Are dragons and unicorns good? A report from London Tech Week

Written for Tech for Good TV and first published here.

The Capital just closed the doors on its second ever London Technology Week, which promised to be bigger and better than… well, the first one.

At the opening of proceedings, London & Partners, the Mayor’s branding agency, highlighted that there’d be some 210-plus events taking place, with more than 1,000 people joining us from abroad to “shine an international spotlight on the cluster”.

Since Tech City was officially anointed by David Cameron five years ago, the public-private partnership has produced some impressive, accelerating, good* results.

Research from investor GP Bullhound found that 2014 was the most successful year for creating billion-dollar tech companies since 2000, declaring the UK the “undisputed home of unicorns in Europe”. That’s tech unicorns, which is less exciting than the imagery implies, when you really think about it…

The UK is now home to some 17 of those unicorns, the report said, with fintech’s eight companies, including Transferwise and Funding Circle, making up the largest sector.

Tech City UK joined the celebrations, revealing that its Future Fifty grouping of fast-growth startup companies are increasing their staff numbers at more than six times the national average and now employ some 17,000 people worldwide.

But if the PM thought his work was done, Manish Madhvani from GP Bullhound said we now need to “reset our ambition level” if we are to have any hope of creating the next Uber, worth tens of billions, or even the next Facebook, worth almost 10 times that.

Yes, London’s tech leaders are now on the hunt for dragons, the scale up companies that can create multi-billionaires out of their humble founders, nothing to do with the mythical beasts, sadly.

But, along with mapping startups CityMapper and What3Words, given fintech and proptech are the darlings of the tech scene in 2015, it doesn’t quite feel like good, the morally excellent kind at least, is the first thing on founders and investors’ minds.

Sustainable?

So #LDNTechWeek certainly created some good headlines, and gave people like me a pretty crazy schedule for a humid week in June, but is any of this tech for good?

Behind closed doors, several tech leaders suggest the unicorn headlines aren’t all they seem, if your measure of good is about creating sustainable companies. Payday lender Wonga, for example, has suffered under the weight of its fairytale tech startup status.

With eye-watering loan repayment rates of up to 5000%, it could hardly be accused of being a ‘tech for good’ firm. But after ‘disrupting’ the money market, for good or ill, the regulators have finally caught up and it has had to pay £220m of compensation to customers, and shed more than 300 staff.

Despite good employment and investment figures, London’s startups appear to have some way to go in their bid for building good, global firms. One investor told me that truly sustainable startups should never take on investment “beyond their human capacity to manage the risk”.

In a bid to support those attempting to create sustainable scale ups, tech veterans Sherry Coutu and Reid Hoffman announced the creation of a Scale Up Institute during London Tech Week.

Diverse?

Along with ‘scale ups’, the word of London Technology Week may well have been diversity. Whether that’s gender, race, disability, class or even regional diversity, everyone acknowledged it’s certainly positive that these conversations were front and centre.

Accelerator Wayra set a disappointing tone with the launch of its StartupDNA survey results, finding men are still almost twice as likely to get VC funding than women. Not to be easily defeated though, they also found that women were opting to self-fund instead.

Echoing these figures, Tech London Advocates revealed soon after the findings from its membership survey that said 23% of startups have no women on their board.

Tuesday saw TechCrunch’s Europas welcome some 40% female speakers across its day of events, demonstrating the kind of results that can be achieved with, no doubt, lots of asking, asking and then asking again.

And topping off a mixed week, Innovate Finance hosted its inaugural Diversity Challenge Awards to celebrate those working in financial innovation who are committed to extending opportunities to the unusual suspects. During his keynote at the event, Tech London Advocates founder Russ Shaw emphasised: “Diversity goes further than gender, it’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability too.”

The diversity discussion, although getting a little old, has a handy link back to the creation of ‘good’ companies. Time and again, good figures on diversity lead to positive productivity figures too. “The future of your company depends on it,” Natalie Campbell, entrepreneur and board member of Wayra UnLtd said.

Where next?

I took a breather from the London Tech Week madness to visit JustEat’s HQ with a class of 70 eager A Level computer science students. Yeah, so what?

The students were from a school based in Tech City and the teacher told me that she had approached every single local tech brand you could imagine asking them for a look around, using the area’s handy startup map, but got almost no response.

I was shocked, after all, you can find a tech leader a week shaking their fist at the digital skills gap.

Sure, tech for good sounds, well, good on paper, but when it gets down to it, it’s not clear whether London’s techies, leaders or workers, yet buy into good industries, good workplaces or good hiring policies. We may celebrate being better than Silicon Valley on areas like diversity, but that’s hardly good, is it?

So, for me, I hope London Technology Week 2016 is the year of tech for good, with a refocusing of headlines and investment towards good sectors – cleantech, edtech, assistive tech, perhaps – real progress on diversity, because we all believe it’s a good idea, and good attempts to look at what’s right in front of you, something I hate to call ‘talent’.

As my dad says at the end of every phone conversation I ever have with him: “be good” tech folk. And I assume he means both kinds.

*adjective, better, best.

1.

morally excellent; virtuous; righteous; pious:

a good man.

2.

satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree:

a good teacher; good health.

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Tech City News – Issue 7, June 2015 – Step Aside Zuckerberg… It’s the founders of 50

Tech City News – Issue 7, June 2015 – Dublin #StartupIreland

Feature work covered both words and photography.

The week in radio – the Robert Peston Interview Show (with Eddie Mair); Weekly Economics Podcast; Apple’s Beats 1

Miranda Sawyer’s Guardian review of the New Economics Foundation’s Weekly Economics Podcast, which I present each week on an economics issue of the day. First published here.

Mair and Peston made a good double act probing Julian Barnes on widowerhood, while Kirsty Styles’s economics podcast was refreshingly accessible

peston and mair

The Robert Peston Interview Show (with Eddie Mair) (Radio 4) | iPlayer

Weekly Economics Podcast (New Economics Foundation) | Podcast

Beats 1 | Apple.com

Eddie Mair and Robert Peston are two of the BBC’s greatest audio assets, and they have been exploiting their unlikely friendship on air for a while now: usually onPM, where Mair digs out Peston, and Peston complains back. Their old-couple bickering gets so spiky, it’s even been reported as a feud. It’s not, of course. Mair and Peston are journalists. Taking the mick out of each other is how they talk; it shows affection, not dislike.

To prove this, they’ve joined forces to present a new interview show for Radio 4. The idea is a bit of a gimmick: one of them chooses a celebrity and prepares for the interview, and the other doesn’t know who they’ll be talking to until the celebrity turns up. This week, Peston chose author Julian Barnes, very specifically because Barnes wrote Levels of Life, about how he coped after the death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh, in 2008. Peston’s wife, Siân Busby, died in 2012, and, he said at the beginning of the programme that he’d spoken to a lot of widows but no widowers.

The interview was excellent, Peston’s personal probing given grit by Mair’s sharp interjections. When Barnes mentioned that he’d considered suicide, Mair asked, “Did you think about a method?” and “What stopped you?” He also stepped in during an exchange between Peston and Barnes about how people – especially older English men – are rubbish at talking to their friends when they are grieving. “What did you want in these circumstances?” asked Mair.

Barnes was interesting: polite, precise and calm, a cool counterpart to Peston, whose distinctive speech mannerisms – a paaaaauuuse theeen wordscomerattattat – are rooted in a slight insecurity. Mair’s desire to go for the jugular and the joke worked well as a foil to both. I’m looking forward to next week, when Mair gets to choose and host the interviewee, and Peston must pipe up with his secondary questions.

Peston, of course, is the BBC’s money man, their economics editor, and, as he’s BBC, he is bound by law to be fair. Not so Weekly Economics Podcast, the relatively new audio offering from the New Economics Foundation, a thinktank that promotes social, economic and ecological justice. Each show is short, no longer than 20 minutes, and accessibly presented by the lively and engaging Kirsty Styles. Usually, she talks to James Meadway, senior economist at the NEF, but sometimes others, and each week they unpick some aspect of the UK economic news. As George Osborne appears to have been let off the leash since the election, coming up with madder and madder monetary policies, there is a lot to talk about. This week’s discussion about his proposal to sell off RBS at a loss of £13bn to the taxpayer was revealing and shocking. Was it biased? Well, you’d say yes if you were Osborne. To me, it sounded like they were talking a lot of sense.

Finally, a quick note about Apple’s new radio station, Beats 1, which will launch 30 June. It’s going to broadcast across the world, every day, all day, everyone! As though umpteen radio stations don’t do that already… Still, with its poaching of Zane Lowe from Radio 1 and Rinse’s Julie Adenuga, as well as Ebro Darden, who represents the New York hip-hop side of things, Beats 1 is clearly aiming at… well, me. Me and anyone else who hops between Radio 1 and 6Music, Rinse and Mixcloud. These are music experts, not “presenters”, so hopes are set high. We’ll see.