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.
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?
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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