Spatial Imaginaries and Tech Cities

Max Nathan
Apr 29, 2019 · 3 min read
The original Silicon Roundabout. © Matt Biddulph

I have a new paper out in the Journal of Economic Geography, written with Emma Vandore and Georgina Voss.

It draws on 10 years of fieldwork by the three of us, and looks at tech clusters, specifically how well place branding tools work in developing and governing cluster ecosystems. As a case study, we look at the tech scene in East London — both the emergence of Silicon Roundabout during the 2000s and its transformation into Tech City during the 2010s.

We’re particularly interested in the use of ‘spatial imaginaries’ — simplified and selective ‘mental maps’ of a supercomplex reality which selectively draw on existing territories, places, networks and scales, as well as symbolic markers and sites. For policymakers, these tools can be very helpful devices for description and positioning, including developing place brands; but they turn out to be less good for decision-making and day-to-day policy implementation.

Here’s the abstract:

We explore place branding as an economic development strategy for technology clusters, using London’s ‘Tech City’ initiative as a case study. We site place branding in a larger family of policies that develop spatial imaginaries and specify affordances and constraints on place brands and brand-led strategies. Using mixed methods over a long timeframe, we analyse Tech City’s emergence and the overlapping, competing narratives that preceded and succeeded it, highlighting day-to-day challenges and more basic tensions. While a strong brand has developed, we cast doubt on claims that policy has had a catalytic effect, at least in the ways originally intended.

The open access version of the paper is here.

Drawing all this raw material together was quite a business, and we had very helpful support from referees at JOEG as well as Neil Coe, the editor. That said, it was also pretty fun to write. Here’s perhaps my favourite bit:

The Old St Roundabout is the physical heart of Tech City, and provides a resonant visual symbol of the cluster. The roundabout is not conventionally photogenic but there is little sign that it discourages business from locating in the area. Indeed, streetscape improvements were the lowest priority identified by local firms surveyed in 2012 (Nathan and Vandore, 2014). Nevertheless, in December the same year, David Cameron and Boris Johnson unveiled surprise proposals for a radical redevelopment of the roundabout, featuring a multi-storey, architecturally iconic hub for startups and the local community — ‘Europe’s largest indoor civic space’ — and extensive surrounding pedestrianisation and streetscaping. The only visual detail was provided in renderings, leading The Register to dub the development ‘The £50m THING’.

The THING makes sense as part of a branding-led strategy, in which visual identity and messages of transformation and change are central. However, as a concrete proposal it suffered from three major problems. First, the actual delivery of the proposals was unfortunate: they were presented by the politicians to a room full of local technology firms and critical urbanists, many of whom immediately took to social media to air their reactions.

Second, the proposals lacked credibility: it was a further example of a top-down attempt to terraform the area, and as such was immediately in tension with the PM’s stated desire to ‘go with the grain’ and ‘help where we can’ (Cameron, 2010). Worse, there was no evidence of any real local demand for the proposals: rather, this was a classic instance of selectively co-opting an existing asset and repackaging it for an outside audience of investors and developers. Third, and most prosaically, the plans turned out to be impossible to deliver: Transport for London objected that the proposals placed too much physical weight on the tube station below. That this basic issue was not picked up pre-announcement is another example of the limits to the ‘loose’ approach to policy.

I hope you enjoy reading it.

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