back into London,” Farah explained as we started to wrap up. “I’m a strong believer that tech is at the heart of everything, and above all else, I believe in changing this city. It excites me – I look forward to what London can become. It’s not just about having a budget of £18bn, because that only scratches the surface; it’s about bringing more money into the economy and actually changing people’s lives. That’s what I intend to do.”
London’s mayoral election will be held on 6 May, and I am hopeful for Farah. Should she succeed, let’s hope she’s true to her word and proves to be a real woman of action.
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