Sunday, 14 December 2014

On innovation systems and careers

fishbowl jump by Kay Kim
A few days ago Timehop popped up a link to Brighton: The UK's Silicon Valley or Just a Feeder City for London? that was written a year ago and the situation has changed that much (although 15below could be another name to go with Brandwatch! ;-)) The story laid out was quite familiar, very few of my friends at university stayed in the area though and I moved out for 4 years getting experience in ... you guessed it in London! It also chimes in with the effects of innovation systems talked about in the book Get off the Grass: Kickstarting New Zealand’s Innovation Economy by Shaun Hendy and Paul Callaghan.

In Chapter 3 of Get off the Grass the authers tell the story of the origin of Sillicon Valley and how agglormeration had made it successful, this area previously had an industry manufactoring valves that had powered electrical circuits before transitors.

The story of Silicon Valley nicely illustrates the three key aspects of the agglomeration process. First, knowledge spillovers played an important part in the development of the transistor as employees jumped from one start-up to the next, taking their skills and experience with them. Second, the economies of scale in production that developed as the military and the Apollo programme increased their orders for transistors eventually took the industry to the point where the transistor was cheap enough to be incorporated into consumer goods. Once Silicon Valley had gained its edge in the semiconductor industry, it became very difficult for firms in other regions to remain competitive.

The Silicon Beach label and attempt to create a creative digital agency centre fails because of this diversity. We have the graduates produced by the university but none of the traditional printing and publishing industry, to supply experienced skilled workers, or large companies to use the services of a creative agency. There is some scepticism locally about how much substance there is to this kind of effort and the local benefit of the two universities in the city, for example @SkidRowOn_Sea isn't a fan of the hype given to digital agencies:

Part of the reasons behind this were discussed in chapter 4 of Get Off The Grass with the success of Nokia and interplay between the parent industry providing the skilled workforce, much like Silicon Valley, and the investment in academia in related fields of study provided the ecosystem

one of the key ingredients behind Finland’s success was the development of a cluster of companies and institutions around Nokia that created a robust innovation ecosystem in which business could flourish.

Ultimately you can't just create a Silicon Valley by supporting start-ups in one industry newly transplanted into an area. Although agglomeration effects help, you need to develop a whole eco-system with not only supporting industries - say suppliers and potential customers - but different kinds of companies in the same industry to allow progression and experience to stay in the area to do this.

So, what happens if you do graduate, find a job in Silicon Beach then after a couple of years want to move on but aren't keen on commuting - and with tweets like a regular occupancy in my timeline, is it any wonder people aren't keen on commuting?

Ancedotally, After a while this tends to push people into moving up to London if they can't get a job back in Brighton. This troubles me a bit, you lose some of that "knowledge spill over" talked about above. Personally to get around this I mainly attend out of work meetups in London, for example either at the BCS HQ or ThoughtWorks briefing, to meet a wider range of people working on more varied projects. London has by far the largest percentage of graduates in its workforce compared to other major cities.

House prices are forcing a reaction against this pushing push people away from London, but according to Office of National Statistic (via the Guardian) they aren't coming down the coast, they are going to cities like Birmingham and other regional centres. 
What does this mean for Brighton? well we suffer from proximity to London that has an unusually high draw on graduates, we don't seem to have an industry for agglomeration effects to be beneficial ... although with software product companies like Brandwatch, Pure360 and 15below growing in size with their network of national and international clients I am fairly optimistic that we may be at the start of this process. It will require some commitment in providing the office space and infrastructure to support companies as they grow from moving and importantly allow other companies to setup bases here, how different would the landscape look for graduates and expereinced workers alike with a Facebook or Microsoft having some kind of local presence?

Should we design better products for older people?

This week I've been having a bit of think about products for an older audience, prompted by this tweet by Tom Peters ("The red bull...