A lot of attention has been paid in recent times to creating effective tech clusters. Certainly one of the reasons Silicon Valley has proven to be such a powerful generator of global tech firms is the sheer quantity of resources focused in a comparatively small area. Perhaps the UK’s best bet for creating an equivalent cluster is the Golden Triangle – the area between Cambridge, Oxford and London. But how can the UK go about transforming the region into a cluster that can rival the Valley?
It’s important to recognise that whilst Silicon Valley is still the undisputed king of tech, the UK has a remarkable concentration of resources that speak for its potential. “We have certain advantages over Silicon Valley and certain disadvantages,” says David Cleevely, co-founder and chairman of Cambridge Wireless, the wireless technology industry network, and co-author of the recent report Connect People Build Infrastructure Grow Clusters, which identifies some of the key challenges involved in creating a cluster in the region.
The Golden Triangle doesn’t have the maturity of Silicon Valley, an ecosystem that has been developing and evolving for more than half a century. But Cleevely notes that just in terms of density the region has more ICT workers than the whole of Silicon Valley. “We’ve got certainly the breadth and depth and we’ve definitely got the scale,” he continues.
One thing that can be said without a doubt is that Britain’s got talent. “We’ve got brilliant universities,” says Neil Crockett, CEO of Digital Catapult, a national centre aimed at advancing the UK’s best digital ideas. Just in terms of raw R&D, it’s hard to overestimate the respect the UK commands on the international stage. And whilst the Golden Triangle is far from the only source of this innovation, its universities and innovation parks do have a sheer momentum that makes the region a force to be reckoned with. “Universities are the source of a lot of our innovation,” he explains. “Oxford, Cambridge and all of the universities within London make a fantastic Golden Triangle of talent.”
However, clearly the output of the UK’s pre- eminent redbricks alone aren’t enough to produce global tech giants like Silicon Valley’s Facebook, Google and Apple. Just as important is the wealth of commercial expertise clustered in the M4 corridor coming from American firms like Oracle and Microsoft and the finance, marketing skills and creativity springing forth from various communities in London. “You need to harness those commercial skills, as well as the technical skills that are coming out of Oxford and Cambridge,” explains Richard Marsh, partner at DFJ Esprit, the venture capital firm.
Given the raw materials on offer, it seems that with the Golden Triangle the UK could create a world class tech cluster but before getting ahead of ourselves it’s worth questioning what this actually means. Crockett feels that often in our haste to ‘create’ new digital ecosystems, we tend to run roughshod over existing developments and fail to work with the resources that have already developed. “You can’t manufacture a cluster,” he says. “All you can do is create the environment that enables one to form better.”
Getting our heads around how best to facilitate this requires an understanding of what actually makes truly effective clusters tick. “You’ve got to create an intensity,” Crockett explains. A useful analogy can be borrowed from the world of nuclear physics, where a critical mass of a radioactive material has to be brought together to create the intensity required for a chain reaction to take place. Put simply, the Golden Triangle needs a certain density of resources and interactions before the UK can see the runaway successes experienced in Silicon Valley.
And the UK isn’t lacking in evidence that this can be achieved. Earlier in his career, Marsh spent more than a decade developing a software company in Cambridge, where he feels that on a local level this critical mass had already been reached. “Everyone was in such close proximity to each other that this in itself had a big effect,” he says. “It’s almost micro- proximity; it’s being across the corridor from someone else, being in the same building.” This is one reason he feels that the city has achieved such stellar results; the high valuation placed on a company like Autonomy, which was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2011 for $11.7bn, shows the enormous potential of the Golden Triangle if this intensity can be reached on a larger geographic scale.
One of the main problems to tackle in the region if it is to become a cluster with the same potential as Silicon Valley is the high level of siloisation. Whilst the Golden Triangle contains many centres of excellence in their own right, breaking down the barriers between them would have a huge transformative effect on the region as a whole. “Places like Cambridge or Oxford would actually achieve an even greater scale if they were less siloed,” Cleevely says.
This is one reason that Connect People Build Infrastructure Grow Clusters focuses so strongly on transport links. “What you need is the transport links that allow you to have the interactions to create that density,” Cleevely says.“You need to be able to get from one place to another in less than an hour.” By cutting journey times for each side of the triangle down to 40 minutes and creating special carriages that act as rolling meeting rooms, the report’s authors believe that a greater intensity of interactions can be achieved.
Of course, for the UK to create a regional cluster that can deliver the same sort of output as Silicon Valley, it will take some time. But, by creating the right conditions now, a virtuous circle can be formed. Gradually the more successes the region produces, the more of a trickle down of resources it will create, ensuring there is more finance and expertise available for the next generation of start-ups. “It’s the people who carry the experience and then take that into multiple companies,” concludes Marsh. “That is actually how you get to the critical mass.”