Khan’s focus on technology will be a winner for London

Sadiq Khan yesterday did what few Labour politicians have done in recent memory – put a pro-business, pro-technology platform centre-stage of his manifesto.

He and his team are right to do so. London is already the tech capital of Europe, and we are closing in on New York and San Francisco. London is home to world-class universities, advanced healthcare research, an international financial centre and major national institutions. Half of all FTSE 100 companies are located in inner London and London’s geographical location between the United States and Asian timezones means that it can link these major markets. This mix means London and the South East will be challenging the west coast of America as tech capital of the world by 2020.

The number of science and technology businesses in London currently stands at around 95,000 employing 700,000 – just over 15 per cent of the London economy as a whole. London’s tech employment grew faster between 2009 and 2013 than New York’s, although less quickly than in San Francisco. In the greater South East (including London, the South East and East) employment in the tech/information sector was 744,000 in 2013, more than in the whole of California, and the growth of 10.2 per cent since 2009 was faster than in California.

There are currently over 50 recognised incubators, accelerators and innovation clusters across the capital, and London saw the number of business units in science and technology sectors grow by 37 per cent between 2003 and 2013.

The tech sector has been working hard to ensure the next mayor should have a focus on supporting tech. The Centre for London tech steering group launched its manifesto in February, and it was debated by all mayoral candidates.

By pledging to take tech to the next level Khan has restated his pitch and pledge to be ‘the most pro-business mayor yet, working in partnership with industry to deliver on skills, infrastructure, and growth’.

This includes decisions like challenging strict visa rules which make it harder for London businesses to bring in the world’s best talent. This will enable high skilled, high talent UK-based firms to win projects and contracts, which otherwise might be sited in North America, or on the continent in competitor cities like Berlin.

Khan also aims to promote start-up premises in housing and commercial developments through his London Plan, and resist the office-to-residential goldrush which is destroying workspace in inner London. Housing, it is important to recognise, is also an important business issue. If rents or prices are too high there is a direct knock-on impact on competitiveness. Failure to solve this issue will mean London loses out.

Another central concern for the entire tech sector is skills. Science and technology, digital media and content, and financial and business services create an extensive demand for 21st century digital skills – either directly through computer programming or through business and systems analysis.

Shockingly only 375 young Londoners in the maintained sector took a computing A-level in 2013 – representing 0.4 per cent of all A-levels taken in London. Khan’s plan for a tech talent pipeline aims to follow the model developed by Bill de Blasio in New York, with more young people (and girls) enabled and encouraged to gain key digital skills, and more apprenticeships in the sector.

London councils and public services also face some of the highest cuts in the country. London’s population is growing: the decade 2011-21 will see our population grow by a million – the fastest rate of acceleration ever. Councils need the tools to deal with change, and those tools will be ones based on digital technology.

The next mayor needs to champion big data and integration so London local government can be the first to redesign public services around the consumer experience, enabled by personal mobile technology and open source thinking. In a decade of austerity budgets, the use of data can drive out costs between public services and allows clearer view of how to spend money efficiently, and preventively. Through greater transparency taxpayers will see our priorities for investment and how we make every pound work as hard as it can.

Leading cities are looking at how they can embed technology to raise awareness and change behaviour through the ‘internet of things’, the network of physical objects and devices embedded with software, sensors, and network connectivity. The mayor’s leadership will be crucial in ensuring that this happens systematically across London boroughs. Crucial to this is leadership and London’s approach to digital public services is the decision to appoint a chief digital officer – a post called for by Tech London Advocates and others.

Wilson’s ‘white heat’ Labour and New Labour were different, but they both elections when Labour led the debate on technology and understood its impacts on society. Taken together the steps outlined by Sadiq are the most pro-tech from a mainstream Labour politician for some time and worthy of note across local government and in Westminster.

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Theo Blackwell is cabinet member for finance and technology policy in the London borough of Camden and a member of the Progress strategy board

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Photo: Derek Gavey

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