This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 07/03/2018.
Croydon Tech City is dead; long live Croydon, tech city
In October 2012, my fellow Croydon Tech City co-founders and I made it our mission to create a sustainable tech ecosystem in Croydon – one that not only brought sector growth to our local economy, but which includes and benefits the local adults, children and SMEs often overlooked in tech sector regeneration strategies. Over the following five and a half years, much like a start-up going through a bootstrapped yet meteoric rise, Croydon Tech City and its community have translated much of our ambitions into the foundations for an ecosystem. We have taken random clusters of tech talent and created a nationally recognised tech ‘scene’; we have driven economic growth and been one of the biggest contributors to Croydon’s reputational change; we’ve been cited in the UK Government Strategy; and most importantly, we’ve touched the lives of thousands of local adults, children, schools and businesses. Having created a platform for a vibrant and inclusive tech sector in Croydon, as of March 2018, Jonny Rose, Sarah Luxford and I have decided to officially shut down all Croydon Tech City organisations. As we step back and look forward to seeing who steps forward to lead the next chapter in Croydon tech, we reflect on our experiences to date and offer the following advice to our successors and anyone else trying to create tech clusters on a shoestring budget.
So much has been achieved since 2012 that we cannot possibly summarise everything in this article, and for those looking to reminisce or to learn from our story, we encourage you to read through the Croydon Citizen‘s online #Croydon #TechCity section and to check our website. What goes without saying however is that while we may lead the strategy and tell the story, it is the energy of the CTC community which has made most activities possible. From the original thirty or so people in a room in 2012, to the original team who began to support Code Clubs (in particular we would like to highlight the amazing and tireless team of Marc Grossman, Saleha Salahudin and Paul Sinnett), to the countless mentors, businesses and individuals who have contributed limitless hours to the Croydon tech cause – without them, none of this would have been possible.
One of Croydon’s strengths is that it contains every type of person imaginable – every ethnicity, socio-economic background, religion, gender, age and more – and it has been a point of pride for us that we’ve managed to engage the full spectrum on our journey, reflecting that diversity in our community and on our stages. While it has been harder to maintain as CTC’s growth has exceeded the ability of a volunteer group, and the community begins to reflect the imbalances of the tech industry as a whole, we hope that the next phase of the Croydon story has a continued focus on engaging everyone in the borough with the opportunities of the digital and technology sectors.
Telling the Croydon tech story
One of our greatest successes has been telling the Croydon tech narrative, resulting in Croydon Tech City or Croydon tech being covered in over 300 articles since 2012 – that’s nearly five per month, including the recent levels of lower activity – in local publications, as well as the Financial Times, the Guardian, BBC, CityAM and more. In addition to telling Croydon’s story in a coherent fashion, as we have grown from Tech Village to Tech Town and hopefully a Tech City, we have taken ‘Croydon Tech City on Tour’ around the UK, and around the world to Japan, Australia, Israel, San Fransisco. At home, we have raised the profile of tech by facilitating or running hundreds of events attracting thousands of attendees, literally hung tech company logos off lampposts, and run official tours (www.croydontechcity.com/map). For better or worse, tech is a feature for anyone trying to sell the borough in a new light. We hope that our successors will continue to tell the Croydon story in such a fashion, remembering the stories of local people and new entrants to the market, and remembering that Croydon’s ecosystem is part of a larger UK story that is being told too.
How to play the game and how to compromise
Since 2012, with no meaningful budget and little practical support from politicians or businesses, Croydon Tech City has delivered a fledgling tech ecosystem to Croydon. Everything necessary is in place to grow an even larger tech ecosystem that could not only bring significant economic growth but also scale the opportunities across the borough, including people who are usually left behind in these strategies. Our approach has drawn plaudits, including being called ‘a blueprint for the future’ by Matt Hancock (the Cabinet Minister for Digital for the UK), the tech sector has been endorsed by local politicians of every party, and the local tech sector is a feature all commercial brochures trying to hype the Croydon markets. Try as we might, we never managed to convert any of these words into something that could support us to grow the Croydon tech world, and when support was needed the only resource that we could count on was our volunteers. The local system isn’t equipped to support a grassroots approach like ours – which prioritises local people, skills and jobs – and seemingly prefers to fund physical structures and photographic opportunities. Our successor needs to find a way of better playing this game: making commercial arrangements with businesses, working with a council struggling to understand a new sector, and especially dealing with local politicians.
The good news is that everything is in Croydon’s favour: in Sussex Innovation Centre, one of our biggest supporters, and in TMRW Hub, Croydon boasts some of the best workspace facilities in South London, and Matthews Yard and the Business Exchange Hub and others offer even more alternatives; companies such as Natterbox, Connected Space and, of course, Dotmailer continue to be successful and are just a few of the tech companies now operating in Croydon; the complement of old and new enterprise organisations in AS Watson, Bodyshop, the Home Office and its digital teams, and HMRC all add to a culture of tech, attracting and retaining talent in their own right; Croydon’s tech opportunities to help young people are increasing thanks to its volunteer programmes and proactive thinking by Croydon College and other schools; Croydon’s cultural offering – in particular in Rise Gallery and Turf Projects – continues to grow and offer more to Croydon than just business. Most importantly, the Croydon story isn’t over – whilst it has slowed down for eighteen months, opportunities such as the Croydon Tech City ‘Techzone’ in the Central Library and the Croydon Tech Playbook that we have written will help Croydon Council and our successors to proceed, we look forward to what Croydon’s tech city does next. Good luck!