What does a county town on the River Cam have in common with the centre for high technology and innovation in the San Francisco Bay Area? For Michael Gove, the answer is simple – the potential to become a global capital for the tech sector.
The UK’s Levelling Up Secretary is set to soon announce the government’s intentions to make Cambridge a hub for tech innovation and investment. How will this be achieved? So far, the details are scarce. From what is being reported, Gove’s vision is fuelled by a combination of new build construction which could deliver between 200,000 and 250,000 new homes, and investment into local transport networks.
How this relates to the technology sector is not immediately apparent. For now, the government’s sights are set on building the infrastructure needed to support an expanding population in Cambridge, with a view to encouraging skilled tech workers to move to the town.
At the moment, reactions to the intended plans have been mixed. In one respect, any announcement which seeks to back UK businesses, particularly outside of London, is welcoming. By supporting local enterprises, such investment pledges have positive outcomes for local economies and the general scale-up of the nation.
A defunct Northern Powerhouse
The problem for Gove and his successors is that the track record for governments actually delivering the outcomes set out in such strategies is low.
Take the Northern Powerhouse as an example. Positioned as a framework to boost the local economy, encourage investment, upgrade infrastructure and balance focus away from London, the framework has failed to deliver the desired impact many were anticipating when announced in 2014.
Those working in PR could see the workings of an effective communications strategy in place. A catchy title, big investment and a futuristic vision had people excited. Westminster was finally going to address regional challenges and upgrade the North of England. But the effectiveness of a communications strategy is measured by the ability to deliver stated outcomes and build trust with the wider public.
Nearly a decade on, the Northern Powerhouse is now largely defunct, falling well short of what it was set out to achieve. We can only hope that the vision set out for Cambridge and the surrounding region is able to stay on course in the coming years. The strategy is at concept stage – more information and clarity will be needed to better understand exactly how this will support the tech industry and not lead to the mass construction of new-build houses.
Importantly, the UK should not confine its vision of a Silicon Valley to one town or city. In reality, the country already has a number of hubs harbouring fast growing tech sectors that are attracting new talent.
Manchester & Leeds
Manchester is officially recognised as the UK’s leading digital tech city outside of London, with a digital ecosystem worth £5 billion and accommodation over 10,000 digital and tech businesses, according to the CBRE. Initiatives like the Greater Manchester Digital Blueprint and the Manchester Digital Skills Festival focus on digital skills development, innovation, and digital inclusion.
To the East, Leeds is also forging an identity as a tech hub, particularly for companies looking to establish a foothold in the UK. Leeds is home to nine universities, offering opportunities for collaboration between academia, the private and public sectors.
Organisations in the city actively collaborate through networking events, meetups, and industry associations, helping to foster knowledge sharing, innovation, and the exchange of ideas. There are various initiatives, incubators, and accelerators that support digital startups and provide access to mentorship, funding, and resources.
A UK Silicon Valley is a bold vision, yet perhaps the government is getting slightly ahead of itself. Rather than setting out a vision defined by a tech hub in the US, there would be benefit from considering how the government can leverage existing sectors and regions to make a global mark. Leeds, Manchester and Cambridge are examples of rising regional hubs with significant tech potential. A bolder tech strategy from the government which looks at connecting these regional locations to foster a national tech sector could be a better approach.
For now, we will need to wait and see the finer details of the strategy for Cambridge’s tech sector when announced in the coming weeks.