How (not?) to build a TechNation

Tom Forth, . Updated

I have consistently argued that part of why the North of England is poorer than it should be is because it lacks strong institutions. I have consistently celebrated TechNorth as the kind of new institution that could reverse that trend. I have consistently challenged the government to set TechNorth free so that it can be a leading, challenging, risk-taking institution for the North.

I have been much less open about the insight I gained back when TechNorth was still being dreamed up

The first sniff I got of the project was on 02/10/2014. An email from the Cabinet Office invited me to discuss a new government plan to help grow digital clusters in the North of England. There were two odd things straight away. First, the meeting was at a BIS office in the middle of an industrial estate on the edge of Leeds. Second, the meeting was on the same day as a full-day Northern Futures event organised by the same office. We were hosting that event at ODILeeds. I arranged to have a chat the evening before the meeting when the organiser arrived from London but they forgot to call me.

So I went to the Northern Futures event at ODILeeds. I remember that I somewhat lost my cool. My blog post at Culture Vulture explains why. I later learned that my missed mystery meetings were part of a series of events that made TechNorth happen. The people in the North of England who'd kicked the process off had already done a huge amount of work but before everything became official the spectrum of people involved needed broadening. I couldn't make the meeting but I was soon back in the fold as part of an email list making final arrangements.

I'm not going to share those emails but I'll share the last one I sent on 27/10/2014

Hi all,

1. This is great. Thanks to everyone who's got it this far. Let's make it happen.

2. I'm with [PERSON]. The needs to be - and be seen to be - by the North for the North. If not, many businesses of my size won't get involved. TCUK's support and help is great, but the proposers must be the ones who drive this forward. My take on why isn't important so it's at the bottom if it interests you.

Thanks,

Tom

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The TCUK brand is toxic to engagement with Northern startups in my experience. To see a good symptom of why, compare its branding with France's equivalent LaFrenchTech. Where France's push is a national effort, TCUK's branding, image, and history are London first, UK second. This matters.

TCUK recently sent out an email asking tech startups to fill in a survey so they could map national competences. I asked a handful of companies at a party this Friday night in Leeds if they'd filled it in. Most had seen it. None had filled it in. Why? "I assumed it was a London thing" one said. These are not inward-looking people at all; just rationally sceptical given the structure and recent history of UK institutions.

Moving TCUK's headquarters and money to the North would fix the problem - but I suspect that won't happen. Second best is TCUK supporting TechNorth and delivering its expertise as part of that brand. I think that's what happening and that's great! But I caution that if it looks like TCUK are leading rather than supporting on TechNorth we're going to lose a lot of goodwill and engagement from a lot of good companies.

 

The backlash from that email was not pretty. It was made clear that my concerns were unfounded and that I was silly for raising them. I left the process of creating TechNorth in the North to the great people who'd brought it that far.

And yet with Claire Braithwaite's resignation after just six months in charge of TechNorth it seems that my fears weren't unfounded. Some details are already public. Much more will come into the open in time.

The North of England has lost an important champion of digital. Whoever takes over at TechNorth will face an important choice; lead the institution that the North needs, or lead the institution that London wants. I don't think you can do both.

An update in 2021

I have returned to this blog post five years after I wrote it relieved that nothing I wrote makes me cringe. Nothing has since been proven wrong or rude. There is still much that I cannot cheaply say publicly. The same is true for those more involved in Tech North. The Institute for Government often write excellent reports on Whitehall's lack of institutional memory, but I can assure you that it has a world-class ability to hold grudges, and make them costly.

The FT's piece of January 2016 on Claire Braithwaite's resignation as CEO of Tech North remains the best summary of events then. The denials by Tech City UK have since mostly been proven wrong. Without records of Claire's train travel (that would be weird) I can't judge their denial that she had to visit them weekly to discuss spending, but I am pretty sure that if the denial is true it is only true on a technicality. I have dealt with, and know others who have dealt with, exactly the same attitude in our capital for long enough to know that it is standard behaviour. I expect it will return to being so once Covid restrictions are lifted.

The end of Tech North.

In the years following the FT piece, Tech City UK did what it assured us we shouldn't worry about. It used the well-established Microsoft strategy (props to a tech quango for using tactics from the sector) to embrace, extend, and extinguish Tech North. In November 2017, Tech North was killed. It had never escaped the control of Tech City UK. Tech City UK remained based in London under the same leadership. It received a large funding boost and rebranded as Tech Nation.

A report accompanied these changes to Tech City and Tech North. The snappily titled Tech City UK Impact Evaluation was prepared for DCMS by consultants SQW. It is well worth a read. I think that the most importants points are points 3.37 and 3.38 which I reproduce with some judicious highlighting.

The 2017 SQW TCUK Impact Evaluation has many good sections. These two are the most important.

There are three important things in here that I think are even more important than the authors of the report realised.

  1. Tech North had achieved the difficult challenge of being seen as truly pan-Northern. I know how hard Claire (on Merseyside), Paul (on Tyneside) and everyone in between worked on this and it's great to see that it was noticed by others too.
  2. The resignation of Claire as CEO, and of many of the team who had built relationships across the North, made Tech North worse. Not because their replacements were worse, but because their inevitable decision showed the tech community in the North that Tech City was the same overly-centralised body that we deal with in UK government all the time. People like me lost in a few days the trust that had been hard-earned over months. We were soon proved correct.
  3. Tech North was reaching people and companies who had decided not to engage with Tech City because of past poor experiences with centralised and monolithic UK agencies.

It is the third point where I feel that the SQW report misunderstands the North and what we need to grow our economy and succeed. Later it makes suggestions that Tech City and Tech North aim to avoid brand confusion and have a more national brand. As someone who has written reports like this, I have my suspicions that the plan for Tech City to take back control of Tech North and rebrand the London-based amalgamation as Tech Nation was "suggested" to the authors of the report.

But this isn't what the North needs. The North needs it own institutions, with a national, European, and global outlook, but Northern and answerable to the people here. We do not, I understand many find this insulting, consider ourselves to be just another part of the UK. We are the birthplace of industry and innovation. We are better in the way that patriots think of themselves, while knowing that really they are not. Tech North should have been ours, like French Tech Bordeaux is Bordeaux's and France's, not an outpost of Paris in Bordeaux. A single brand and a single national voice cannot deliver for the North unless it is based in the North.

Tech North was killed because it was too successful. It engaged new businesses, tried new things, and succeeded in new ways. So it had to end, in the name of national unity, to avoid showing up Tech City. Tech City started in London, to boost London, by London and in London for London. And London is always allowed to succeed even if other places don't. But the North is not. Once the North starts suceeding, "national solidarity" kicks in and it must be held back.

 

In October 2020 the UK government published another evaluation into Tech Nation. In Annexe B it evaluates progress against previous recommendations to the organisation. The top two of these recommendations were to improve on "strategy and delivery outside of London" and to "review brands to ensure coherence and prevent confusion". These were both considered to be achieved by extending Tech North's succesful initatives such as Founders Network nationally, and closing Tech North. I do not share the evaluation that this was a successful outcome.

There's now much more written about Tech City. Max Nathan, Emma Vandore, and Georgina Voss in particular have done some excellent econometric and ethnographic research into it. I won't repeat my whole thread on twitter here, but it's important to note how reliant the project has always been on national ambitions and access to national politicians with funding and control in the capital. Maybe the outcome we have today of a national project with national ambitions with a single voice centred in London was inevitable.

The success of our competition.

Back in 2014 I feared that the UK would take the path with Tech North that it has. I suggested something closer to what La French Tech does in France. The success since then of France's 38 French Tech centres in France, and an additional 10 beyond France, should challenge us. Is theirs a model that can create a single strong brand, allow significant local control and diversity of thought, and achieve greater success beyond the Capital? I think so.

Finally, I have friends who work for Tech Nation in North England. They are hard-working, professional, and vital contributors to Northern tech success. I just think they could be part of something even bigger, better targeted to the needs of the North, and more globally visible.

So what?

There are currently discussions about what to do next with tech in the North. At the moment the words are promising, and the actions are the opposite.

The UK government, its data strategy, its strategy with GDS and the CDEI, they are all about constraining success in the North and boosting it in London. I am always open to engaging with plans to boost the North of England and its cities. We can again be the world-leading Northern European shining lights of progress. But I have also been the fool too many times in these discussions.

As George W Bush once famously said "There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again". I'm on about my sixth time of being fooled. I've probably got a few more in me. But not many.

 

Oh and please, just for once, don't send the message saying that you're disappointed in me for sharing my opinion publicly and that it would have been more constructive to discuss this privately. We have a huge problem talking about these things in the UK, it's part of what makes us a weak economy in North Europe. Let's try and share a bit, as equals, for a change.

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