Chiswick – The Heart of A West London Media Tech Cluster?

July 2012  Nigel Walley (@nwalley)

The premise of this article is that there is a de facto media tech cluster, growing up in West London, that could benefit from some support and co-ordination from the government’s flagship Tech City Project.

At a time when the government’s TechCity initiative,  currently focused on Shoreditch and the  Old Street ‘Silicon Roundabout’ area, is being criticised for lacking focus*, there is an argument to say that the government should broaden their horizon to include Central and West London in their aspirations for a world beating TechCity. The Tech City Investment Organization (TCIO), the government-appointed body charged with promoting technology development in East London, have an opportunity to review strategy with the departure of the current CEO.  However, the challenge with seeking ‘focus’ in London is that its existing media tech ecology is so vast and spread out.

Using  Professor Michael Porter’s 1990 definition of  a business cluster: ‘a geographic concentration of interconnected businesses, suppliers, and associated institutions in a particular field‘, it would be possible to argue that there are three, very loose media  tech clusters  already in separate parts of London – with the pure tech more likely to move to Shoreditch TechCity; the advertising and ecommerce tending towards Soho and the West End; and the media related ones more recently gravitating towards the western suburbs. (We recognise that it would be equally possible to find many examples to disprove this – but for now there is sufficient substance to be worth review).

Our proposition (which we offer up as an informal discussion prompt, not yet a developed thesis) is that the TCIO  should build on these loose clusters to provide a set of more focused objective for a TechCity initiative.   In particular, we are making the case that West London should be the focus of TechCity’s specifically ‘media’ tech focused activity – with TV at its heart.

First off, it is important to register the ‘clustering impact’ of big client companies in the area.  There is an emerging West London  ‘TV triangle’ created  by the BBC (Shepherds Bush), Virgin Media (Hammersmith) and BSkyB (Osterley).  Sitting within the triangle are UKTV and Talk Talk, which means 3 out of the 4 major pay TV platforms in the UK are there (BT Vision is in St Pauls) as well as STB manufacturer Humax and connected TV player Samsung.

There is also the growing broadcast tech centre that is Chiswick Park – with companies such as Teletext, France Telecom, Discovery, Disney, CBS and Viasat.  These companies represent a vast client hub that can be exploited by media tech SMEs.  (It should be noted that the Chiswick Park development  itself was identified as a ‘commercial cluster’ in the report on Digital Media Clusters from MediaSmiths in 2011**  However, its impact on start up and SME companies has yet to be evaluated).

Of much clearer value is the activity of the BBC. In particular the London arm of the  BBC’s Connected Studio project (HQ’d at Media City Salford), which invites SME creative companies to work closely with them on content innovation;  and  BBC Worldwide’s ‘Labs’ project. This second project  is a six month programme to help a  group of selected start-ups gain traction and scale by working closely with them. The objective is to promote innovation through mentorship, and to provide access to the varied resources of BBC Worldwide, including office space and staff. The ultimate aim is  help them strike a commercial partnership with BBC Worldwide.   All very ‘TechCity’, but  hosted over here  in  Shepherds Bush (although they have apparently had to go hunting for candidates in Shoreditch).

A mini-cluster also appears to be bubbling up across the Shepherds Bush Road in Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, with media tech company Iovox becoming the hub of a socially focused ‘Silicon Hill’ initiative. You could also argue that another mini hub is appearing in Richmond, clustered around the Ebay, Paypal, Gumtree HQs, and featuring cool start ups like Graze, and NotOnTheHighStreet.

One of the most commonly cited requirements for a successful cluster is availability of cheap, flexible office space attached to tech facilities.  West London has the Ugli campus adjoining the BBC which is full of start-ups, and the Barley Mow Centre near Chiswick Park (where our own iBurbia Studios began life, and cool web tech companies like ShowcasterTV now thrive). But in reality we don’t yet have anything as tech centred as Shoreditch’s Tech Hub.  Equally, links to local universities are fragmented and there is not yet a formal angel / VC initiative (although there will be more to report on that in the coming weeks).

What we do appear to have is lots of companies.  As part of our thinking on this we have started a Google map analysis of which tech/media companies are out West.  (See:  TechCity-West Map   ). This will be added to over the next few weeks but please let us know who we have missed.

Finally, as the MediaSmiths report highlighted, the social context is also key.  ‘Silicon Hill’ has begun holding regular networking social evenings co-ordinated by Iovox, and there is a monthly ‘mobile get together’ here in Chiswick.  Media watering holes are, of course, important and  the presence of a Soho House in Shoreditch, Soho, Notting Hill and Chiswick could lead our multi-cluster idea to be known as the ‘follow Soho House’ strategy.

The MediaSmiths report also cited three kinds of cluster: ‘Government backed’, ‘Commercially backed’, and ‘University backed’.  While the current East London Tech City initiative is clearly government backed, a West London media cluster would firmly be a commercially backed cluster.  The trick is to harness the innovation power of the big media companies here. However, that is not to say that there wouldn’t be a role for a wider, government driven Tech City Initiative to provide inspiration, co-ordination and momentum.  Somehow we need to harness the innovation driving power of the local media tech behemoths, HQ’d around Chiswick  and turn it to the capital’s advantage.

We would like to hear what you think: by mail or tweet.                   @nwalley

* ‘The Tale of Tech City: The Future of Inner East London’s Digital Economy’ – by The Centre for London/Demos

** ‘Digital Media Clusters –  Success factors for digital media firms’ A study prepared by Fizzy Thinking for Mediasmiths International-

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