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Why Britain can’t hold on to its unicorns

The United States may well be starting to lose its dominance on the global stage, but it’s hard to deny that its native Silicon Valley has been the envy of global governments for decades. Even China, which generally looks upon American culture with disdain, has been stealthily building clusters of Silicon ‘somethings’, if not valleys.

Here, research and development funding has swelled by an average of 64 per cent year on year for the past half-decade – all with the hope of creating the same west-coast sweet spot somewhere to the east. Yet, so far, no country can claim to have replicated the prized unicorn farm of the US.

In Britain, many lay the blame squarely at the gates of the City, a square mile of short-termism which lacks the west-coast willingness to invest in weird and wonderful ideas that don’t immediately turn a profit. Others, like Lord Drayson, founder of Drayson Technologies call it the ‘country house problem’ – a very British penchant to make just enough money to buy a nice estate before selling up and stepping back (often to an opportunistic foreign investor). And, despite efforts by the Cameron government to light a fire under Tech City in east London, ambitious British startups still find that California is the only place to build a billion-dollar business.

It’s worth noting that just because we don’t have a Google or a Facebook doesn’t mean Britain isn’t great at technology. In fact, recent figures show that more than half of Europe's 'unicorns' originated in Britain in the past year. So why are the coveted household names so hard to come by? Even ARM Holdings – recently sold to Japanese telecoms company, SoftBank – was mourned as ‘Britain’s most successful tech firm you never heard of.’

Perhaps part of the problem is that the UK tech industry doesn’t have a unifying brand. When successes come out of America, they do so under a single metonym, even if (like Facebook) they were developed hundreds of miles away. While global politics is conducted between Beijing, the White House, Downing Street and the Kremlin, the only international voice for the tech community is the famed enclave in northern California. The UK has never had a comparable label for the singular and disparate successes that punctuate its history.

The BBC map of tech jobs relative to population offers another, similar explanation. It shows a well-distributed community of technologists in the UK: from Manchester to Reading to Oxford and Cambridge – a stark contrast to the single address shared by the Googles, Apples and Amazons. Indeed, according to many, there’s one ingredient which binds the successes of Silicon Valley, it’s collision. Talent moves relatively freely from one company to another and ideas collide and develop. This phenomenon of “clustering”– where multiple businesses in the same sector huddle together for mutual benefit – is very real and goes straight down into the collectivist counter culture which founded it over 70 years ago.

Indeed, the ideology we associate with these global technologies has a very deep local set of roots in Silicon Valley and is not easily replicable. California is 3,000 miles from New York, Boston, and the East Coast and has always been a place where people go to try new things out; to try new ways of living that might not have found a home or acceptance in other parts of the country.

Between 1966 and 1973, it saw the largest wave of commune building in all of history. During that period, the people building those communes hoped to build communities which contrasted mainstream politics. And, in many ways, as an alternative to an East Coast bureaucratic, individualist and top-down way of looking at the world. In this respect, Silicon Valley is more accurately described as an American anomaly, rather than a totem of its success. Its culture is unequivocally collectivist, one that is based on valuing the needs of a group or a community over the self.

Often, this results in a higher incidence of risk-seeking behaviour because of what sociologists call the ‘cushion effect,’ by which the network will help out any group member who loses a lot of money after selecting a risky option. 

Individualist cultures by contrast (notably, New York and London), people are expected to bear the consequences of their own decision. This closeness among society means that adoption of new technologies diffuses fast. As Michael S Malone, technology journalist and author put it in a BBC interview in 2014: “The Valley didn't come freighted with old attitudes and cultures, but was free to create one of its own: risk-taking, multi-cultural, meritocratic and most of all, entrepreneurial.”

It’s very difficult to do that in London – not only is it incredibly expensive, but it’s too disparate to create any sort of community. Prices per square foot tend to be inversely proportionate to innovation, particularly in the nascent stages of building a culture of industry.

Until Britain can find and invest in swathes of cheap land – in an area where top talent actually wants to live – we’ll keep selling our successes before they reach their true potential (and buy ourselves a country house instead).

Phil Borge, business services director, Eulogy (opens in new tab)

Image source: Shutterstock/Yorkman