Last week marked the end of London Tech Week — the annual festival celebrating and promoting everything that the UK’s capital has to offer the tech market.
This year’s London Tech Week was by far and away the biggest yet, officials said. The festival — and it is a festival, rather than one individual event — attracted 58,000 attendees, according to Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates.
An international city
That’s a significant number, which Shaw says that it’s indicative of the strength of the market in London and in particular, the strength of the culture. “Few other cities, and few other industries, could pull off a festival whose success is driven so heavily by the grassroots community,” he says.
Shaw highlighted the international presence at London Tech Week — something that perhaps reflects the cosmopolitan, “melting-pot” culture of the city more generally. The event welcomed “an inspiring gathering of Ukrainian tech entrepreneurs and investors”, hosted the Latin American Tech Day, the Africa Tech Summit and much more, he notes.
The strength of the UK tech scene is not just connections within the country, or indeed within Europe and the US, but its worldwide reputation, Shaw argues. Shaw even believes that the prospect of a no-deal Brexit can’t throw UK tech off course, which is great news for everyone involved in the market if it comes true. Time will tell on that prediction.
The government view
Shaw points out that Boris Johnson, who may soon be the next UK prime minister, was one of the first big-name politicians to attend London Tech Week at one of its earlier incarnations. This year saw outgoing prime minister Theresa May give a speech in which she said that the UK is on the edge of “the next great industrial revolution”.
As Russ Shaw points out, the presence of the prime minister suggests that the government has finally got the message about the importance of the tech industry to the country’s economy, particularly in these troubled times.
But it’s not always been that way, according to some observers. Rowland Manthorpe, Sky News’ technology correspondent, recently wrote about the phenomenon of “Mayism” — the term to describe the style and substance of Theresa May’s premiership.
Manthorpe says that Mayism has not been good for tech. “When Theresa May became prime minister, the tech sector felt a sudden chill,” he says. “Under David Cameron, the industry’s insiders had grown accustomed to a warm welcome at Downing Street: invites to receptions; seats on policy councils; honours for “services to innovation and technology”.”
But prime minister May generally showed little interest in this, Manthorpe says. “Over the next two-and-a-half years, there were occasional signs of a thaw.”
“After the election of 2017, Mrs May attempted to revive her government with a new industrial strategy: that meant cash for AI projects and extra visas for coders. But on the biggest questions posed by technology — from the future of work to the fragility of democracy — she remained conspicuously silent.”
The big questions
What her appearance at London Tech Week — alongside other very senior members of government — might mean is that those in charge have started to see the economic benefits of the tech sector.
But that on its own seems deficient. The tech sector, though growing, is hardly new, and the government will certainly have known of its importance for some time. Instead, it may be because wider and more far-reaching issues stemming from technology and inherent to the industry are starting to become mainstream.
The London Evening Standard, for instance, reported that diversity and AI took centre stage. The diversity and talent issue, intertwined as it is with huge societal changes, and hotly debated in the tech industry, is now on the national agenda. So too is AI. Even prime ministerial hopefuls like Rory Stewart mention it is a key driver in their manifestos.
As these issues, which often go to the heart of technology work and the industry, continue to become more prominent, so too will the roles of technology workers. Soon they may be like bankers — seen as prestigious, but also under serious scrutiny. Strong as the UK tech scene is, it ought to be ready for that change.