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London Technology Week - a 'triumph' of headline hype over pragmatic policy on digital immigration?

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 15, 2014
As a Brit, I really, really want London Technology Week to succeed, but a headline-grabbing set of digital jobs predictions might keep the media happy, but avoids getting into necessary policy detail.

So much for that famous British reserve and understatement! It seems that London is going outstrip both Silicon Valley and New York in the area of digital technology employment by 2024.

OK, before anyone gets too worked up, let’s say from the outset that we really need to put that claim into some context - and I’m afraid that’s not going to be made easy for us.

For starters, it’s an assertion based on a study from research firm Oxford Economics, which was in turn commissioned by London’s official promotional body London & Partners to mark the start of London Technology Week.

So it was never going to conclude that London was going to lag behind its US competitors, was it?

The headline numbers being bandied around are impressive:

  • London currently employs 155,600 people in the digital and tech sector.
  • There will be 46,000 new jobs by 2024, a 30% increase and a higher growth rate than New York or Silicon Valley (both of which of course are starting from a far higher baseline!)
  • Digital technology in London will also generate upwards of £12 billion ($20 billion) thanks to increased economic activity.

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Beyond that, well we don’t know very much more to be frank as the full report findings have not been made public. You won’t find a copy on the websites of London Technology Week, London and Partners or Oxford Economics.

What has been made available is a one page summary of findings with 4 bullet points - and even these are vague at best. For example, we’re told:

Growth will be aided by London’s reputation as a global technology hub and the ability of companies based in the capital to tap into the insatiable demand for new technologies from growing emerging markets.

Those aren’t facts and stats to support a bold argument; they’re really rather empty, PR-crafted assertions.

This despite the top-line numbers seemingly being a core plank of the marketing strategy for the opening of the Technology Week.

To that extent, they seem to have served their purpose as the mainstream media has lapped them up, with some honorable exceptions such as the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones:

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I’ve asked both London and Partners and the London Technology Week’s PR team why the full study is not being made public. If I get a response - and to date, it's a deafening silence - I’ll update this article accordingly.

Boris and Bloomberg

In the meantime, we must make do with some nice supporting canned comments from the likes of Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who is quoted praising the London tech scene:

which despite only being in adolescence already makes a tremendous contribution to our economy and is outperforming our rivals around the globe. The tentacles of our digital army now spread to every corner of the capital and far beyond.

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Boris - surprised by the numbers?

Boris will be appearing later today alongside former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who’s ready to big up London’s prospects as well, albeit in his role as head of Bloomberg Associates, which is working with the London Mayor’s Office:

Ten years ago, no one thought of New York or London as a competitor to Silicon Valley – but today, more and more tech companies are looking to our cities as places to launch and grow, because they offer such diversity, creative talent, and high quality of life.

But the underlying problem remains one of lack of detail and insight into how these headline-friendly predictions are going to be delivered.

Underlying problems

A couple of things that struck me. Firstly, the definition of digital at play here is pretty all-encompassing, including, for example, the physical manufacturing of electronics and the repair of computers and peripherals. So it’s a broad church, to say the least.

Secondly there is an interesting bullet point in the public summary which I suspect may hint at one potentially problematic issue when it comes to the supporting pitch for these top-line numbers:

Proposed changes to the immigration rules will ensure that technology companies have access to a global skills pool. The changes will give technology firms the right to bring in migrants on “exceptional talent” visas providing firms access to highly skilled labour to facilitate growth.

What this appears to imply - and unless I hear otherwise, I shall assume it to be the case - that these headline-friendly jobs and economic growth rate predictions are entirely contingent on the UK government relaxing existing immigration rules in order to attract the necessary digital skills into the country from overseas.

London’s Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse did suggest last week that technology needed to take a more central role in political policy:

In the future, technology should become a central part of the Government's economic policy, and it is certainly very important to London.

But at a time when mass immigration is a political hot potato in the UK, certain sections of the mainstream media might be less than friendly to the notion of having to import digital talent from overseas.

And with a general election less than a year away, even a politician’s natural craving to be seen on the bleeding edge of modernity and digital might be tempered by caution at being seen to encourage relaxation of immigration rules.

The need for relaxation of immigration rules could also be read as further evidence of successive UK governments neglect at nurturing the country's own skills base, not an area into which any 'digital-savvy' politico is going to want to wander.

Certainly something radical will need to be done if the 30% employment growth rate is to be feasible.

Yesterday eight major tech firms, including Microsoft, Virgin Media and Capgemini, pledged to take on nearly 2,000 new apprentices in London by 2016. That leaves only 44,000 roles to be filled in the remaining 8 years.

My Take

Look, this is a nice piece of headline-grabbing PR puff for a Monday morning and it certainly gets London Technology Week off to a positive start in the mainstream media. But on current evidence, that's all it is, with the numbers released begging more questions than they answer.

It’s quite clear that London will need to import talent to power the kind of growth predicated here. For decades, UK governments of all political hues have shamefully neglected the development, support and nurturing of home grown talent or let it slip away across to Silicon Valley when it does emerge.

Of course there are honorable exceptions and the recent drive to establish Tech City in London as a breeding ground for digital enterprise has to be commended - although there's an awful lot more needs to be done on that front.

But there’s a place for puff and a place for pragmatism. I’d be far more impressed if someone in power just stood up and said ‘We’ve got a hell of a long way to go to catch-up with the Yanks, and if we’re going to do it, short term we need more digital immigrants while long term putting our own skills house in order’.

As a Brit, I really, really want London Technology Week to succeed,  and of course this is the first year so there will be lots to learn about what needs to happen in any putative Year 2.

But flim-flam like this does not help the case to be taken seriously - and that’s a real shame.



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