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February 9, 2016updated 04 Sep 2016 10:25pm

Countdown to City Hall: London Mayor candidates prepare for tech debate showdown in race to make London a digital hub

Analysis: What do tech giants such as SAS and PwC want to hear from the future Mayor of London, as the candidates go head-to-head in a showdown put on by London Tech Advocates and techUK.

By James Nunns

London’s Mayoral candidates will go head-to-head over the future of London’s tech scene this evening, 9th February 2016. The five candidates will debate the key issues around the capital’s digital economy, in a showdown put on by London Tech Advocates and techUK.

The candidates are Sadiq Kahn for Labour, Zac Goldsmith for the Conservatives, Caroline Pidgeon for the Lib Dems, Sian Berry for the Greens, and Peter Whittle for UKIP.

Given how important London’s digital economy is to both the economic well being of the city and the country, a lot of attention will be paid to what the candidates have to say. The tech and information industries have contributed nearly one third of London’s job growth since 2009, currently employing at least 382,000 people.

TechUK and London Tech Advocates laid out their manifesto for the next Mayor of London in which it highlighted key areas such as a shortage of skilled workers and concerns regarding cyber security. The manifesto also called on the new mayor to make full digital inclusion a top priority, including convening a working group in the first 100 days of the new administration.

That document also called on whoever succeeds Boris Johnson to work more closely with the private sector, as well as the Metropolitan Police, to help fully equip both citizens and firms to protect themselves against cyber threats.

Charlotte Kelloway, Head of Policy TechUK, told CBR about the importance of the tech industry’s role in London’s economy and what the manifesto calls for.

"The tech industry plays a vital role in London’s economy. It’s crucial that the next Mayor is prepared to harness the potential of digital to transform London, not just for business but for the lives of all Londoners.

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"The recommendations in our Manifesto clearly outline how tech can be used to transform our city and our lives. We’ll be looking for candidates to outline a vision for London that has digital technologies at its heart – from a strategy for digital inclusion; to using data to improve public services right across the Boroughs; to how they’ll support our fast-growing tech scene to deliver new jobs and growth."

CBR looks at what can be expected from tonight’s tech debate, sizing up the candidates and their positon on the London tech scene.

 

Zac Goldsmith – Conservatives

In his own blueprint document, Goldsmith said that he wants to help streamline funding for projects such as the Makers Academy, which teaches adults to code in 12 weeks, and that he will launch a £1m "Mayor’s tech challenge" to be held every year. He will also launch a Business Advisory Group which will have representation from groups including TechCity, elected by the business community.

In the debate Goldsmith told CBR: "London’s tech companies are making global waves and now it’s time to scale it up. If I’m elected in May, that is what I’ll do. I’ll make it easier for you to do business in our City.

"The next Mayor needs to guarantee affordable office space, faster broadband and access to the best possible talent. Now is not the time to experiment with London’s success. Let’s work together to make that happen."

 

Sadiq Kahn – Labour

His main opponent Kahn, said in a press release that he would use tonight’s platform to: "appoint a chief digital officer – a dynamic person responsible in my team for delivering a world beating digital strategy for London."

He says that he "will also use planning powers to ensure a commitment to investing in broadband infrastructure."

Furthermore, Kahn promises to pledge that "in my first year as Mayor I’ll establish a review – working with you – into what we need to do to make London number one for digital."

He will vow to recognise broadband as a core public utility, "and [take] a stand on the unfair visa rules which hold you back from bringing in top global talents, who benefit not just our economy, but the Brits who get to work alongside."

 

Caroline Pidgeon – Lib Dems

The Lib Dems have not laid out their manifesto but broadband infrastructure is likely to be a key focus for Pidgeon. A spokesperson for her told CBR: "Questions should be asked though as to why London still lags far behind other world cities in areas like the speed of its broadband services. What have previous mayors and their advisers been doing for the past 16 years?

"It is also clear that actions of this Tory government in clamping down on the number of visas being allocated to tech professionals is not helping either."

 

Peter Whittle – UKIP

Looking ahead to the debate, Whittle told CBR: "As the only candidate who believes that Britain should withdraw from the EU, I will be taking the opportunity to emphasis quite how British business, and in particular its small /medium sized businesses, are hampered and strangled by the weight of regulation and directive which comes from Brussels."

 

Sian Berry – Greens

Talking to CBR ahead of tonight’s debate, Berry said: "I think I’m the only candidate that’s worked for a digital start-up company. I know a lot of the problems that start-ups have and what the tech industry in London is all about."

Berry previously worked for the company Symplectic which provides software and services that are designed to help institutions understand their research collaboration networks. The company’s site describes its main as reducing the administrative burden on researchers.

She wants to use the some of the powers and money the Mayor has at their disposal to boost coding in skills. "It very important that children in school get a well rounded education, but that must include the basic skills in coding, because it’s like being able to read and write in the modern world," she said.

Berry plans to raise the issue of big firms taking over UK start-ups in the debate. "We’ll grow a company to the point it’s just ready to start and then something much much bigger, a bigger company will come and take it over. What we want is the next Google, the next Twitter to be based in London and not be taken over by Google or Twitter," she said. "I think it’s a shame that every gets consolidated."

 

Companies

CBR reached out to businesses that have both bases in London and a worldwide presence to see what they are looking for from the mayoral candidates.

London has been set up as digital hub for the UK. Simon Dennis, central government director, SAS, told CBR: "For London to retain its position as a digital hub then the creation of a formal Office of Data Analytics should be on the agenda.

"Low cost in-memory analytics is available on low cost hardware and this democratisation of powerful decision-making means delivery focused end users can self-drive the system to get results quickly. Local authorities can take demographic data, consultation surveys and intelligence from open source, such as the Internet, to gain a deep understanding of population needs and priorities."

Mike Greig, PwC’s UK Digital Leader told CBR that he: "would like to know the candidates’ approach and how they plan to innovate in the area of driverless vehicles, as well as their plans around artificial intelligence including their views on potential threats to the city and work, while ensuring London is innovating and exploring these technologies."

He also wants IoT to play a part in transforming how things happen in London. "Sensor technologies, virtual reality and the internet of things are other areas that I would like to hear about as a way to improve the way the city works and how both citizens and tourists get information, navigate the city and access key services," he said.

Greig is aware that core digital infrastructure is also critical to this debate. "I also want hear about their digital plans, including internet access and improved broad band capabilities, as well as their ideas around better flexibility in home working and connected working across the city, as well as their support for start ups and encouraging digital disruption in our leading organisations," he said. "Digital skills building through training and education in coding and digital skills development also need discussion and solutions."

Robin Daniels, MD, Redpill Group said that the next Mayor of London has the potential to either help or hinder development.
Daniels told CBR: "Policy makers should either help, or get out of the way and the next Mayor of London is likely to either help or hinder development to greater extent than ever before.

"It will be down to the Mayor to define clear, stable and sustainable policies that give businesses the confidence to invest and citizens a voice in what they want from that technology. Those voters and London businesses who rightly question the focus on driverless pods in solving London’s congestion and emissions challenges, for example, should be lobbying for a broader systems-approach, that tackles fully integrated mobility as a real opportunity for positive change.

"The new Mayor will have an even bigger platform than Boris, and that will bring even greater responsibility to support citizen-centric, pragmatic, commercially sound and scalable solutions. Technology is an amplifier of intent and the new Mayor needs to fully comprehend what that means for the people of London."

Although much of the focus is on maintaining London as a digital hub, Clive Longbottom, founder Quocirca, told CBR: "I’ve never been a fan of London as a digital hub – particularly when it is aimed at entrepreneurs and start-ups," and that the capital "is sucking the rest of the UK dry."

This isn’t necessarily a negative, what the next London Mayor needs to be able to work with the rest of the country in order to ensure that it is not just London that is seen as a digital hub but the whole of the UK.

"It would be good to see Mayoral candidates accept this and talk about how best to share the bounty of an overly-fat, overly-expensive London around the whole of the UK." Longbottom suggests providing tax breaks to companies that choose to leave London and set up in other cities around the country.

The election for Mayor of London will take place on May 5th 2016.

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