In a brave admission, the Prime Minister’s “Ambassador” to Tech City, Ben Hammersley, last week admitted that UKTI’s bluster about east London is unlikely to have any economic impact. Here’s how the quango’s impending Götterdämmerung will play out.
So utterly is it beyond parodic assessment, it is hard to know how to begin commenting on the contents of Ben Hammersley’s recent speech at Queen Mary University about the purpose of east London’s Tech City cluster. Hammersley is a sort of dimwit wannabe Mystic Meg whom Tech City chief executive Eric van der Kleij likes to deploy as a yoof-friendly sidekick from time to time. Here is some of what he said.
“Tech City is actually the realisation that there is something very special here. We have a community that has become a place that nurtures people into a set of skills that can be a blessing for everyone and everyone in this community from the imams in the mosques to the academics in the universities to the graffiti artists and the market traders and the strippers and everybody else have all come together [sic] to create a place which in its totality seems to be about to create a new renaissance, and not just a local renaissance but a genuine, capital-R renaissance.”
Many questions present themselves on examination of these words. One wonders first – how do I put this delicately? – about the state of the Ambassador’s mental health. One wonders how comfortable the imams he invokes would really be “coming together” with two-bit tarts at the Griffin on Clerkenwell Road. One wonders how the International Business Times and other eminently sensible outlets managed to report on this garbage with a straight face. And one wonders, above all, how Hammersley is managing to get away with this sustained act of satire.
For that, surely, is the territory the Tech City Investment Organisation has now passed into. The only alternative explanation is that Hammersley’s latest deranged and self-regarding oration is a more significant speech than it first appears: one in which the quango finally admits that its efforts are doomed to failure, and that, for all its posturing, its stunts, its fibs, its appropriation of credit for the accomplishments of the private sector – and even of others in Government – and its desperate, pathetic spinelessness and evasion in the face of criticism, it will have no measurable economic impact at all, and must fall back on the old lie, “social good”.
This is the aetiology of the waffle from Hammersley, who claims, preposterously, that the inhabitants of Tech City have hidden “first behind a geek culture, and now we hide behind numbers, behind investment targets and numerical measures of success and by not asking why and digging into what it is we are doing; fundamentally we have missed what made us great in the first place”. It would perhaps be churlish to draw attention to his use of personal pronouns – has Hammersley ever even been to Old Street? – but it is no secret that his closest contact with the private sector in a decade is at the dining tables of the poor fools he persuades to listen to his ponderous ramblings at the Royal Geographic Society.
Julie Burchill once wrote of Stephen Fry that he is a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person looks like. I can think of no better moniker for Hammersley, whose lectures on the “post-digital, post-internet age” and “stillness, mindfulness and best practice in the day-to-day use of digital technologies” would be hilarious were it not for the fact that you and I pay the majority of his salary and that his accomplishments in east London are yet to prove the considered assessment we ran in December wrong.
Metrics for success
There is a reason Tech City runs screaming from “numerical measures of success”: it is incapable of providing any. There is no evidence that any start-up has received funding as a result of introductions Tech City has made; no evidence that any start-up has established a transformative commercial partnership or acquired a key staff member or users or anything else as a result of their machinations. There are receipts for a few hefty bar bills, the dim memory of hangovers long since recovered from, and a lot of laughs at the criminal uselessness of the quango’s public relations operation.
There have been no policy wins: they were achieved by the Prime Minister’s senior policy advisor, Rohan Silva, even though Tech City tried to claim the credit. Nor has there been any growth in the number of jobs created in east London. And when UKTI and Tech City can’t even help British entrepreneurs get visas to relocate to the Valley (I hear complaints along these lines on a monthly basis), you have to wonder what on earth they are for.
Privately, the more established entrepreneurs guffaw, as David Cameron himself must guffaw, at the vanity and hubris of this tiny, economically unproductive community’s taxpayer-funded PR wing. Venture capitalists tell me that they play along for kick-backs. Cameron, meanwhile, has repeatedly told interviewers that he considers the M4 corridor to be “Britain’s Silicon Valley”.
I have said before that the writing appears to be on the wall for Tech City. Now its end is nearing, and desperately, desperately, desperately the vermin will scurry to safer places in dark recesses of the public sector, never to be held to account for their failures. Indeed the exodus may be beginning already: Eric van der Kleij is moving his base of operations to Canary Wharf, distressingly close to my own home. Christ! He may even be in the same postcode.
Ostensibly, the move will allow van der Kleij to better supervise the final and most preposterously wrongheaded phase of his organisation’s mission to re-engineer east London: his attempt to relocate as many Shoreditch businesses that he can to Stratford. Alas, he may even succeed in persuading a few, largely because his organisation is itself culpable for pricing the start-ups he claims to represent out of east London. A cunning plan to force them elsewhere, it must be admitted.
But it’s a plan in service of deeply objectionable and politically-motivated ideals. Start-ups must not be exploited for the purposes of urban regeneration in crappy outer London boroughs. Nor should their ideals be distorted by limp ideologues who want to see the world, “just so, you know, like, connected” – the Californian (and more honest) version of Hammersley’s earnest bleating.
When it is clear that the tide of public opinion is turning and that objectives are not being met, when it is clear that the incompetence and inexperience of its operation have turned it into a laughing stock, and when it is clear that the careers of those responsible can only be rescued by brutal reverse ferrets into other Government departments, quangos retreat into vague waffle about social good as a means of insulating themselves from criticism.
Thus the lumbering ineptitude of a business-focused Government department is being transmogrified into a social engineering project: rat-bag socialism from an increasingly socialist administration. Tech City was never supposed to be about measurable results, we are suddenly told, via the medium of futurist windbag Hammersley. This is about making the world a better place! Sorry boys, but The Kernel’s not letting you off that easily.
Accountability, at last
So far, Tech City has been unable to convey its successes, justify its existence or explain away its cock-ups. Having shamelessly courted every journalist and blogger it could find, the organisation has had an easy ride from the press. But that is set to change. As signs emerge that Tech City is shifting its focus to the Olympic Park, the quango risks becoming a victim of its own hot air.
The worm is turning. No longer is it just me and The Register’s intrepid Andrew Orlowski keeping UKTI honest in east London. The word is getting out – internationally, too. Even WIRED, not traditionally the most incisive of critics, now makes space for dissenting views. Of course, we wait in vain for the remotest hint of journalistic process, integrity or common sense from the Financial Times, but that’s par for the course these days.
Further up the food chain, two reports are on the way, each of which will make essential reading for Tech City-watchers. The first is the quango’s own “one year on” round-up, which is due to be published on Friday. Observers should expect a vast cavalcade of distortions, exaggerations and self-aggrandisements. We will be reading the report closely for them and we will document them in detail here on Monday. Where there are redrawn maps of Shoreditch, outlandish claims about the number of businesses in the area and absurd rhetoric, we will reveal them.
The second is a hefty assessment of the project by the newly formed Centre for London think tank. This is a report whose contents ought to trouble UKTI. Word on the street is that it will make for painful reading for those at the heart of Rohan Silva’s grim vanity project. The report will analyse how effective the quango has been at achieving its stated aims and whether those aims were laudable and cohesive in the first place.
Duplicity and death
What these reports are unlikely to fully expose is the scale of Tech City’s duplicity and double-dealing. And here we get into truly ugly territory, because the organisation’s Freedom of Information-dodging salary arrangements barely scratch the surface of the methods routinely used by UKTI and taken advantage of by Tech City to avoid accountability and transparency.
I’ll give just one example for now. My friend Loic Le Meur is too diplomatic and conciliatory a man ever to speak on the subject – he refused to with me – but he was reportedly incandescent with rage that while cajoling him into bringing his flagship LeWeb conference to London in June, van der Kleij omitted to mention the London Web Summit that was to occur earlier the same year in the same city.
Perhaps we should not expect commercial nous from any branch of government, so let’s chalk this one up to mediocrity over malice. But the impact on ticket sales for LeWeb should have been obvious even to UKTI: London’s start-ups, having doled out cash to attend LWS in the hope of an invitation one day to the invitation-only f.ounders conference run by the same team, will be reluctant to pay for a second pricey conference in their own city. Quite why others have been squeamish to report on such things I have covered in detail elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the memory of those languorous evenings at Buckingham Palace has lasted longer than even UKTI could have hoped.
One thing we perhaps ought to expect is that grand announcements made about investment capital are not simply outright lies. Where, for example, is the £100 million announced at Tech City’s genesis for investment into technology businesses? I am unable to find a single company that has even pitched to the organisation, less still secured investment from this mysterious entity. If any readers can enlighten me as to what happened to this vast sum of promised money, I would be exceedingly grateful. Needless to say, the tech press has been of no use.
While lying by omission to partners and the community to secure its own marketing objectives, this odious quango continues to cosy up to Koran shredders, compromised hacks who recycle its press releases and nontrepreneurs who flutter their eyelids and spread their legs in the hope of free, taxpayer-funded holidays of the sort that were offered to cheerleader-in-chief Glenn Shoosmith of Bookingbug. Unedifying doesn’t cover it.
The end is coming. They know the game is up, so they have changed the narrative. The imams, the academics, the graffiti artists, the market traders and, yes, the strippers can all see this Potemkin village for what it is, and now that others are scenting weakness, the about-turns and the disappearing acts will come swiftly. If the civil servants have their way, the dénouement will be bloodless: a silent sweeping under the carpet of sins and sedition.
For the sake of the start-ups whose hopes were raised and are shortly to be dashed, for the sake of the poor bastard property developers who are moving a Ralph Lauren, a Prada and a Christian Louboutin into Old Street – I do not jest – so taken in are they by the public relations spiel, for the sake of the country which has been bored and misled and has had its money misspent, and for the world at large, whose airports and civic centres have been sullied by those fucking hideous “Technology Is Great (Britain)” billboards with the unscannable QR codes, such a blameless absolution cannot be permitted.
When the inevitable occurs, it will not be a quiet death, dignified by discretion. Now that Tech City has thrown in the towel and refashioned itself as a social enterprise, it must suffer the humiliating public capitulation it deserves: a rowdy collapse, accompanied by social media seppuku and meticulous deconstruction. Nothing else will do.