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Talent Development in an Urban Digital Ecosystem

December 6, 2012 - 1 Comment

I recall that it was a typical cold and dreary winter day in London — it was probably raining — when I decided that I was ready for a change of scene. The year was 1978, and the local British media was lamenting the apparent “brain drain” phenomenon that was then sweeping the nation.

Yes, I had decided to leave and go live in America, but I’ve always looked back with fondness at the place that I called home. Granted, I had become one of those British expat engineers that discovered there were alternative places to thrive — where my ideas and ongoing research could be fully explored.

Based upon a 2008 market study, it’s estimated that 3.247 million British-born people are living abroad. Did you know that, over a couple of decades, Britain has lost more than one in 10 of its most skilled citizens? Compared to other nations, it’s believed that only Mexico has had more professional people immigrate to another country.

Today, I’m hopeful that new leadership responsible for the UK’s public policy on technical talent development and retention initiatives seem to be on the right track. I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve witnessed during recent visits back to England – in particular attending the Digital Shoreditch Festival in June of this year.


By far, the most interesting conference session for me was the Tech City Panel discussion at the Summit — on the last day of the festival.  One of the Panelists, Ian Dowson, had shared insights from his recent market study report – entitled “Deep Knowledge is Powering another Regeneration of London.” Rob Whitehead, deputy director at the Centre for London, had summarized the findings from his own research.

The following quote is taken from their report, entitled “A Tale of Tech City.”

“The economic significance of East London’s digital economy means it is critical to get public policy right. Governments and city leaders all over the world dream of creating centres of technological innovation and expertise, to rival Silicon Valley and its multi-billion dollar tech giants. So far, however, most of these dreams have not amounted to much. There is certainly no simple formula for creating a successful high-tech cluster, let alone a world-beating one. Every high-tech cluster is different. The key is finding the right policy mix to suit local conditions.”

The findings from this insightful assessment include an outline of seven main areas of concern about the nascent start-up cluster environment in London — at the top of that list is the Skills Gap.

Founders in the London tech community are worried by the problems of finding qualified talent. Some claim there’s an under-supply of skilled developers and specialist staff in the UK. They blame ill-designed university syllabuses, and a lack of understanding at all levels of the British education system.

In a separate but related story, I shared my observation that developing local talent at scale is a significant issue that must be anticipated in East London – as the local digital ecosystem evolves over time.

While attending the Digital Shoreditch events, I had the opportunity to chat with several creative people that are actively involved in the local East London digital economy. Jade Alexander is a producer with Devilishly Handsome Productions; Alex Haw is the director and founder of Atmos Studio; and Nick Taheri is the director and co-founder of Nieku.

I came away from those informal chats with a new appreciation for the depth and breadth of the digital talent pool in London, and I was pleased to discover that a new forward-looking education venture is already working on practical ways to bridge the local tech skills gap.

Sowing the Seeds for the Next Digital Generation

On 3 October, the Duke of York officially opened Hackney University Technical College – the first in London – offering students aged 14-19 free vocational education in digital and health technologies.

Students, who have left schools across London to attend, should graduate programs that will enable them to be qualified for tech careers. The £3.8 million industry-backed facility addresses the skills shortage in Tech City and beyond.

It’s noteworthy that BT and Cisco are actively involved in this new venture. The college principal, Annie Blackmore, describes the objectives and goals of this promising young talent development resource in a video interview with

Tech City: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

While it’s understood that an organization such as UKTI, given its charter, is focused on attracting foreign direct investment by multinational companies, maybe it’s the current and future British tech entrepreneurs that really need to be the ongoing focal point of substantive government support.

Moreover, let’s acknowledge the commitment and accomplishments of the early start-up pioneers in the East London tech cluster. History has taught us that these are the unsung heroes and heroines that invested their sweat equity to make the community what it is today.

Perhaps that’s the best advice that a national policymaker needs to heed the most; strive to engender the wisdom of a Stephen Stills mantra – and show some respect and loyalty to those that have earned it.

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  1. UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, today announced IDEALondon in London's Tech City, an innovation hot-house established by Cisco, DC Thomson and UCL as the Innovation and Digital Enterprise Alliance (IDEA) -- more details here