The London cluster

By now everyone knows about innovation clusters. It goes something like this: people start doing interesting things, they achieve some success, so more people come to hang around, spin out of them, bolt on, get inspired and go beyond them, and they in turn achieve some success, and the process continues and keeps building and before you know it, boom, you’ve got Silicon Valley.
The lesson is that innovation breeds innovation, that proximity is important to spreading ideas and that clusters of talent, competition, investment and know-how are the motors behind productive change.

At the minute I think we are seeing the making of such a cluster in London that puts it at the centre of global publishing innovation, ahead even of that behemoth of the book industry, New York. Publishers in London are creating the new kinds of products and taking the sort of interesting risks that define innovation, and they are doing this because of the set up of the city.

Silicon Roundabout might not be The Valley, but it remains the most fertile space for tech start-ups in Europe. The nation’s media and trade publishers are overwhelmingly concentrated on the capital (for better or for worse). Publishers and developers jostle for space in offices and bars alike. Most of the country’s hottest new media businesses are a 15 minute cab ride from most publishers, something less true in New York. We are starting to see a network that connects entrepreneurs, writers, editors, games developers, coders, media services, digital studios, designers and thinkers, all working at ways of re-inventing books and the publishing industry.

On the one hand we have publishing projects like Bloomsbury Drama Online, The Waste Land app, Authonomy, The Night Circus, Macmillan Compass and Pottermore. On the other we have start ups like Unbound, Curatr, Valobox, Enhanced Editions, Us Two, Bardowl, Express Reads, Somethin’ Else, Fail Better,  Six to Start and many more. These lists only scratch the surface, but they describe a common ecosystem that is propelling bold, imaginative and transformative ideas, feeding off each other, spurring one another on.

If the United States is an ocean, its creative, media and technology industries split over the vastness of North America, London is a pond, in a non-pejorative sense. Ponds are ferociously competitive and fecund areas. New York of course has Silicon Alley, and at one remove perhaps I am totally missing the buzz of what is really happening in Brooklyn lofts, and perhaps too I am overlooking much of the undoubtedly brilliant work taking place on the Continent and elsewhere. Equally I’m not doing down the rest of the UK – Britain is a closely knit place, and London sits at the centre of a web that spans the whole country. There is a huge amount of traffic between London, Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Manchester and other centres of books and technology, but the tight cluster of London sits at the heart of it all. Clusters, after all, are by definition geographically limited. Nor is it to be complacent; complacency isn’t an option in such an environment.

Retailers, estate agents and financiers have all started talking about “the London effect” – a property of the capital to defy economic gravity and keep growing in the face of a national slump. Publishing too has its own London effect – what happens when you put a whole lot of smart people, with different backgrounds, specialities and visions, in a relatively small space, and tell them to beat Gutenberg.



John Pettigrew's picture

I'm not sure that the important clusters these days, especially in tech, aren't online - at places like FutureBook (!). Physical proximity gives more, it's true, but communication and the spread of ideas happens in communities, and those can be online too.

A lot of the draw to London is (and always has been) cultural rather than real. I well remember when I worked for Elsevier, and our branch was moved into London because (and I quote) "it's the hub of the electronic communications network". Talk about missing the point! Needless to say, I took redundancy instead...

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