THE VISION: #Croydon – The Second Tech City

Croydon – The Second ‘Tech City’?

I have a deeply held belief that for Croydon to reverse the social, economic and cultural decline it has found itself in for far too long, its influencers and policy-makers must embrace a vision and target of making it the second ‘Tech City’.

For those of you who don’t know, Tech City is the government-bestowed name given to a thriving cluster of tech, digital and creative start-up companies around Old Street roundabout in East London. Buoyed by the fortunes of low enterprise costs, cheap office space and government spin the area is considered to be Britain’s answer to California’s tech-centric Silicon Valley.

Three years ago, the area housed only a dozen digital startups. Now there are over 400 – and that’s a conservative estimate. Last.fm is based here, as are SoundCloud and TweetDeck, which was recently bought by Twitter for £25m. It was a sale that made the tech world sit up and listen. While the rest of the economy flatlines, Silicon Roundabout – as Tech City is also known – is booming, with new companies arriving nearly every week (most recently Google and Amazon).

Now I want Croydon to get a piece of the action.

Here are the main points why I believe Croydon is best placed to become ‘The Silicon Roundabout of South London’, or the ‘second Tech City':

  • Fairfield Halls

In late 2011, Fairfield Halls played host to DrupalCon – a bi-annual international conference for which brought around 1800 Drupal users and advocates to the borough.

Over 1800 Drupal delegates were present at Fairfield Halls for DrupalCon London

With the digital events industry burgeoning and an ever increasing amount of tech events, launches and conferences, Fairfield should have no trouble trying to capitalising on the successes of DrupalCon and becoming the go-to site for London tech expos.

Young Rewired State 2013?

CloudForce 2013?

Oracle OpenWorld 2013?

Le Web 2013?…etc

Any and everyone of them should be held at Fairfield Halls. Those and the 300+ other tech events happening throughout the year.

  • Existing Croydon tech, creative and digital cluster

With thanks to Saif Bonar of cr0tech for documenting our borough’s technical talent.

Croydon is already home to a cluster of home-grown tech, digital and creative talent. There are just under 325 registered businesses that fall under those three sectors operating within the borough. These include;

  • dotMailer  – an email service provider which rivals best-in-class offerings such as Silverpop and ExactTarget. MD and Founder, Tink Taylor, is Croydon-born and bred, and is also COO at the dotDigital Group.
  • HotGen – an established games developer house who have masterminded some of the most popular cross-platform games of the past decade.
  • Freelancer – a global outsourcing marketplace which is headed up in the UK by Saif Bonar (owner of Matthews Yard)

Not to mention the legions of ‘one-man band’ developers, creatives and consultants.

  • Matthews Yard

Matthews Yard – Croydon’s answer to TechHub?

The heart of Silicon Roundabout is a labyrinthine workspace known as ‘Tech Hub’ – TechHub (in its own words):

A unique environment where technology startups can start up faster. It nurtures a international network of like-minded and focused tech entrepreneurs, providing places where they can work, meet, collaborate, network, learn and have fun. By getting the right people together in a physical space, good things happen.

I have written extensively on the potential of Matthews Yard to become Croydon’s TechHub. In short, Matthews Yard provides the space for non-pressured and collaborative networking, inexpensive, professional facilities for burgeoning entrepreneurs, and it retains local talent and boosts the local economy.

(For the long-form piece, ‘Matthews Yard and the case for co-working in Croydon’)

  • Croydon Council

As the presentation above shows, Croydon Council is ideologically committed to encouraging innovation and entrepreneurialism in the borough.

  • Business Innovation Centre (tbc)

It is no surprise that most centres of innovation around the world are university towns that benefit greatly access to excellent facilities, talent and capital.

Part of Croydon Council’s roadmap to borough-wide innovation is fostering stronger connections between Croydon College and the University of Sussex – specifically with the intention of making Croydon the site of a UiS’ second ‘innovation centre’.

Sussex Innovation Centre works as a hub supporting start-up businesses working with university academics and students and houses 70 companies ranging from fungicide resistance inhibitors to law firms and solar energy developers.

At time of writing, the university is believed to be looking for a 20,000sq ft site for the new centre – although, if (or, rather, when!) established: hopefully this will develop Croydon’s Higher Education offering and make us a respected ‘uni-town’ within the next decade.

  • Transport Links

The town centre benefits from some of the best rail services in the UK, with two primary hubs at East and West Croydon. East Croydon station is the most heavily used train station outside of Central London with more than 23 million passengers using it each year. It offers
rapid, direct and frequent access to several mainline stations in London including Victoria, London Bridge and Kings Cross with journey times from as little as 14 minutes. East Croydon also benefits from one of the only 24 hour rail services in the UK operating between London Victoria and Three Bridges with scheduled stops including East Croydon and Gatwick Airport.

  • Competitive office rents

Croydon has some of the most competitive office rents in London, and owing to the legacy of the 1960’s is constituted by light, airy purpose built office structures, rather than cramped, converted space.

Although few spaces are technically “large-floor plate” in the parlance of corporate property agents, they are nonetheless, significantly more flexible than the majority of converted space that makes up most of London’s other affordable locations, and owing to their design have better natural light than more modern buildings. When the direct transport connections to most other parts of London, Surrey and Sussex are factored into the equation, (along with access to shopping and seriously good dining facilities) rents in Croydon are truly the most competitive in London.

The best space – very high quality space (fully refurbished, air-conditioned) in locations adjacent to East Croydon station are quoted for little as £19.50 sqft; and usually go for less: One high quality letting within 2 minutes of the station recently went for £6.50 sq ft. Similar space in the city of London does not go below £40 sqft for the equivalent, after discount.  Even Shoreditch itself now quotes £30-35 sqft for similar space and this is rising rapidly all the time. Older spaces in Croydon, or those further from the station have been known to go for an incredible £3 sqft, a figure that seems to have no comparison elsewhere in London.

  • Competitive residential offerings 

Croydon is now one of the only places in London where average earning couples, and above average single earners under 30 can afford to buy a high quality home close to transport links; having some of the very lowest house-prices in London. New one-bed luxury developments in the new town centre developments go for around £160,000. Rents are also very affordable, and two bed flats in these developments are around £1000/month or roughly £230/week. Luxury penthouses can be significantly more but are proportionally lower to other areas.

But more interesting than the numbers, is the unique landscape it offers: one that it is unusually compact, and in that presents an unusual opportunity to build an exciting cluster.

As well as boasting large number of leafy green areas in close proximity of the centre, in common with most of London, there are a series of private residential mega-schemes, with skyscraping towers under construction in the town centre. These schemes will increase the 1 sq km town centre’s population by 17,000. This will create an even higher-rise, superdense, environment in which a very large number of young professionals will live side-by-side; right in the midst of the town’s many bars, shops and offices.  This presents and unique exciting opportunity for local knowledge economy and dynamic cultural nightlife to develop: reliant as both these things are, on the creative serendipity which can only occur in cities; precisely because they cluster a diverse group of people with ideas, talent and money together.

  • Existing vibrant social media and new media scene

Croydon really is a community of exceptional talent and potential. The kind that if brought together – united, not acting in silos – could define our town to the world.

Consider James Naylor, a stately Brian Blessed look-a-like, who took it upon himself to put Croydon on the map through his nationally-covered Croydon Tours

Or, Eliza Rebeiro, whose charity ‘Lives Not Knives’ has become a beacon for youth activism and community change.

Or Richard Serunjogi, Project Manager at the Spirit of London Awards, whose meteoric rise has seen him chosen by Google as one of twelve leading young minds from across the globe to participate in their 2010 Zeitgeist conference.

Not to mention the unsung heroes – young and old – who don’t get the recognition they desrve but quietly plug away adding value and contributing to the common Croydon good.

Either through developing the #PurleyBreakfastClub and the Purley 2.0 Project, or hanging out at Matthews Yard – not a week goes by when I don’t meet someone who renews my faith in our borough’s potential to excel.

Most importantly, whereas before the ‘movers and shakers’ and influencers would stay siloed in their particular community group (a Rotary meeting, a Labour club, a local football team or a creche group), now – thanks to social media – there is a glorious and productive mix of people connecting and sharing continually. Alliances, partnerships and relationships are being formed every day in a manner that was not possible before in Croydon, through the use of Twitter and Facebook.

Not only is there a wealth of talented and committed locals, but we are also fortunate enough  to have a robust media offering; from the intrepid ‘bottom-up’ journalism of InsideCroydon to the daily stylings of Croydon radio – a rapidly growing host of local voices are coming together to comment, critique and construct a Croydon which we can all be proud of; across every on-line platform available.

  • Cro-Tech – the spark has already been lit!

Cro-Tech was a preliminary attempt in 2011 by Saif Bonar to document, encourage and galvanise Croydon’s existing tech cluster .

The project has taken a back-seat as Saif worked on building and launching Matthews Yard (the hub referred to on the site) from the ground up, however Cro-Tech will be relaunched in some guise in light of this post and subsequent planned activities.

For those who are interested in where Croydon could go in the future this Cro-Tech white paper should be your next port of call after reading this post.

_______________________________________________________________

Having outlined some reasons why Croydon is well-positioned to become ‘The Second Tech City’ – I’d like to (briefly) look at the benefits of committing to such a vision:

  • Educating and empowering local workforce

There is no doubt that coding is the future.

It is already becoming a much sought after skill-set, soon it will be imperative.

Even if your day job does not entail cogitating directly over PHP, Ruby, Javascript and HTML 5 – if you intend to work in the PR, marketing or as a taxi-driver, at some point you will brush up across a problem where even knowing basic code will save you a lot of frustration.

One of my key aims is to train Croydon’s workforce (from schoolchildren and graduates, to retirees and recently redundant) in a systematic and inexpensive fashion, so as to enable locals to become more employable and be equipped to engage with an increasingly tech-centric world.

Running programmes like Code Academy (free) and Code In a Day (paid) are two ways in which Croydon’s entrepreneurs and unemployed can begin to tool up, together. Councils such as Sussex and Suffolk have led the way in fostering and educating locals by running inexpensive ‘hack days’ – a great chance for Croydon’s developer community to come out of the woodwork and teach, lead and shape our workforce!

  • PR

To change the wider public perception of Croydon, Croydon needs to stand for something.

Not simply another ‘business as usual’ or ‘me too’ play, but something radically transformational.

Trying to regain our position as a top ten retail destination may well increase footfall, but it will not educate our children or improve our cultural capital. A digitally-connected vibrant community of doers and entrepreneurs with an innovative collectivist mindset will.

How wonderful if one day, people from around Europe and the world would enthuse in a similar fashion about Croydon:

  • The economic case

Read Start-Up Nation or use Google. Or, wait for another mammoth post later from me on the topic.

  • If we don’t others will

Making Croydon a tech city is not original. In fact, most forward-thinking countries and councils have or are looking to invest and make various areas strategic ‘Tech Cities’.

To see some other examples of ‘Tech cities’ around the world, go here.

The simple fact is if Croydon does not commit its financial, governmental and personnel resources towards becoming a tech city in the near future, it risks being doomed to being – at best, a brutalist joke – and, at worst, a breeding ground for further outbursts of alienation, disconnection and depression for years to come.

________________________________________________________________

Inspired and want to help or advise?

DON’T SIT BACK AND LEAVE IT FOR OTHERS TO DO – GET INVOLVED!

I’m in a suit, therefore I know what I’m talking about.

1) If you have read this far, PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW about what you think about this – it’s very important to me that I get feedback and buy-in from people (especially Croydoners) – so that I can plan for the months ahead.

2) Introduce yourself to me – (please, I love meeting new people and am not *that* scary) – jonathan [dot] rose [at] croydontechcity [dot] com, if you have ideas, suggestions or comments that you don’t wish to share publicly below

21 Responses to THE VISION: #Croydon – The Second Tech City

  1. Jonny, its initiatives like this that will change the world. Keep at it brother!

  2. boom.. nice work sir. Sowing the seeds for Croydon’s future.. the baton is now with you!

  3. Anything that challenges the obsolete “more shops and more cars” economic paradigm that has made Croydon what it notoriously is today can’t be bad.

  4. David says:

    In case you hadn’t seen it Tom Fleming Consultancy produced a report entitled ‘Understanding and Shaping the Cultural sector in the London Borough of Croydon’ back in 2010 (http://www.croydon.gov.uk/contents/departments/planningandregeneration/pdf/912686/912817/shapingculturalmethodology) It includes some useful information and mapping based on SIC codes much like in your figure above.

    We used the report as a basis for drafting our Innovation, Investment & Enterprise policies within the forthcoming Core (Planning) Strategy – see pages 43-53 (http://www.croydon.gov.uk/contents/departments/planningandregeneration/pdf/868213/1149737/submissioncorestrategy)

    For those pressed for time the policies essentially seek to promote a network of enterprise centres for the creative and cultural industries, safeguard light industrial areas/studios from other uses and support meanwhile uses.

  5. Excellent and well thought-out post – very interested in seeing the logical next step with practical recommendations about how this could actually be achieved.

    Croydon is receiving a lot of investment in core projects that will change how it looks and feels for decades to come. Structucally and economically businesses are coming back to our town and can see the potential in the people and the places. Urban planning, supporting new startups, reinforcing good ideas like ‘tech city’ and ‘Crotech’ are all essential when combined with attracting new businesses and young entrepreneurs/city workers into our hub of activity.

    The ‘how’ question is massive but crucial – answer that (attempt low cost) and you’ll have the ears of whoever is running the Council to help to make it happen.

  6. Nigel (@NigelD27) says:

    Really like the vision you’ve outlined, Jonny, and agree that Croydon already has all the ingredients necessary to create a tech city… My question to you would be: What are the next steps required to turn this vision into a reality?

    • jonathanrose says:

      Currently my thinking is being guided by this essay by Paul Graham which details the perfect conditions for emulating Silicon Valley (or, indeed, Silicon Roundabout):

      http://www.paulgraham.com/siliconvalley.html

      Each section – “Universities…personality…nerds…etc” provides an ideal that I can use to measure Croydon against, and then push it towards.

      Otherwise, next steps include actually getting together key stakeholders across Croydon’s developer/creative community in a grand meet-up and seeing what comes from there. No doubt you and I will speak about this in the meantime! ;)

  7. plane007 says:

    Integrating technology with the lives of others is the big challenge. That means the user has to have a level of understanding to be able to operate this new technology and has to be motivated by prospects of the effort required. Note I said the user, not the provider (which is what this blog appears to concentrate upon). So, local exciting involvement and education for everyone has to be the key!

    • jonathanrose says:

      Hi Peter,

      I have no doubt that bringing about this vision is a “big challenge” – however, whilst this is a grand vision, it can only be realised by small, incremental steps.

      I’m not sure if cultivating Croydon as a Tech City is equivocal to “integrating technology into the lives of others”. I wouldn’t expect a tech cluster to affect or require a change in behaviour or increased use of technology for Croydon-ers – nor would I want it too – rather that they would just have more tech businesses (and techies!) in their midst.

      For sure, local education is key. Both as a means *and* as an end. However, whether it can be “for everyone” is a very much going to be dependent upon demand and provision. At the moment, I’m currently looking at scaleable and cost-effective ways to run classes from Matthews Yard, and later, schools across the borough. I’ll keep you posted once I’ve found something workable! :)

  8. plane007 says:

    Absolutely. I do recognise the difference between growing a small technical community and integrating technology into society. Indeed, the technology has to come first and this can only come about in a big way through the ideas you are promoting.

    However, unless the technological development has its feet in real life, it is possible to work on things that may never be wanted or understood by the rest of the world.

    I have discovered some ways of sharing information using a new technological platform that will be of interest. I also know other cost-effective tools (free to access). Our project is aiming to host such ideas.

    I am fascinated to know what classes you want to run. I think that coding per se is well catered for by online resources such as w3schools.com, for example. The real value of such knowledge is the application of it. Here is where I think people need to be able to learn to think in an open lateral manner and be organised.

    In fact, one needs to start with understanding what is wanted in real terms (non-computer issues) and then look at what information is available and how it can most easily be captured and processed to give what is wanted.

    Tech City is a great idea and should include the opportunity to bring designers, analysts, programmers and users together with constructive outcomes! There can be no better result than completing projects that make a good impact in the locality of Croydon.

    I am looking forward to our meeting . . .

  9. plane007 says:

    Obviously, your great ideas have struck a chord with me! Thinking things through further, it seems that this concept needs an open and non-aggressive forum for debate. The Matthew’s Yard venue would seem to be a good starting point and then regular events such as Croydon Jelly need to be promoted and encouraged through Social Media.

    Maybe different events for different types of technology? For example, mobile devices, multi-platform video, server-side, communications etc.

    Hack Days need a focus, this could be based on the need for better unified communications using HTML5, secure data collaboration, mobile apps etc. Maybe a local corporate body could sponsor one for Croydon to improve multi-channel retail experience, for example.

  10. amsca patel says:

    i love croydon, croydon til i die!

  11. Ally McKinlay says:

    The positivity is fantastic for Croydons development and I have no doubt the talent is there.

    What is not there is the vision, desire, will or ability of the people of power in Croydon to do anything with it.

    I would love to see nothing more than Croydon being the worlds epicentre for creativity, drive and development.

    My personal view is that between politics & religious views the borough becomes an economic & cultural sloth where little goes anywhere in keeping with the world and its always too little too late.

    There are untold developments that Croydon fails to keep up with and this is always a reflection of people in power moving slowly and having no vision.

    When vision becomes one of economics, again it is a mass failure because by the time it has mobilised the world has moved on.

    Croydon could pave the way for start ups but how will it cope with subsequent affluence? Rents will be driven up, talent driven away. Same old boom & bust bollix??

    We are bequeathed with the most outrageous multicultural Town that can declare itself an independent state of London by Geology & altitude.

    We could rock the Universe if the people in power would take in the real world. Until that happens, the badgers and jellyfish will drift around and nothing will change.

  12. vidarh says:

    Hi Johnny, I really like these ideas. The thing to keep in mind, is that it is not the council, or Westminster, or anything like that which creates a startup hub, but creating social environments where potential founders will want to gather and bounce ideas of each others.

    I’m a “veteran” in terms of startups (sadly none of them with sufficient exits to let me retire somewhere warmer…), having co-founded five companies, and worked in a few more startups, and all of these companies was down to personal connections, and several were down to spending time regularly with my future co-founders socially or professionally and “gel-ing” *before* getting the idea we wanted to start a company around.

    So the biggest challenge, I believe is to create an environment that people will seek out regularly and meet like-minded people, and that will start to build a core of small startups around it. And that is a matter most of all about two things:

    – Networking: I noticed the other day that despite the fact that I have an extensive global network on Linked In, that involves people in dozens of countries, and tons of people in Silicon Valley, my network is better developed in far away places with minimal tech industries like Alberta, Canada than it is in Croydon where I live. *Indirectly*, because I know and is connected to some very well connected people (fun fact: on average, most people are less connected than their friends) with extensive networks in the UK and extremely extensive networks in technology, and most Croydon people in tech I’ve found on Linked In are far out in my network or entirely outside it, that tells me that what there is of the Croydon tech scene is extremely insular.

    – Creating activity: Arrange speeches; user groups; hack-spaces/*evening* co working to support and draw people to more informal networking.

    I live near East Croydon. Yet tonight was the first time I heard about Matthew’s Yard. And that’s “it” for the borough, isn’t it?. It’s interesting and might serve as a good help for both, if it is/can be open in the evening as much as possible: Keep in mind that much startup activity takes place outside office hours for anything from months to a year plus before a company gets enough funding or traction to hire people. That is one of the big strengths of e.g. Silicon Valley in that finding outside-hours meeting places where lots of tech people gather is trivial.

    I think the most productive way of driving something like this forward is to 1) start collecting lists of people interested in different types of events here, 2) contacting larger existing groups that might have membership here and offer to help arrange suitable events (e.g. any sufficiently large London based user group, for example).

    Every event will make people form connections. Every connection is an increased chance of someone getting more involved or starting something.

  13. mattkepple says:

    Great vision. Keen to be part of it materialising.

  14. Andy Davies says:

    Every Friday I get the train from Croydon to London for silicon drinkabout to meet interesting people, I had no idea this was on my doorstep

  15. Steve Motakef says:

    I read your blog and I am also trying to promote Technology in Croydon. We are so far behind the other boroughs who are fighting over Tech startups. We must meet, please get in contact Steve 07920 856934.

  16. Richard Midson says:

    I went to my first Croydon Tech City event last night and was blown away. I was gutted that I had to leave by 9 and didn’t get a chance to network properly.

    I saw the event on MeetUp but the number of members on MeetUp made me suspicious. Wow! What a turn out. The room was bursting. Great talks, Great people. A brilliant mix of coders, marketers and ideas people. More events please to capture this momentum!

    I don’t know whether it made any difference but I mentioned the project a few times on Radio Jackie 107.8FM last Saturday in the news.

    Finally, if I can be of any help (former career broadcaster, ITN radio news editor, LBC reporter, LBC news anchor, journalist for numerous people) to talk to people about how to get media coverage and what the media needs from Tech Start Ups, then let me know @richardmidson. I think Tech and initiatives like this are not only the future for Croydon but for the whole UK economy.

    I’ve been swept up by the energy and excitement too, taught myself PHP and I am prototyping an idea myself.

    Thanks again for organising this brilliant project.

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