London needs a mayor who understands the tech sector

By in Views
On February 23, 2016

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I recently attended #DebateTech to hear the London mayoral candidates put forward their respective positions on the future of London’s tech sector. The event was held at the Olympic Park tech hub, HereEast, and sponsored by City of London Corporation and our client MassChallenge UK amongst others.

Opening the #DebateTech hustings, Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates declared “London’s fast becoming the digital capital of Europe,” delivered with a sense of optimism and knowledge synonymous with someone who has a clear vision for London’s tech future.

It was also a chance for mayoral candidates to respond to the ‘Tech Manifesto’ produced by Tech London Advocates, techUK and Centre for London. Therefore much of the candidates’ ‘vision’ amounted to little more than an endorsement of what the experts think, which doesn’t exactly make for lively viewing. You got the sense that they had all read the executive summary of the manifesto in the back of a black cab or Uber on the way to the event dependent on their political stance on that particular battle.

The Lib Dem candidate Caroline Pidgeon used the soapbox as an opportunity to talk about the pros for the tech sector of staying in the EU and free movement of skills. Presumably part of her thinking was to rile up the UKIP candidate Peter Whittle who offered little more than Alan Partridge style “I use my phone a lot these days” to an audience largely made up of experts from the tech sector.

Meanwhile, Tory Zak Goldsmith and Labour’s Sadiq Khan layered metaphors and clichés in a way which would make George Orwell turn in his grave. Khan commenting on whether Uber taxis have an unfair advantage over London’s traditional black cabs said: “we can’t ignore the technology genie is out of the bottle, but it’s got to be a level playing field.”

The Green candidate, Sian Berry, has previously worked in a startup and was at least able to show some knowledge of how tech businesses work and what they need – such as easier access to funding.

So did any of them deliver on a tech vision for the future of London? In short, no. We didn’t see much evidence from any of the candidates at #DebateTech to capture the imagination of our innovators or fellow city dwellers.

Buzzword support for startups is to be welcomed, but it can’t stop there.  Firstly, technology needs to work to improve the lives of every Londoner. The contribution of Uber, Citymapper, Pronto, Laundryapp & Mopp take the strain out of what is quite a stressful city to live in.

Entrepreneurs work hard to find solutions to our problems, and we need to help them solve theirs. We need  a mayor who will provide a link between the innovators, accelerators, investors and other business leaders to ensure businesses are built up in the UK and to compete abroad. London should be looked to for inspiration – rather than us looking to Silicon Valley or New York for direction. For that to happen, we need a shift in attitude from the people who hold the purse strings…take that metaphor, Sadiq!

As most candidates acknowledged, this goes hand-in-hand with providing the necessary infrastructure, housing and favourable visa conditions for global talent  to choose London. But only if this is built this into a wider, aspirational vision will we attract, retain and inspire the greatest innovators to work in our capital.

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