Britain boosts its "Silicon Roundabout"

Stephen Beard Jul 8, 2011

Britain boosts its "Silicon Roundabout"

Stephen Beard Jul 8, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are here in Southern California this weekend. There’s polo on tap in Santa Barbara and various and sundry receptions.

They’ll be plugging British business too, including a project called Silicon Roundabout. Those familiar with British traffic patterns will recognize it as a play on Silicon Valley and the way the Brits drive, and one the British government is backing to the hilt.

From the European Desk, today out on the streets of East London, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports.

Stephen Beard: It would be hard to find a less inspiring landmark than this roundabout in Shoreditch. And yet the rather drab traffic circle has become the focal point of a glittering ambition on the part of Prime Minister David Cameron.

David Cameron: I believe we can make East London one of the world’s great technology centers.

Cameron wants to turn a wide swathe of East London into a global technology hub, using the roundabout in Shoreditch as a starting point. Already based around this junction, there’s a large community of Internet entrepreneurs.

Eric van der Kleij: It is a natural cluster happening in the heart of the capital city, if you like, of Europe. So we hope to create the Digital Capital of Europe.

Eric van der Kleij has been appointed by the government to build on the success of Silicon Roundabout. There is an entrepreneurial buzz here in the cluster of converted warehouses. Three years ago, there were just 15 startups. Now there are more than 600 IT firms of varying sizes.

Elizabeth Varley runs Tech Hub, providing office space for budding entrepreneurs.

Elizabeth Varley: Shoreditch is really vibrant. There’s a lot going on here. It’s a very young community. We see a lot of innovation coming out of London. And investors are really starting to realize that.

Elizabeth Varley, who runs Tech Hub, a meeting place for budding Internet entrepreneurs.

But comparisons with Silicon Valley may be premature. The biggest excitement here in recent weeks was the sale to Twitter of a local company called Tweetdeck. The sale price: $40 million. Hardly a mega deal by American standards. But the Brits have big dreams.

Olympics ad: A great rainbow arcs over Bolton and down onto a giant steelworks where they’re finishing the last huge girder for the Olympic Stadium.

As this promotional video makes clear, the Brits are pouring billions into East London in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. When the Games are over, there will be a precious legacy: a million square feet of empty office space available for tech companies. The government has dubbed the whole region “Tech City” and has put Eric van der Kleij in charge of drumming up interest.

Van der Kleij: Almost on a weekly basis now, we’re welcoming inward visitors — mostly investors and entrepreneurs — to Tech City. So that means we’re doing something of interest.

But not as far as Rupert Goodwins is concerned. He’s editor of the IT website ZDNET.

Rupert Goodwins: I’m not terribly impressed by Silicon Roundabout. It seems to be quite a lot of PR and hype.

Goodwins says entrepreneurs don’t need hubs, and he urges anyone with a bright idea to stay at home and develop it in their garage. He argues that the plan for Tech City is overblown.

Goodwins: I don’t see it taking off and becoming a hugely economically important aspect of the U.K. because good ideas don’t need to congregate anymore. Everything’s in your head. And heads are very portable.

Silicon Roundabout has caught the eye of some very big established American companies. Cisco, Google and Microsoft have all expressed an interest, although none of them will be shifting their headquarters to Tech City.

In London, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.