Category Archives: Boris Johnson

Opinion: London’s ‘amoral’ tech elite is driving inequality

Written for Wired Magazine and first published here.

London’s tech elite resides uncomfortably among some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the UK. Technology is inherently political, whether we are looking at privacy issues, convoluted tax arrangements or immigration exemptions, but many entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic seem to operate in an amoral space, where optimisation, investment and exit strategies trump humility, equality and — according to campaigner and journalist Kirsty Styles — even right and wrong

If you walk down any street in Shoreditch today, you’ll be met with the fashions and accents of people from many corners of the globe, most of whom have found their way here to make their fortune in East London’s very own Tech Klondike.

Tech City, as the area has come to be known, bills itself as the fastest growing tech cluster in Europe, with its heart in the once-derelict East End. More than 1,300 startups are working within the tech triangle, based around the Old Street ‘Silicon’ Roundabout, with the number of digital firms across London estimated to have grown from 50,000 in 2009 to 88,000 in 2012. Tech City’s residents now include some of the world’s most recognisable, and richest, brands — including Google, Microsoft, Barclays and Amazon.

Sure, like many of the 100,000 or so prospectors who trekked across North America to strike gold more than a century ago, not everyone who tries their luck here will come away with anything more than an (albeit trendy) shirt on their back and a few stories. But the temptation of high-tech fame, the hype around the potential rewards and the chance to just give it a go are all-too appealing for the young from recession-hit nations across the world.

Ask most people who’ve lived in East London for more than a hipster’s minute and you’ll get to understand just how much the area has changed in recent years. ‘Murder Mile’ in the Clapton area of Hackney, for example, has all but forgotten its grizzly past — save the live-tweeted disruption of a restaurant’s opening night last month by the presence of a young stabbing victim, which culminated in an anti-gentrification protest by locals.

But if you head just a few streets back in Hackney’s Shoreditch, beyond the edges of the film set of Capitalism: The Movie, you’ll come across some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the UK, with very high levels of child poverty and youth unemployment. In some wards those classed as NEET — not in education, employment or training — but no-doubt ad-saturated digital natives, is close to 40 per cent.

The tech sector, meanwhile, can be found almost weekly in the city’s Evening Standard newspaper shaking its fist at the dearth of talent. And there certainly seems to be a skills gap, with some 45 per cent of Tech City businesses saying that finding talent is their biggest challenge, according to GfK. Yes. The majority of Tech City businesses say they have vacancies they can’t fill, but unable or unwilling to look close to their new home, they often find the answer lies in relaxing visa rules and paying out eye-watering salaries without any guarantee of new hires sticking around.

In Hackney, just as in San Francisco, rents are soaring and life is getting trickier for ordinary people. One only needs to look over the Atlantic to our Silicon neighbours to understand the consequences of the creation of such divided communities. The influx of tech workers has obviously not gone unnoticed in East London but the majority of tech settlers are simply co-existing with the area’s established communities, living side-by-side with little knowledge of each other’s history or purpose. Who knew that Hackney as we know it was only created in 1965, hence the existence of the now-tech-hijacked Shoreditch Town Hall.

SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM HERE?

In a recent Radio 4 documentary, Justin Webb visited Silicon Valley to hear calls for large technology firms to be better regulated. Although the tech industry here was founded out of a desire to escape politics and get away from bureaucracy, with a rhetoric of increasing equality, that hasn’t materialised. He asked whether it’s time for society to take more of an informed interest in what tech people are doing and what they’re earning.

“It’s a vicious cycle in which the wealthy get much wealthier and because their political influence is growing they can essentially rig the rules of the game,” explained Robert Reich, formerly Bill Clinton’s labour secretary. “High tech CEOs are no different from other CEOs and not that much different from Wall Street except for the fact that high-technology is very popular… everybody loves these gadgets.” Whether investing in military robots, hoovering up rival services as quickly as they can be built or obliterating entire industries with their disruptive ways, there’s certainly a lot to look at.

Even California’s veteran state governor Jerry Brown, whose budgets have benefited from playing host to the world’s most successful tech cluster, believes tech people need to be reined in. “America and Europe together should be working against growing inequality — doing everything sensible to reverse it — because from 40 years ago when the top one percent in California took 12 percent of wealth, now the top one per cent is getting 21 or 22 percent. There is a pressure toward rewarding those at the top disproportionately and out of any kind of relation to their contribution. We are facing a global challenge here.” Far from operating outside of the elite, it appears tech has become the new establishment.

The most gauche among Silicon Valley’s big hitters are now calling for the state of California to be divided into six smaller ones. The call, led by third-generation VC Tim Draper, comes under the guise of ensuring freedom from far-flung bureaucrats in Sacramento, but the proposed change neatly separates the rich in the Valley from the poor outside, taking high-tech tax dollars with it. Questions too, albeit very tentatively, are starting to be asked about whether London could separate from the rest of the UK. It isn’t too great a leap to think that Tech City — which exists almost in a no man’s land spilling into four different boroughs — might make a play for its own extra-legislative status.

SO WHAT CAN BE DONE?

After the almost unbelievable Sopa win for internet activists in 2012, which was sadly followed by the death of one of its leading campaigners Aaron Swartz, it looked like the digital demos was finally awakening. The tech community has the ear of government, a lot cash and the skills to truly change the lives of people across the world. And while some do, like those building open software, along with proponents of the clean web and those trying to address human rights abuses in device manufacturing, the majority do not. US psychologist Paul Piff calls the growing detachment of the super-rich, simply, the “asshole effect”.

But some senior figures are now accepting the role they’ve played in creating an increasingly cartel-like and unequal system and are starting to discuss alternatives. Former senior intelligence official for the CIA Robert Steele recently launched The Open Source Manifesto for Everything, where he argues that we must reject: “concentrated illicitly aggregated and largely phantom wealth in favour of community wealth defined by community knowledge, community sharing of information, and community definition of truth derived in transparency and authenticity, the latter being the ultimate arbiter of shared wealth.

The very ubiquity of new web technologies, argues Channel 4’s culture and digital editor Paul Mason when analysing the OECD’s gloomy predictions for the world economy by 2060, means the status quo cannot continue. “Populations armed with smartphones, and an increased sense of their human rights, will not accept a future of high inequality and low growth,” he says. In a recent open memo to his “fellow zillionaires” entrepreneur Nick Hanauer said inequality must be addressed by those who have most benefited from it. “Or we could sit back, do nothing, enjoy our yachts. And wait for the pitchforks.”

As well as addressing issues of inequality, welcoming people from very different backgrounds into the tech community might actually offer companies the opportunity to explore truly innovative and life-changing ideas. Would FlatClub, a short-term leasing startup created in Tech City where travellers are verified based on having studied at an elite university, have so easily come into existence if more tech workers had skipped higher education? Could similar technology have instead been applied to transform the capital’s housing waiting list, which had some 344,294 people looking for permanent homes last year, had the development team had more experience of real precarity? Would Hackney have played host to some of the worst scenes of rioting back in 2011 if everyone in the borough felt they had an equal stake in its future?

Tech is inherently political, from privacy issues to wearables, to unconvincing tax arrangements and special immigration exemptions, but many entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic seem to operate in an amoral space, where optimisation, investment and exit strategies trump humility, equality and frankly, even, right and wrong.

Steele, Mason and Hanauer all agree that the public will no longer stand for global inequality — something that is now being perpetuated by our new tech elite. So the question needs to be asked of these amoral tech bastards: whose side will you be on when the revolution comes?

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What are EU on about?

You’ll know the Conservative grassroots member by their swivelling eyes and lunatic-type behaviour, according to an as yet unnamed senior Conservative member whose unattributed remark has been splashed all over the papers like a kiss and tell in the Sun. They might be shouting gay people out of their church or terrorising European economic migrants in your local Polski Sklep.
And senior Conservative members, when they aren’t undermining their own supporters, are confusing and berating the general public in equal measure. They’re about as inclusive as the aristocracy.
Boris Johnson wrote a piece for the Telegraph last week that went thusly: “As a British diplomat once languidly observed, the trouble with the whole debate on Europe is that there is too much religion and not enough politics. It is like the feud in the early Christian Church between those who believed that Christ was of the same substance as the Father, and those who said He was of a similar but not identical substance. Was He homoousios or homoiousios? You might say it didn’t make an iota of difference – and yet that iota was the cause of strife that cost thousands of lives.”
You could probably express this same argument by saying: “The trouble with the whole debate on Europe is that there is too much religion and not enough politics. It is like the feud in the early days of Coke and Coke Diet. Does it taste the same? You might say it didn’t make one iota of difference – and yet that iota was the cause of strife that cost thousands of lives.” Ok. Maybe the last bit doesn’t work. And Coke obviously isn’t religion – although it is more popular – the only countries that it isn’t present in are Cuba and Syria. And likewise, Europe also isn’t a church. But in one fell swoop, Boris alienates anyone who hasn’t closely studied the Crusades, while a simple fizzy drink analogy would have made the same point.
So why would the Boris-friendly Torygraph, along with Murdoch’s Times, seek to stitch up the Conservative aid by reporting on his comments in the first place? Perhaps they are all FT subscribers, which this weekend reported to its wealthy readers that the EU is going to put a €500,000 pay threshold on bankers’ bonuses. Perhaps this is actually a double bluff by the right wing press and the Tory part itself to make the whole EU exit thing sound rather like a good, homegrown idea and not one imposed by friends of those at the top.
There are people – many of whom are members of the Conservative party – that wholeheartedly believe that we should leave Europe. There are many, much less well heard, who believe that we shouldn’t. So far, we have received little actual information on the topic, save that 100 Conservative MPs are very keen for us to have a referendum, they say at the behest of their members. But anyway, no one actually has any idea what the UK would look like after the event. So whether it’s because of Romanian immigrants, ‘elf and safety’, or because it’s going to hit their considerable bank balances, the anti-Europeans can’t be as sure as they sound. So let’s have another costly public vote on something that few people really understand, yeah? Because the Eurovision Song Contest clearly isn’t enough.
Intuitively I believe that Europe is a good thing. I think we are stronger together, weaker apart. And Barack Obama has expressed the same sentiment, whatever that means. The UK just isn’t that big a deal anymore. I like Europeans and I can’t understand why languages aren’t as valued in the UK as they are elsewhere. I feel impotent on the continent. Which gives me some idea of how impotence can actually feel. We have also seen the longest period of peace in the region under the European Union. Which is probably a good thing? An interviewee in the recent Ken Loach documentary The Spirit of ’45, made the rather grisly observation that if we could make killing Germans a legitimate industry, the UK would be thriving.
Some people reckon that with this piece BoJo was positioning himself to be the post-EU UK PM. ROFL? Might I suggest that our exit from the EU could be a long-term strategic plan to break that peace pact and get Britain working again? I can almost see Boris, Churchill-like, wearing a onesie (check it out at the Cabinet War Rooms museum), with a long stick in his hand directing the Boris Bombers. We can just ignore the people, doctor the evidence and send some brave people to their untimely deaths. And then the government will change and everyone will have collective amnesia. We’ll see.
One of his key points was that we are all actually pretty rubbish, with or without the EU. He said if we left we “would have to recognise that most of our problems are not caused by “Bwussels”, but by chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills, a culture of easy gratification and under-investment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure.” Not sure how much of this can be laid at our door… Or even that of Bwussels.
Meanwhile, gay marriage has also become a sticking point for the Conservative party. I’m not quite sure why such an unpopular club would like to alienate willing members who want to give up their individual freedom in the ‘eyes of God’. Likewise, I wouldn’t be so keen to join a club that didn’t want me, although if it was my religion… I guess I’d just want it to be cool to marry the person I love.
So. This week, Conservatives are yet again trying to change the rules of a club that doesn’t really need us to be members while also refusing to change a club that they don’t really want other people to be members of.
Perhaps it’s all these little clubs – much like the ones where swivel-eyed loons of the journo-political variety hang out together – that are the problem.
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Smashing illustration of BoJo by Dale Edwin Murray, created for the Sunday Times
Written for and first published here: http://www.letsbebrief.co.uk/what-are-eu-on-about/

Level39 Tech Hub Opens at Canary Wharf

Occupying the 39th floor of Canary Wharf’s rather exclusive Canada One, Tech City’s newest accelerator is committed to transforming the financial sector that surrounds it, the shopping centres beneath and to enhancing the smart city technologies on which the area was first built.

This is not an attempt to “copy and paste” Shoreditch, said Eric Van Der Kleij, Head of Level39 and fintech entrepreneur, rather to be complementary to other tech hubs in the Capital and become the focal point for financial technology in London. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, marked the opening by unveiling a (rather suitable) digital plaque.

From meat shop to £1m pad


Canary Wharf already has some 7,000 people working in tech companies like Thomson Reuters and Ogilvy and Mather. Level39 has now welcomed its first businesses, which are competing in Accenture’s FinTech Innovation Lab start-up competition. This is sponsored by 14 of the overlooking banks, including Barclays and Capital One, and is backed by the Mayor’s office.

Digital Shadows, among the first tenants, is a cyber monitoring service created to help companies manage the ‘digital footprint’ left by social media, mobile and the cloud. Having started off as a two man band working above a meat shop in Farringdon, the company is completing its 10 week programme with mentoring from four banks in an office which is worth around £1.1m and used to be occupied by KPMG.

Government meets hackers


The accelerator space houses four sandboxes, including one called ‘Eastminster’, which has already been used by the Ministry of Justice to discover how they could use their procurement power to drive the economy, has event space for 250, the obligatory open plan eatery complete with iPad-controllled coffee machine and a board room. A hackday called ‘Hack (Make) the Bank’ to try and devise a new kind of banking was already underway.

A club lounge, with a membership fee to pay for the space, is half price for any business angels and VCs who are prepared to mentor the young companies. “They teach start-ups how to solve their problems faster. We focus every day on helping the companies get traction through mentoring – it is worth more than investment”, Van Der Kleij said. There are hotdesks available, along with more permanent work space. “If you ask us to build you a 2000 person facility – we would do that for companies rather than punishing them for growth.”

Cross-rail promise


Downstairs will be a “living lab for next generation retail technology” located in some of the “highest yielding shopping centres in the UK” he said. Level39’s future cities strategy will be unveiled later this year and much of it will be centred in the new Wood Wharf development. Van Der Kleij promised that Canary Wharf’s new cross rail station, with a 39 minute journey to Heathrow, would be completed by 2015, “years ahead of schedule”.

Canary Wharf Group has issued a call for companies and entrepreneurs to apply to be based at Level39. Click here for more info.

Written for Mobile Marketing Magazine and published here: http://www.mobilemarketingmagazine.com/content/level39-tech-hub-opens-canary-wharf

UK Feminista AGM – London Mayoral Hustings


Yesterday’s UK Feminista AGM was topped off with a London Mayoral debate hosted Channel 4’s Samira Ahmed. Yum. BoJo didn’t turn up, which gives us a little impression of what he thinks about equality and women’s issues.

Ken Livingstone fessed up, he was a ‘cleptomaniac’ and would be pinching Brian Paddick’s sure-to-win-votes-but-probably-not-practical policy of letting women stop the night bus at the end of their road rather than at a bus stop.

There were some interesting stats ‘knife crime is up 30% among under 25s’, ‘70% of job losses in the last 2 quarters were women’, there is ‘£100bn of City cash that is explicitly excluded from FOI’ and that, and this will really make your stomach churn, ‘70% of ticket holders during the Olympics will have to go through Westfields shopping centre to get to their seats’. Reel them in while we can. Yuck.

My favourite part, the bit that made me so angry that I put my hand up shyly, so I didn’t get picked, was when Ken, in Boris’ absence, blamed the mop-haired toff for the housing crisis. Now, I think Boris is just a well-thought-out, populist act, same as a lot of people, but Ken??? You said you were a cleptomaniac and I was wondering if along with that, you also had AMNESIA? Or did you forget the 20 years previous to you losing your seat? Pssh.