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Tech City: ‘Europe’s largest indoor civic space’ – Really?

On 06 December, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron and the mayor of London, Boris Johnson , appeared at the Urban Age Electric City Conference that was taking place in East London and announced that the government will be investing £50m into Tech City.

Tech City is a public-private initiative to help grow the business of the hidden IT and design start-ups that are based in Shoreditch,; the area in East London that is sandwiched between the City and the once notoriously impoverished neighbourhoods of Hackney. Cameron doesn’t cease to bang on about that this Tech City, which will be built in the Old Street Roundabout, recently named the Silicon Roundabout, will be ‘Europe’s largest indoor civic space’. Really?

Firstly, it is planned to look innovative in its design, perhaps in line with the other skyscrapers that have been popping up close by, such as the Heron Tower and the Shard. The first thing that comes to mind, as an employee of a start-up based 2 minutes away from the Old Street Roundabout is, ‘God, the rent is going to go up’.

It is inevitable that with the surge of a new business hub, where the likes of Microsoft, Research in Motion and KPMG have already signed up to open offices that the real estate price of the area is going to jump higher than it already has in the last two years. In that case, what is going to happen to the local community who once lived in the council estates that surround Hoxton Square? Or what will be of the shoe shop and the book store based underground by the Old Street tube station? These original residents and businesses are most likely destined to have to move further away from the city centre.

Also, how do the Tech City investors define ‘civic space’? For me, a civic space is an area that is open to the public, which has facilities that benefit people of all socio-economic backgrounds. Imagine Medellin’s Parque de los Pies Descalzos (Bare Foot Park), which is a modern, aesthetically pleasant outdoor area situated right amongst government offices, where children are invited to play in the different types of fountains and other sources of water, for free.

This park is a pure civic space because its design fits with the prestige of the offices located nearby and yet its function is tailored for children of low-income communities. Cameron and Boris claim that
Tech City will host advisory services for entrepreneurs and apprenticeship programmes for local students; but if you browse through the list of companies who have booked their places in this hub you will note that more than two-thirds the space is going to be occupied by multinational giants.

KPMG committed to support early stage technology companies, but at what price? Perhaps there is a misunderstanding between the Tech City team and me about who the SMEs are, but it seems as if those who are truly struggling to spring up will be victims of increased rents, rather than heightened support.

I don’t want to be a cynic, and I understand that investing in top-level technical innovation is the way forward for any business or state right now. As Boris rightly said at the Urban Age Conference, the government cannot create the vibe of Shoreditch, but it can put in the infrastructure. This approach of the London mayor mirrors very much what Richard Sennett wrote in his article in the Guardian about how technology in a city is best used for coordination and not as prescription.

However, it still doesn’t change the fact that the stores currently based by the tube station will close and the low-income residents will have to move out. What is so civic about that part of the plan? I wonder if perhaps I am not sufficiently informed, or whether the Tech City supporters justify their shortage in truly inclusive programmes by believing that entrepreneurship operates by the same rules as evolution.

Ayako Iba

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