Tech City – the story so far

Ian Dowson shared his research on the Tech City cluster at a recent breakfast discussion, highlighting among other things:

  • The scale of new business growth in and around Tech City, nearly matching New York – although still dwarfed by Silicon Valley
  • The number of investment and exit deals in London compares well with both NY and Silicon Valley, but the amounts are tiny compared to both: angel investment deals average $1m in California but just a quarter of that in London
  • London start-ups illustrate a maturity of development and expertise – driven by multi-national, multi-disciplinary partnerships, with impressive educational and experience credentials
  • The Tech City business culture is also marked by strong creative businesses and experience, and a remarkably dynamic and open market-place of meet-ups and knowledge exchange.

This discussion followed the recent visit to Tech City which highlighted the notion of the ‘blended’ business (echoing the concept of the ‘fused’ or ‘superfused’ businesses found in Brighton), but also the pressures on workspace and the general problem around property prices in London.

The way in which creative businesses and others are moving out, on account of rising rents and other pressures, was identified as one of the inevitable by-products of a successful business cluster. Tom Campbell has blogged on that here, and the need for a more sophisticated approach to planning and housing policies was highlighted.

But in answer to the question ‘What have we learnt?’ (or better, ‘what are we learning?’ – since the transformation of the area hasn’t finished yet), a number of intriguing ideas and challenges emerged:

  • The relationship between corporate companies and investors and the start-ups and micro-businesses: In one sense, the big companies are key to fueling the profile and success of an area – but to what extent might they damage the energy and dynamism of a start-up culture? Are the corporates ‘providers or parasites’? How does the shift to a big-firm/uni/incubator model for start-ups affect the dynamics of the human capital networks?
  • Accelerating the inevitable: Has Government focus and investment on Tech City simply accelerated an inevitable transformation of an area which has been gentrifying over decades? Or has the injection of new money and profile created something more interesting – a unique combination of technology and creativity, which may not have evolved quite so successfully without that focus? Can it be replicated elsewhere in the UK, to catalyse investment and growth, without jeopardising the characteristics of the place which made it attractive to start-ups in the first place?
  • And what of cultural and creative institutions themselves? Rather than bemoan the fact that a creative ecology is turning into a tech-cluster – what can cultural and creative agencies and investors do to sustain the creative edge of places like Shoreditch, Hackney Wick, Manchester, Glasgow….?

Localism and leadership

Tristram Hunt led off the most recent Culture and Creative Industries breakfast session, bemoaning the lack of clarity in government policy on localism and democratic renewal.

He wasn’t against much of what is being developed – and, indeed, the Local Economic Partnership (LEP) model was identified as a potentially ground-breaking way of focusing energy and resources around industrial and demographic requirements, rather than arbitrary borough or regional boundaries – bringing together public and private sector to develop long-term programmes for growth. Continue reading “Localism and leadership”

Virtual government

It seems ironic that within the same week that David Cameron was announcing that East London is to be the UK’s ‘Silicon Valley’, three quarters of staff at the London Development Agency were given notice of redundancy.

East London has, or had, been a priority for the LDA for a number of years, and huge effort has gone into fostering business growth and, not at all unconnected, investing in regeneration and local skills projects. If East London is now a place where business wants to move, then due recognition needs to be placed at the door of the LDA, and other public sector partners who – in various different ways – have helped to make London east of Old Street Roundabout a good place to live and do business. Continue reading “Virtual government”

The strange and heady relationship between art and commerce

A great story about Hugh Grant making £11m on a work of art he bought while drunk appears to highlight the uncomfortably fickle link between art and money.

The suggestion that the financial gratification, associated with neo-liberalism, in the 80s and 90s has undermined accepted notions of artistic value is both right and wrong. Of course it’s somehow immoral that the otherwise pure world of the arts should be tainted by the dark-deals of philistine city folk (or in this case, Hollywood celebs). But it’s hardly new, and it would be naive to think that the art world is not complicit in some way.

Serge Guilbaut made a very explicit link in the content and title of his book ‘How New York stole the idea of Modern Art‘, referring to the transformation of arts practice, and in particular the rise of abstract expressionism, in the middle decades of the 20th Century. Elsewhere, John Berger made the link in relation to established greats such as Gainsborough, painting the ‘wealth’ of the slave-trade. And, of course, the connections between financial wealth, patronage and the arts can be seen most obviously in renaissance Italy.

The best analysis of the more complex inter-relationship between arts practice, arts consumption, and commerciality realities of both is in Ken Worpole’s brilliant ‘Reading by Numbers’. Get hold of a copy if you can. It’s an entirely disinterested analysis of the way in which literary styles in the early 20th Century developed in response to technological and educational changes which were making ‘reading’ a much more popular pastime – and how the development of reading and writing influenced the wider political and financial economy, both directly and indirectly.

But, it does seem somehow fitting that, in this age of user-led creative practice, it should be the drunken purchaser, rather than artist, who should be challenging some of our assumptions about art practice!

Chancellor to cut funding for jokes

The Tories have, apparently, agreed to overturn the Chancellor’s recent decision to cut the Arts Council’s humour funding.

For those who think that the development of the Arts Council’s recent ‘humour strategy’ is not appropriate, I would cite a strong case recently made by Matthew Taylor at the RSA (a former head of the no.10 Policy Unit, and rumoured to be responsible for pushing the humour strategy across Whitehall). As Taylor puts it, joke-telling is an important, albeit minor, art form:

“A well told, well-timed joke is a minor art form. It can create a bond of subversive intimacy between teller and hearer. It can be a harmless release from constraints of identity and taboo. The exchange of jokes can be a special form of gift in which you keep the gift you give and appreciate it even more.”

Art for Christ’s sake!

“There is no government metric or policy report that can ever fully capture this basic truth: that art matters for its own sake.”  So said a leading political figure this week.  Can you guess who?

I thought it might be fun to gather together a series of quotes from different, high-profile, individuals, and to set a little quiz for any readers who care to drop in.  Call it a little early-Christmas quiz!

See if you can match the following quotes to the list of names (sadly, all men at this point) which follow at the end…..

“Museums are lighthouses of utopianism and social well-being”

“The Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

“The time has come to reclaim the word ‘excellence’ from its historic, elitist undertones and to recognise that the very best art and culture is for everyone; that it has the power to change people’s lives, regardless of class, education or ethnicity.”

“Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas.”

“Art for art’s sake is a philosophy of the well-fed.”

“The cause of art is the cause of the people.”

The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems — the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behaviour and religion.”

“All art is quite useless”

“Thinking about political and social matters ought to be done by minds of some real literary education, and done in an intellectual climate informed by a vital literary culture.”

Robert Kennedy

RB Kitaj

FR Leavis

Frank Lloyd Wright


JM Keynes

William Morris

Oscar Wilde

George Osborne

Sir Brian McMaster

Art and politics

Jonathan Jones writes in today’s Guardian on-line:  “If One & Other is an image of British democratic life in our time, it is a pessimistic one….Warhol was not celebrating modern life when he said everyone would be famous for 15 minutes: he was delivering a cynical prophesy of a diffuse, shiftless world…For me, this is a monument to that prophesy’s fulfillment. When you see it from across the square, the work resembles one of Gormley’s casts of the isolated human figure, which strode across the London skyline in 2007. Sirens wail, echoing around the tiny living statue.”

Anyone reading this blog will know that I’ve written about One & Other before.  But this article is a thoughtful reconsideration of Gormley’s strange master-work, and echoes themes I have touched on here.  But I could not better Jones’s description of the challenge of public art which highlights “the eerie distance between the intimacy of standing in the crowd and the vast living history painting” which is the world around us.

Cultural regeneration (again)

I am grateful to John Thackara and his excellent monthly newsletter for this piece on cultural regeneration.

He writes of Berlin’s ‘Poor but Sexy’ approach to cultural regeneration, as presented by Anna Krenz.  Anna owns a tiny 20 square metre shop-front and art space, Galerie Zero in Berlin,  which has produced 100 pioneering art shows, installations and events over a six year period.  Thackara calculates that these 100 events cost “less than building the men’s toilets in a Frank Gehry-type art museum”.

This re-ignites an always fascinating debate about the pros and cons of major project regeneration, as opposed to micro and social business economic development.  In places like Manchester there have been apparently successful examples of both:  on the one hand the Lowry, which has helped transform Salford, leading to its being able to attract the BBC and a host of other businesses, people and jobs;  and, on the other, the regeneration of the canal district, into a lively, buzzing area of businesses, restaurants, and a hugely diverse resident and working population.

But John’s piece highlights questions not just about environmental impact but sustainability.  Many would argue that the success of major regeneration project like the Lowry Centre is that they can act as a magnet for new developments, attracting in much-needed investment;  others would say that developments like those around Canal Street are much more longer-lasting and have a more significant community impact, led as they are by local businesses, creating a mushrooming local and indiginous economy.  As Thackara says:  “The importance of projects like Galerie Zero is not just that they cost less than fancy museum buildings; their activities, being created in and by a community, also create a lot of the social capital that policy makers are so keen to foster”.

There are plenty examples of both in London.  Deptford has both – a vibrant local creative community and whole street of artists’ workspace, just a few yards from the fantastic Laban building;  the O2 centre on the Greenwich Peninsula is, at last, leading to massive redevelopments, including the impressive Ravensbourne College;  Shoreditch has seen creeping gentrification over a 20+ year period, but is managing to retain its profile as a creative community, despite being fringed by the City.

There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with any of these, of course.  But it is instructive to reconsider them, particularly in the context of planned developments such as those for the Olympic Park.  The chances are that the more successful, longer-lasting and, in John Thackara’s terms, more sustainable developments will be those that work with a local creative community – small voluntary groups as well as new digital businesses.  Many people think that the big blue fence around the main Olympic site is there to protect a Lowry- or Gehry-type development, closing out the local creative population.  But while we’re waiting for 2012, there’s nothing stopping local partners injecting a bit of energy and support into the Anna Krenz’s of this world, who might just help ensure that what emerges the other side of the fence worth the wait!

Hackney Wick 2009

Hackney Wick, 2009

Politics, diversity and organisational cultures

Some people have asked me whether I am going to write a ‘What is David Cameron reading?’ piece, following last week’s blog prior to the Labour Party Conference – see the post below on Gordon Brown and poetry.

Not sure about Cameron, but Michael Gove – the shadow Education Secretary – is clearly a very well-read guy. He gave a recent speech to the Qulliam Foundation, on the theme of Britishness, in which he quoted – among various others – T.S. Eliot.

Eliot’s famous dictum on Culture (Notes Towards a Definition of Culture) makes the case for a broad definition of culture, in which “a constellation of cultures, the constituents of which, benefiting each other, benefit the whole”.  This is an eloquent and powerful – and, indeed, written in 1948, remarkably prescient – assessment of the emergence of a multi-cultural British society.

But it is also a little too simplistic and naive. Part of acknowledging the existence and benefits of a ‘constellation’ is that the different cultures may well not happily co-exist.  A multi-cultural society is often not at ease with itself, but is one in which different cultures stuggle to articulate their differences and complementarities.  Take a look, for example, at The Samosa. This project is not about how marvellously we all co-exist, but how identity is often under threat, and needs to be articulated. Identity is always in development.

The same is true of organisations going through change.  Many senior managers want calm and co-existence – constellations happily existing side-by-side.  But innovative managers will seek to disrupt such inertia, and will cherish the dynamism of difference.  The trick in running a successful and dynamic organisation is to learn how to nurture and support new thinking, sometimes disruptive thinking and ideas – it’s here that competitive advantage is gained.

But I’m not sure that David Cameron would necessarily agree….