Something is stirring in east London, and it was stirring long before David Cameron made his «tech city» speech of November 2010. Back then the prime minister announced a vision for an «east London tech city a hub that stretches from Shoreditch and Old Street to the Olympic park», and could one day rival America’s Silicon Valley. In 2012, overlooking Old Street’s «Silicon roundabout», founder and CEO of tech startup Huddle, Alistair Mitchell, described the scene. «In our building there are five other early-stage tech startups … Below us is Tech Hub, a group working space for startups, across the road we’ve got Twitter, Google’s new building is just down the road … You go into the coffee shop and you know everyone in there and they are all talking platforms, mobile development, new developers … There is definitely a buzz going on.»
Part of what’s driving this buzz is a new way of working. It breaks down the traditional walls of secrecy that separate businesses, and can be summed up in one word: collaboration. As Mitchell alluded to in the Shoreditch coffee shop, people are mixing and working together in ways that are alien to the corporation generation. And it was a coffee shop of sorts that inspired Araceli Camargo to found the Shoreditch co-working community THECUBE. «In the 18th century coffee shop, the society and the norm was such that anybody coming in would be able to talk to anybody. You wouldn’t get that in the modern Starbucks,» he explains. Against the backdrop of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, THECUBE emerged in September 2009 as a space for startup businesses. «I looked into past recessions and the Great Depression and discovered that a great deal of really amazing innovation comes from these times», says Camargo. «I wanted a business that would catch all these people.»
Rather than simply a shared office space, THECUBE’s concept is for members to generate business leads, bid for jobs together and share skills. «What was different about this recession was there was also an anthropological shift taking place», says Camargo. «We had social media drastically changing how we interact and communicate.» In order to push the potential of this shift, the space within THECUBE is set up with long tables that people must share, almost forcing people to bump into each other and talk. «Taking away that anonymity then allows people to take social responsibility within their community, contribute and collaborate», says Camargo, who is now utilising the community to work on NGO and corporate projects.
Jonathan Lister is a member of THECUBE, and runs his own web agency J&J. He believes that THECUBE is part of a wider system in Shoreditch. «There are lots of people who are very willing to mix with their peers, go to events, put on events, work in shared offices and co-working spaces, share their projects amongst other people,» he says. «The future of work isn’t about walls, it’s about people.»
Indeed this is reflected in how Lister runs his agency, pulling freelancers and small businesses together on a project basis, disbanding again when the project ends. Each team can be different depending on the project. It’s a very fluid set-up, one that many freelancers and contractors would recognise. «People have always collaborated,» Lister concedes. «But I think what’s different now are the tools, such as Skype and online project workspaces the collaborative environment that Google docs gives you for example, makes it a lot easier.»
This is a view that Alistair Mitchell at Huddle shares. Huddle itself is a cloud computing tool that allows for collaboration between and within companies and communities. «We are a platform on which an entire organisation can store, share, manage and work on content, wherever, whenever, with whoever they need,» explains Mitchell. «You set up a Huddle, invite all your collaborators your boss, your team work in the cloud to share all the information and work on the campaigns. [And] it’s all synced so everyone is working on the latest version.» Huddle already has a wide range of users from small Shoreditch startups to NASA, the UK government and corporate giants such as Proctor & Gamble.
«The fundamentally different thing from a technology point of view is it’s a single platform on which all these organisations can work,» says Mitchell. «That’s exactly what’s happened in our social lives. Facebook and Twitter offer one platform on which anyone can share photos, files, whatever. In enterprise up until now it’s been totally disconnected I write my thing, someone does their thing, and the only system we had to get together over was email. The idea that you just work with the people in the office doesn’t exist any more you work with people all over the world.»
The collaborative buzz in east London is such that some are starting to re-evaluate the prime minister’s words: can the cockney Tech City actually rival California’s Silicon Valley? Could this be the breeding ground for the UK’s Google or Facebook the next big thing? Mitchell certainly hopes so. «We want to be that company, a multi-billion dollar business,» he says. «We have tripled or more in size every year since we started. We’ve taken money from US and UK venture capitalists to grow … so we’re on that track.» The rub, however, is money. Mitchell’s reference to dollars was no slip of the tongue there is a lot more of it in Silicon Valley than there is circling Silicon roundabout. «We are a UK company and it’s our ambition to take on the best of the world and win», says Mitchell. «But we’re doing it with American money.»
The hope is that being strategically positioned next to the City of London’s recuperating financial district, and with the injection of interest (and infrastructure) of the summer Olympics will give to the area, the future looks even brighter. «The early foundations are looking fantastic. That’s definitely true,» says Mitchell. «There’s a much stronger vibe, growth and interest than there has been for many years it just needs a steady influx of money to help some great early stage businesses to become true world beaters. The companies are definitely there.»
Published in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/innovation-nation-awards/future-workplace