What Makes a Tech City? (Hint: It’s Not the Tech)

Boulton, Watt and Murdoch
The above photograph is of a statue in Centenary Square, Birmingham in the UK. The three figures in it: Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch were the tech pioneers of their day, living in and around Birmingham and being associated with a loosely  knit group who referred to themselves as The Lunar Society. The history of the Lunar Society and the people involved has been captured in the book The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow.

“Amid fields and hills, the Lunar men build factories, plan canals, make steam-engines thunder. They discover new gases, new minerals and new medicines and propose unsettling new ideas. They create objects of beauty and poetry of bizarre allure. They sail on the crest of the new. Yet their powerhouse of invention is not made up of aristocrats or statesmen or scholars but of provincial manufacturers, professional men and gifted amateurs – friends who meet almost by accident and whose lives overlap until they die.”

From The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow

You don’t have to live in the UK to have heard that Birmingham, like many of the other great manufacturing cities of the Midlands and Northern England has somewhat lost its way over the century or so since the Lunar Men were creating their “objects of beauty and poetry of bizarre allure”. It’s now sometimes hard to believe that these great cities were the powerhouses and engines of the industrial revolution that changed not just England but the whole world. This is something that was neatly summed up by Steven Knight, creator of the BBC television programme Peaky Blinders set in the lawless backstreets of Birmingham in the  1920’s. In a recent interview in the Guardian Knight says:

“It’s typical of Brum that the modern world was invented in Handsworth and nobody knows about it. I am trying to start a “Make it in Birmingham” campaign, to get high-tech industries – film, animation, virtual reality, gaming – all into one place, a place where people make things, which is what Birmingham has always been.”

Likewise Andy Street, Managing Director of John Lewis and Chair of the Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership had this to say about Birmingham in his University of Birmingham Business School Advisory Board guest lecture last year:

“Birmingham was once a world leader due to our innovations in manufacturing, and the city is finally experiencing a renaissance. Our ambition is to be one of the biggest, most successful cities in the world once more.”

Andy Street  CBE – MD of John Lewis

If Birmingham and cities like it, not just in England but around the world, are to become engines of innovation once again then they need to take a step change in how they go about doing that. The lesson to be learned from the Lunar Men is that they did not wait for grants from central Government or the European Union or for some huge corporation to move in and take things in hand but that they drove innovation from their own passion and inquisitiveness about how the world worked, or could work. They basically got together, decided what needed to be done and got on with it. They literally designed and built the infrastructure that was to be form the foundations of innovation for the next 100 years.

Today we talk of digital innovation and how the industries of our era are disrupting traditional ones (many of them formed by the Lunar Men and their descendants) for better and for worse. Now every city wants a piece of that action and wants to emulate the shining light of digital innovation and disruption, Silicon Valley in California. Is that possible? According to the Medium post To Invent the Future, You Must Understand the Past, the answer is no. The post concludes by saying:

“…no one will succeed because no place else — including Silicon Valley itself in its 2015 incarnation — could ever reproduce the unique concoction of academic research, technology, countercultural ideals and a California-specific type of Gold Rush reputation that attracts people with a high tolerance for risk and very little to lose.”

So can this really be true? High tolerance to risk (and failure) is certainly one of the traits that makes for a creative society. No amount of tax breaks or university research programmes is going to fix that problem. Taking the example of the Lunar Men though, one thing that cities can do to disrupt themselves from within is to effect change from the bottom up rather than the top down. Cities are made up of citizens after all and they are the very people that not only know what needs changing but also are best placed to bring about that change.

With this in mind, an organisation in Birmingham called Silicon Canal (see here if you want to know where that name comes from) of which I am a part, has created a white paper putting forward our ideas on how to build a tech and digital ecosystem in and around Birmingham. You can download a copy of the white paper here.
Whitepaper-cover-212x300

The paper not only identifies the problem areas but also how things can be improved and suggests potential solutions to grow the tech ecosystem in the Greater Birmingham area so that it competes on an international stage. Download the white paper, read it and if you are based in Birmingham join in the conversation and if you’re not use the research contained within it to look at your own city and how you can help change it for the better.

This paper was launched at an event this week in the new iCentrum building at Innovation Birmingham which is a great space that is starting to address one of the issues highlighted in the white paper, namely to bring together two key elements of a successful tech ecosystem, established companies and entrepreneurs.

Another event that is taking place in Birmingham next month is TEDx Brum – The Power of US which promises to have lots of inspiring talks by local people who are already effecting change from within.

As a final comment if you’re still not sure that you have the power to make changes that make a difference here are some words from the late Steve Jobs:

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”

Steve Jobs

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