A number of organizations in the UK's capital have come together this week to launch the London Tech Manifesto, with the aim of outlining a number of key policy priorities for the sector ahead of next month's mayoral elections.
The document outlines that London, and the UK more broadly, face a number of significant economic challenges - namely Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic - and that the technology sector could be a driver for growth in the future, if fostered properly and if a number of constraints are addressed.
Thankfully the manifesto also makes suggestions about the London tech sector working in partnership across other areas of the UK and isn't too insular. This would have been important a couple of years ago, but is even more critical now given that distributed work presents a unique opportunity to rebalance the economy.
The organizations involved include prominent names such as Tech London Advocates, techUK, London First, Here East, Plexal and Centre for London.
The manifesto states:
London has been hit hard by the global pandemic and we still don't fully understand the long-term impact of the last 12 months upon the economy, employment and health of the city.
However, amidst the crisis, London's technology sector has proved remarkably resilient. The city's tech companies continue to attract record levels of investment - a staggering £7.6bn in 2020 alone - and London remains the tech capital of Europe.
As we start to look ahead to the post-pandemic recovery, the success of the tech sector is more important than ever. With the country desperate for economic growth, job creation and innovations that can positively improve the lives of UK citizens, the tech ecosystem offers a way forward.
Over the past decade or so, the London tech sector has done a decent job of promoting itself as a digital hub in Europe and has received support from multiple Prime Ministers in advocating its ‘brand'. The manifesto outlines how over the past five years, the organizations seen as the ‘first cohort' of the capital's tech sector have now transitioned and matured to become successful scale-up businesses.
And whilst tech has remained somewhat resilient in the face of all the hurdles that have come with Brexit and COVID-19, the document argues that if the government wants to consolidate on gains already made, then a number of barriers need to be addressed - not least skills, access to talent and diversity.
For instance, despite the onset of the novel coronavirus, Tech Nation reported that throughout 2020 there were 391,532 tech jobs advertised - not meeting this number of vacancies is a problem that needs action.
The timing of the manifesto also aims to put tech front of mind for the incoming London Mayor, which will likely oversee a number of large-scale tech projects in the city.
The key policy recommendations in the manifesto include:
- Champion tech companies to drive London's long-term economic recovery
Support technology-led solutions for the future of work and reopening the economy post-COVID-19
Invest in digital skills and support the public and private sectors to meet new employment needs
Showcase the best of London tech and support the sector in diversifying across the city's boroughs
Engage with investors and work to attract greater inbound investment from a range of global partners
Stimulate cross-city collaboration across the UK and work together with the country's city mayors
Champion a fair and managed immigration system and present London as open and welcoming to international tech talent
Introduce a diversity tsar - appoint someone responsible for diversity in tech and business to support the Chief Digital Officer
Realize the potential of data for London - unlocking and optimising the value of data for London, ethically and responsibly
People, society and planet - launch new initiatives that support tech to deliver greater impact and tackle major challenges
Invest in digital infrastructure, removing barriers to 5G rollout and creating a Gigabit Connectivity Taskforce
Embrace transport innovation, encouraging micro-mobility and mobility platforms
A new reality
It's worth highlighting that these policy recommendations come at a time when the role of capital cities in general are uncertain, with the structural changes that are taking shape as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those involved with the manifesto clearly want London to continue to act as a hub for technology investment, jobs and innovation - but the certainty of that happening has never been more unclear.
Companies are starting to assess whether or not they require city-location office space, with employees and leaders now more comfortable with the role of distributed work. And as a result people are beginning to assess whether or not they need to live in a capital city to benefit from the opportunities, which may now be more geographically dispersed than they once were before COVD-19 hit.
My colleague Phil Wainewright has written on this topic previously, claiming we have passed ‘peak city', which is well worth a read.
As such, whilst the manifesto reiterates some policies that may seem obvious to many, its importance to those invested in the future of London has never been more critical. The document states:
Embracing technology as part of London's journey to a ‘new normal' can support people in utilising new patterns for commuting and taking advantage of multiple modes of transport. Tech innovation can also play a major role in managing in-person contact that facilitates hybrid working environments, allows greater flexible working and supports companies in optimising city locations for employers so that they are fit for purpose post-covid and meet the new needs of the workforce.
City Hall can help this transition by regulating, advocating and showcasing in support of businesses and employees as the use of transport, offices and public spaces are reimagined.
I think a manifesto can be useful in helping the next London Mayor to focus policy priorities. Politicians sometimes do take the role of the tech industry for granted and ignore what's possible at the expense of other more traditional industries. I was particularly pleased to see the inclusion of diversity and immigration reforms in the document - as these present huge challenges for the sector at the moment and haven't received enough top-level support from City Hall.
That being said, I can't help but also feel that adopting a very London-centric approach to the UK's tech economy - in the light of COVID-19 - is missing an opportunity and somewhat misses the realities of how many companies are thinking today. I do think that city hubs will continue to play a role in the economy going forward, but technology should be at the forefront of doing things differently and I'm not sure a ‘London Tech Manifesto' will be as thrilling to everyone as it would have been a few years ago.
That's possibly a bit of an unfair criticism, given that this document is centred on London-based organizations, targeted at the London Mayor, but I can't help but feel that the whole narrative isn't quite in-step with how people are thinking about the future of work at the moment.
That's not to say that any of the policy recommendations are wrong, they're all strong and important. I just think that maybe we should be moving beyond a discussion that centers London as the answer to the sector's problems.