The hackers vs. the hype: London's tale of two tech cities

London Tech Week: It might seem like a lot of hot air, but that's what you need to lift a balloon.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director
London aims to showcase its high-tech businesses during Tech Week. Image: Steve Ranger/TechRepublic

It's true — the hype about the London tech scene is as whipped up as the froth on an overpriced Hoxton flat white. But it's also the case that the capital is growing tech businesses almost as fast as the resident hipsters can grow beards.  

Over the next few days, London aims to showcase pretty much every high-tech business within the M25 as part of London Tech Week. It will feature 130 events attended by 30,000 tech entrepreneurs, investors and developers going to pitching competitions and hackathons across industries including education, music, sport, fashion, finance and science. Every strand of tech from artificial intelligence and big data to wearables will get its turn in the spotlight.

Tech businesses could contribute as much as another £12bn to London's economy — and, more importantly, 46,000 new jobs if all goes well, according to extremely optimistic predictions from London mayor Boris Johnson.

It's a remarkable show of confidence and a reflection of how much London's tech startup scene has changed over the past half decade or so.

It's easy to be dismissive, to reject the hype; to point out the greatest innovation to come out of Tech City so far is its own branding, creating a unifying identity and buzz around the wild variety of tech startups being created across the city.

For all the incubators and archly-hip coworking spaces we're still waiting for the big London success stories to come through. And insiders worry there's still a reasonable chance that it could all wither away again if the later-stage funding doesn't appear to turn today's modest tech companies into tomorrow's giants.

But just to complain about the hype is to miss the point. It's also undeniable that branding is as important in tech as it is in fashion — there are dozens of examples of companies with the best technology which failed because their rivals had better marketing.

Government is terrible at tech but surprisingly good at promotion, and so shining the spotlight on Tech City is a probably the best it can do to help — even if that means watching, as I did this morning, London's mop-haired mayor struggling to build a computer at the start of London Tech Week.

There are two tech cities in London. For a long time, looking for the tech companies in the capital meant looking to west, not to the east: many of the big US tech companies have their UK and European headquarters over in the manicured and rather dull business parks near Heathrow.

They're still a powerful force of course, but the excitement is now over in the East End where smart entrepreneurs are building tech companies with a recognisably London feel to them. These are not just copies of Silicon Valley startups but — particularly those grappling with the connection of the physical and digital worlds and the internet of things — companies doing something fascinating and new.

Tech City might be overrun with naive excitement, hyperbole and boosterism, but those are exactly the sorts of things that made Silicon Valley the success it is.

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