'Tech city' will benefit more than big business, says minister

The east London tech city is fast on its way to becoming a Silicon Valley rival according to minister David Willetts.

The Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) minister recently gave a parliamentary update on developments of the area as a centre of innovation and creativity at the heart of the UK’s technology industry with a raft of global names being bandied around so far as investors.

Indeed Willetts was able to offer various levels of insight into how the initiative is faring as far as large firms are concerned.

For instance the minister informed Labour MP Diane Abbott that Silicon Valley Bank has almost had its banking license given the nod of approval by the Financial Services Authority (FSA).

He also confirmed that BT would be bringing forward the roll out of its high speed broadband for the area, though was unable to give any details as to job numbers resulting in Google’s presence or specific dates at this point, stating that to date it has been “strategic  business commitments” rather than concrete details.

While David Cameron spoke of the benefits for large scale enterprises back in November 2010, stating that “We’re not just going to back the big businesses of today, we’re going to back the big businesses of tomorrow,” it is certainly of equal importance that other areas benefit from the large investment that is going into continuing developments around the Olympic Park area.

This is something that Willetts has noted: “Of course, the challenge – United Kingdom Trade and Investment is working hard on this – is to convert the big decisions into practical jobs on the ground.”

And this is where the exciting project, which has generally been praised in terms of driving the economical well-being of the UK, could perhaps come under fire.

Certainly big international businesses are being looked after in the deal, establishing firm links with a pool of impressive talent, but what is being done to ensure that the money is being spread out further afield?

Willets points to the involvement of Cisco as one way where money will filter through.

According to Willetts, a recent top level meeting with Cisco chairman John Chambers and David Cameron saw details unveiled of a “$500 million innovation gateway” scheme that will see Cisco pledge a large amount of “technology and manpower to help boost entrepreneurship in the United Kingdom.”

Willetts also suggested that a portion of the investment by Cisco will go to the wider areas of the East End, where the tech city is situated – stating that the three “got into the practicalities of encouraging John Chambers to consider investment in the East End of London,” making a promise that this will be where a considerable amount of money will go.

However Willets was once again unable to provide any greater details as to what this investment might be.

As well as regenerative funds for the local area, the BIS minister has also promised that the tech city will be used to increase the amount of young people proceeding to a career in the IT sector having shown interest at school level.

TechEye recently spoke to Moshe Kam, head of the IEEE, who said that much more needs to be done in the UK schools system in order to enable better teaching of computer skills which can then be brought into the job market, if the UK is to remain competitive.

And Willetts recognised problems in the UK with regards to ensuring pupils who show interest in developing IT and computer science skills are ready to step into the job market.

 “Looking nationally, one of the things that I worry about is that, despite large numbers of students doing IT and computer science, we do not do very well on getting them into the right kinds of jobs that use their skills,” he said.

“If we can improve the links to entrepreneurial business leaders at an early stage, we could do better.”

Abbott also highlighted the problem and called on the Tory MP to ensure that more is done to forge such links.

“In Hackney, children are very much interested in IT, but they do not make the move from an interest in IT to the IT professions. I would welcome the challenge of trying to link young people with what is happening in tech city,” Abbott said.

According to Willetts this will be achieved by providing links with top companies and local schools, where children can become involved in hands-on experience, even highlighting the use of apprenticeship in the area.

“It should be possible to involve Hackney schools more, so that teenagers could meet the entrepreneurs in tech city, see what software programmers do and some of the apps that they are developing,” Willetts said.

“They could even come forward with ideas on apps for their mobiles and watch the software developers trying to rise to the challenge.

“As well as the high-tech software programmer type jobs that are on offer, we know that the local community wants to fill the technical jobs that can come through apprenticeships.”

While this all sounds mighty impressive from Willetts, and could certainly be great news for the area of Hackney, it is vital that benefits from the tech city are spread further.

It may serve as a solution in the microcosm of the tech city, but the IT industry needs more attention on a national scale, and perhaps only goes some way to making up for other areas such as the lack of promised tax breaks for the video games industry.

Also, while it is difficult not to get caught up the admirable aims of David Willetts, who appears to be genuine in his wish to utilise the exciting possibilities of the tech city in a way that is beneficial on a number of levels.

Indeed the minister even largely manages to placate former Labour leadership candidate Abbott in the Commons debate.

However, it should be noted that very little of what the minister has said is actually set in stone, with a noted lack of specifics at this point at least.

WIlletts does at least appear to be adamant that his promises will be fulfilled: “Having seen the commitments made by Cisco and Google, including when Google’s Eric Schmidt was in London recently, I have no doubt that the follow-up will happen and that we will get there.”

“Commitment has been made at the highest level.”