The digital economy has seen growth from around 250 tech firms in 2010 at the launch of the Tech City initiative, to more than 5000 today. Rohan Silva, David Cameron’s former tech ‘Tsar’, has called London’s Tech City the fastest-growing technology cluster in the world.
The Mayor of London has made promoting and developing London’s world leading, fast growing, digital sector a key priority over the past years.
However, the London Assembly Economy Committee, in its ‘Mayoral Manifesto for the Digital Economy’, calls for more to be done. The Mayor has come too late to tackling the issue of poor connectivity, which remains an unresolved challenge.
Leading members of the tech sector have identified connectivity, a shortage of tech talent and diversity, as big issues that require strategic, city-wide attention, if the growth of the tech sector is to continue.
Slow broadband speeds across inner London are causing untold damage to the sector and its global reputation. Not only is the tech sector built upon near-instant downloads and uploads, but recent research indicates the value to the UK economy of businesses further developing their digital potential, could be up to £90 billion.
Yet, Ofcom reports that superfast coverage for SMEs (which make up 98 per cent of London’s tech sector) lags behind average urban coverage by 16 per cent. London’s outdated copper wire infrastructure is far from adequate for the task in hand.
The Economy Committee has called for the Mayor to highlight the need for wider availability of high-speed broadband infrastructure to achieve ultrafast 100Mbps download and upload speeds worthy of a leading digital economy. Companies shouldn’t have to resort to sending their work via courier to clients, due to frustratingly slow upload speeds.
We also want him to lobby government to introduce super-fast connections as a condition of planning consent for new developments. But connectivity is just one part of the picture.
The Committee found that a lack of diversity and skills in the tech workforce may be the biggest risk for tech growth in the capital.
Over 46 per cent of Tech London Advocates (a coalition of over 2,100 tech industry representatives), highlighted talent shortage as a significant barrier to digital growth in London in a recent survey.
The UK’s economy will need 745,000 additional digital-skilled workers in the next two years including programmers and developers, as well as those skilled in marketing, cyber security, product management and more. Yet companies across London report that they can’t find the talent they need for their businesses to grow.
At the same time, there are high levels of youth unemployment in east London, where many of the capital’s tech firms are based. With low numbers of tech apprenticeship jobs, and only embryonic links between the sector and schools, it seems young people are not being given the right skills to benefit from opportunities in the tech sector.s
Only 1 in 5 tech workers is female which further suggests that there remain barriers to women entering the sector which need to be addressed. The gender gap also means that the size of the talent pool available to employers is restricted.
In an attempt to democratise access to digital learning, technology apprenticeships are growing, with schemes such as Tech City Stars, and Tech Up Nation, supported by the Mayor’s Fund for London. But many in the sector believe the training provided by this traditional apprenticeship model is outdated, and unable to keep up with changes in the industry.
Private sector training providers offer an industry-led alternative. However they cannot supply talent at the rate required. They also don’t qualify for apprenticeship or student loan funding to enable less advantaged Londoners to cover their fees – up to £8,000 per course. People from less advantaged backgrounds are therefore missing out on these courses and successful careers in tech.
The Economy Committee calls for the Mayor of London to work with both private digital skills providers and further education, to re-design an apprenticeship that’s fit for the digital sector. It should be industry-led, combine technical and workplace skills and be better promoted in schools. Outcomes should also be measured in terms of employment progression, not arbitrary exam results and qualifications.
What counts, is that we have a diverse range of people working and thriving in tech. Local people should be able to reap the benefits of what is on their doorstep. If a future Mayor can ensure these three challenges are addressed, London’s digital economy can grow and be an even greater success.
Fiona Twycross AM is Chair of the London Assembly Economy Committee