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Written for the Hackney Citizen and first published here.
Tech City may be the centre of the UK’s technology industry, but it has a serious problem with broadband.
High-speed internet is notoriously hard to come by in the former warehouse districts of East London. So hard, in fact, that Tech City’s broadband woes have been described as a “national embarrassment” by Meg Hillier, MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch.
Globally, the UK is languishing in 15th place for overall broadband speeds. Locally, thousands of homes in Hackney can’t afford a decent internet connection. If there was ever a hole in the market, this is it.
Like most who’ve set up in Tech City, Optimity has developed with disruption in mind, going head-to-head with behemoths like Virgin and BT to offer high-speed internet to the burgeoning digital community.
While fibre optic broadband provided by the big telecoms companies may be fast enough when you get it, it can take months for your chosen provider to dig up the road and lay the cables — too long for most young digital businesses to wait.
Award-winning local firm Optimity cuts out the middle man by providing high-speed wireless antennae that are fixed to the roofs of buildings, a service that can be up in a matter of days.
Its radio wave technology can run at speeds of up to one gigabit – that’s 200 times faster than regular broadband – and if there’s ever a problem with it, an engineer will simply walk around to the office and switch the box.
The company is a resident in one of Shoreditch’s most striking buildings, Zetland House, the 100,000-square-foot former home to the print works for the Bank of England.
Optimity provides wireless broadband exclusively to London businesses, which means no three-month wait to get started and no dealing with far-flung call centres.
“Demand for high-speed is growing very quickly, full stop,” says founder of Optimity Anthony Impey. “iPads, for example, didn’t even exist pre-2010 and four years is an incredibly fast period to become nearly ubiquitous.
“People are also working less at home now than they were, opting to work side-by-side at local coffee shops and co-working spaces. So there are a huge number of businesses in the area that just need faster and faster internet.”
Former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg has said London is the number one competitor to his city in the technology race. But Impey goes so far as to whittle that down to New York versus Hackney: “This is the heart of the whole digital community. The focus on building infrastructure in Hackney is crucial to London’s leadership as a tech capital.”
At the moment, Optimity serves some 250 local businesses, with the area between Shoreditch and the Olympic Park its key target. Business users can pay around £500 to £600 per month for high-speed broadband, but with its low installation costs, Optimity can cut that cost by about a tenth. The radio spectrum used by Optimity is a low-power, high-performance system originally released by the Ministry of Defence.
The company’s mid-size antenna is just 120mm square, smaller than a satellite dish, and has a tiny footprint compared to a mobile phone mast. Over time this will become even smaller and cost even less, hopefully allowing for the technology to be passed on to residential users — a threatening prospect for the clunky status quo of web providers.
‘David and Goliath’ battle
Impey says that the great digital revolution took the older telecoms companies by surprise and he believes they have made a notable lack of investment at the exact time when London needs it most. “How do we become a gigabit city?” he ponders, referring to the uppermost upload and download speeds made possible with today’s technology. “We need infrastructure that can meet the demand of the tech companies not just today, but in three, five and 10 years’ time.”
The CEO paints his company’s story as a ‘David and Goliath’ fight. “Our competitors are so much more significant and have almost limitless resources… We deliver a very good product, underpinned by an amazing service.”
Just like many companies operating in Tech City, Optimity did not set out to become what it is today, a wireless internet service provider (WISP). The company used to simply offer IT and telecoms services but took the opportunity to ‘pivot’, as the techies call it, when a client needed high-speed broadband, fast.
But, having worked in computing in Hackney for a more than a decade they can also manage clients’ IT and telecoms services too, whether that’s a virtual server or a telephone system.
Optimity has won awards for its commitment to provide local jobs and its outreach work with young people. The company is a backer of Tech City Stars, which recruits young people onto apprenticeships with the help of some 380 sponsor organisations, and is training some apprentices in its office. “There is an amazing amount of untapped talent in Hackney,” Impey says.
Ali Hussain has been an apprentice at Optimity for almost a year. “I had no idea about Tech City but as I hadn’t got the grades to go to university it was another option. Recently I got to go up to the 39th floor of the Heron Tower to help install some kit and had a view of London I never thought I’d see.”
Impey is a huge supporter of the Government’s Super Connected Cities initiative, which helps businesses fund the step change in their internet connection: “This is such an important piece of infrastructure – I’d say even more important than roads and airports, even train lines”, says Impey.
“Moving data around in a digital economy is everything. If you closed down the internet network in proportion to the tube, there’d be a revolution.”
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?
Written for Let’s Be Brief and first published here.
Up until yesterday afternoon, I would have been very loathed to believe that I would agree with the sentiments of a senior executive at Coca-Cola. But I can now say my preconceptions have been proven wrong.
In fact Tom LaForge, global director of human and cultural insights (yes that’s a real job), declared something about our society at The Economist’s Big Rethink that I know in my heart as a campaigner but sometimes feel unable to believe.
“Civil society is gaining in power – and that means roles and relationships change. ‘Big’ isn’t trusted anymore and there are a lot of problems with the role of companies.” As with the revelations about governments and even presidents, he added: “With great power comes great responsibility – and we are seeing too many companies misuse that responsibility.”
The growing rich / poor divide, written about almost daily by commentators across the globe, and exemplified by the 100m people in the US alone that live at or below the poverty line, means Coca-Cola just isn’t a drink for the everyman anymore.
LaForge, and presumably people like him, now believe that by 2020 or 2025, brands and institutions that are seen as aligned with GCHQ, the NSA and the old male ways of doing business are dead. “This current form of capitalism has had unintended and negative consequences in this division,” he said. “Many are living a different reality from those at the other end and are losing the shared identity we used to have.” In short: there is no longer even an everyman.
He notes that the influence of women is increasing. “This is how the business world is evolving and the female archetype is actually better than the male archetype that has been dominant in business for so long.” He points to tacit knowledge, that is, learning from being around someone, and the establishment and maintenance of trust-based relationships.
I was surprised, and somewhat buoyed, by his acknowledgement that millennials are tired of the world they’ve grown up in. A world dominated by people with a lot of power and a detrimental attitude to society and even their own customers. LaForge pointed to rising education levels, and asked: “what’s going to happen when we’re all surrounded by a much more educated population?”
What will the next 2.5bn have to say?
By 2020, some 5bn people will have an influence on the global conversation. “The next 2.5bn [brought online] will have a different attitude. They are going to join this conversation – but what are they going to be saying? More people and their powers and beliefs can have an influence on how the world changes.”
But true to type, and true to his business, the Coca-Cola man was of course trying to understand the effect that this would have on changing relationships with and expectations of brands. “Power is shifting. And it’s going to get worse. The process of civil society empowerment is going to accelerate. People are now asking ‘how should we live our life?’” he explained.
No longer are people seeking out brands that distinguish them from others, or businesses without purpose. LaForge expressed concern – not necessarily a warmly shared feeling – for global conglomerates like Unilever, and even Coca-Cola itself. “We have over 3000 brands. Are all of these brands going to play in this space? I don’t think so.”
“The best marketing tool is how you do your business. Issues around trust are now moving the conversation to ‘what do you trust them to do?’” Clearly feathering its nest for the upcoming storm, Coca-Cola has pledged to support 5m women to become entrepreneurs by 2020. “If they thrive, we thrive,” LeForge says. “What is that skillset of future? Do we have it, if not, how do we train it?” he asks.
The company is rolling out an Ecocenter water purification system in the developing world. That, of course, sells Coca Cola products. The company is now also encouraging its staff to participate in mindfulness training, helping them to focus in a world where information is in no such short supply.
ACLU: “I’m not here to tell you what you’ve done is evil. But it is.”
“To compete, you have to strive together with civil society. This is the new winning strategy for doing what we want to do, which is to grow. If you’re striving against this, you’re in the old finite economy. We are moving towards a relationship economy and what all of us need to get really good at this relationship management.”
The Economist’s Big Rethink event was clearly intended to be just that, from showcasing illustrator talent built on the sometimes incomprehensible social wave from @mr_bingo, to hearing from Christopher Soghoian from the American Civil Liberties Union – all intended to prompt a bit of soul searching.
The ACLU is currently suing the US government for its role in mass surveillance, as well as advocating for a Fair Data equivalent to the Fair Trade mark for companies. Referring to the data systems built by ad executives in the name of marketing, and now proven to be a key tool for paranoid US and UK spies, Soghoian said: “I’m not here to tell you what you’ve done is evil. But it is.”
Coca-Cola and other attendees have clearly been rattled by recent data breaches and from what was discussed it looks like Corporate Social Responsibility will no longer be a department run out of the mop cupboard. But all of these brands are no doubt focused on CSR’s effect on the bottom line, merely changing their strategy to fit into future modern norms, not doing good for good’s sake.
I guess I’m heartened to know that brands like this are worried about the effect that growing people power will have on the world. But I know that at some point in 2020, I will probably still be wrestling with the idea of having a Diet Coke break, wishing we had genuinely addressed our consumerist culture before we fizzy drank ourselves into environmental oblivion.
ILLUSTRATION BY BEN RIDER
As co-founder – and self-titled ‘constitutional monarch’ – of Wikipedia, the fifth-largest website on the internet and by far the most visited not-for-profit, Wales is assured his place in history alongside the likes of Gates and Zuckerberg.
But, unlike many of his peers, Wales’ less commercial focus means he’s not a billionaire, although he does count former prime minister Tony Blair among his friends.
In January, Wales became the director of The People’s Operator, an MVNO that donates 10 per cent of each person’s bill directly to a charity of their choice, with a further 25 per cent of the company’s overall profit going to its charitable foundation. The business runs on EE’s network in the UK and although many are concerned about the future of the telco industry, Wales is very excited about his new role.
“People often pitch me things that are somehow worthy or noble in their objectives but don’t have a practical way to achieve them,” he told Mobile Marketing. “Others just pitch on things with safe business goals. I got excited because The People’s Operator seemed to be both – and it has the potential to raise a huge amount of money for good causes.”
Asked about the threat to telcos from the growth of OTT providers, for example, Wales simply said the MVNO model ‘looks good to me’. “It’s a long-standing, stable business model. Obviously it will always have internal quirks, like the fact that you’ve got to work with mobile operators, but it’s a great business. The telcos seem very interested and very excited to work with us – so far, so good.”
The for-profit operation based in Tech City is online-only and keeps costs down by spending little on offices and marketing, enabling it to commit to making charitable donations. So where is it planning to find its customers? “We’re going to be a global business so we have to be in as many places as possible,” Wales said.
“Our concentration is online, viral marketing and word of mouth, which won’t really work if we happen not to be in country and someone wants to sign up. We want to give people as many opportunities to participate as possible. First off, the US is obviously a big target and then Europe generally.”
Wales explains that around 2m users donate to Wikipedia every year. But with around 540m visitors every month, that means just 0.03 per cent of those people put their hand in their pocket. So is he really convinced that customers will vote with their cash for a more ethical operator?
Tech for good
“The People’s Operator is part of a much broader trend. Customers are really interested in being involved with companies that care where their money is going. The basic pitch is: go with another operator who will spend a big chunk of money on TV ads and billboards – or go with us. In return, we want you to get the word out and get your friends signed up. Wikipedia had its most successful fundraiser ever this year,” he adds.
Wales’ wife used to work for Tony Blair, with the former PM a guest at his wedding, and the Labour Party is mentioned as a ‘good cause’ currently being supported by TPO’s Foundation. Does this mean TPO is a partisan operation? “There are already hundreds of charitable partners and causes that people can support. We’re not specifically tied to any particular view of the world,” he explained.
So is Wales determind to change the entire mobile industry, one that is fraught with everything from privacy breach allegations to objectionable hardware production practices. “We’re definitely going to do our best but as an MVNO we don’t have direct control over lots of things, like supply chains for phones. I’m very interested in some of the things going on right now – like people trying to put together ethical hardware – but realistically there’s not much we can do about that. It’s definitely something we will try and support.”
Like his work with Wikipedia, which champions free access to online information, The People’s Operator project looks to be another business where technology and politics can meet. Does Wales see it that way? “This is certainly something we’re seeing – an increasing intersection of tech and politics – in lots of different ways that are both good and bad, and this will continue to be the case.
“One of main things that interests me is the ability of people to get together online and self-organise in ways that weren’t possible 50 to 60 years ago. In society, we’re just at the beginning of understanding what that really means.”
Although Wikipedia isn’t for-profit, the smartphone revolution is having a massive impact here. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the mobile portion of traffic. Wikipedia and mobile is a perfect match: you wonder about something – perhaps you’ve got a bet with a friend – and you look right there on the spot. Mobile is really good for Wikipedia in the long run.”
Written for Mobile Marketing and first published here: http://mobilemarketingmagazine.com/wikipedia-founder-jimmy-wales-talks-ethical-telcos/#BqyEqXDsqFxQrdQB.99