When walking north from Farringdon station in London, the immediate neighbourhood seems distinctly average. There is very little out of the ordinary about it. If anything, the buildings trend toward looking slightly uninspired, more traditional and industrial than modern. However, if you take a slightly closer look, you might notice something else. If you peek through the ground floor windows of the buildings, you are likely to see interiors which diverge abruptly from the exterior facade of the buildings. The interiors are full of brighter colours, wide open spaces, and often many flat screen monitors. There is clearly something interesting going on in Farringdon, but the question is what exactly.
This area of Farringdon is part of what is sweepingly referred to as the Silicon Roundabout, a term which encompasses the growing tech and start-up scene which is blossoming in London. There seems to be a unique harmony between old and new as the start-up offices bring their techy flair to a neighbourhood whose buildings seem to be a remnant of a bygone era. It is in this paradoxical neighbourhood that LivePerson, a company I recently visited, has its offices. The complex where the offices reside is itself surrounded by industrial era buildings, but sports a unique look of its own which manages to merge traditional design with modern tastes, demonstrating a pleasing use of steel and glass in all the right places.
From the roof of the office building, you can see the London skyline including the London Eye, Gherkin, Shard and St Paul’s Cathedral. The view embodies what the Farringdon neighbourhood represents. While directly in front of you the most traditional of buildings can be seen, the latest cutting edge skyscrapers are visible just slightly further in the distance; demonstrating tradition together with innovation.
The symbiosis of tradition and innovation is a key element of the British relationship with high tech. While the common narrative for modern technology is very much focused on figureheads from America, the history of computing owes much of its chapters to British ingenuity. Alan Turing, a member of British intelligence during WWII laid much of the groundwork for the first ever computer constructed. He was also a pioneer in the field of Artificial Intelligence and Cryptography. In more recent history, the advent of the internet itself is largely attributable to a Brit — Sir Tim Berners Lee.
But what can Silicon Valley learn from the Silicon Roundabout? Upon reflection, it appears to me that the buildings in Farringdon hint toward the most important lesson — combining tradition with innovation. Technologists seek the newest and the greatest products and software on the market. This is part of their drive to learn about and build newer and more innovative things. However, this often translates into a mindset of ‘out with the old and in with the new’. This mindset also goes hand-in-hand with the concept of thinking outside of the box. However, elevating something merely because it is new, is not necessarily the correct answer at all times. Consider a software project, it has constraints; time, budget and staff are among those which are commonplace. If the team is presented with a challenge, it can either solve the challenge by creating something entirely new, or perhaps by combining existing components in a new way. Solving the problem with something completely new may sound attractive, but it brings with it further risks. Moreover, if we take into account some of the most innovative products of our time, we can see that they were mostly a combination of existing concepts in a novel fashion. For instance, Steve Jobs himself drew attention to the fact that the iPhone was a combination of a phone, an iPod, and an internet communication device. When all new innovation is viewed from the perspective of what elements it borrows from its predecessors, innovation starts looking more like it follows an evolutionary pattern.
What my visit taught me is that not only can innovation and tradition be reconciled, but they can form a symbiotic and complementary relationship. We should appreciate the fact that there were those who came before us and paved the way to bring us the tools we have. We should also realize that thinking inside the box is not passe, as long as we create something new from the tools we find within its confines. As we move forward and disrupt industries and redefine the way that the world economy is driven, we would do well to remember the words of Sir Isaac Newton: ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’.
Picture: “Panorama of City of London during The Shard’s opening laser show” by Alexander Kachkaev — Panorama of City of London during The Shard’s opening laser show. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons — http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panorama_of_City_of_London_during_The_Shard%E2%80%99s_opening_laser_show.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Panorama_of_City_of_London_during_The_Shard%E2%80%99s_opening_laser_show.jpg