A new manifesto for Britain’s digital startups

Pete Marcus

04 Sep 2014

With nine months to go before the General Election, the lobbying efforts of trade bodies and industry associations are beginning to kick off as they seek to influence political parties’ policies for the next five years.

Yesterday Coadec (the Coalition for a Digital Economy – a lobby group for startups) published its Startup Manifesto and Harvard was at the launch event at Google Campus to hear its ideas and listen in as the startup community debated what it wants from government.

Coadec’s Guy Levin has done a great job corralling a set of interesting suggestions that will help encourage more innovation, make it easier to start and grow a digital business in the UK, and open up the way government works with startups.

The bulk of the manifesto’s ideas are widely shared in the tech world and are hard to disagree with. But I found two of Coadec’s ideas particularly interesting.

The first one is a suggestion to encourage more “permissionless innovation”, which could even take the form of agreed ‘innovation zones’, such as cities where driverless cars are tested. That’s something other countries like Ireland and China have tried, with considerable success.

The second recommendation is for the government to explicitly endorse “disruptive innovation” while also helping people adapt to the impact of those changes. We hear lots in the tech world about the positive effect technology has in improving and creating jobs, but we hear less about the problems faced by people whose jobs are eliminated. Even if robots don’t really destroy every middle-class profession you can think of, it seems to me that managing that process of change is going to become a big role for government in the coming years. It’s good to see Coadec starting to think about how we ameliorate that situation.

The majority of yesterday’s event was given over to a panel debate between Gerard Grech, CEO of Tech City UK, Eileen Burbidge from VC firm Passion Capital, and Taavet Hintikus, CEO of fintech startup Transferwise.

There was general agreement that the UK – and especially London – has been successful in encouraging more startups in recent years. Taavet, who’s Estonian by birth, called the UK “the best place in Europe to set up a digital business”. Eileen listed the advantages that have helped the UK achieve this success – time-zone, language, cultural diversity and the close proximity of foreign countries, among others.

But some challenges for the future were also discussed. Gerard Grech, in particular, said he wants to see more collaboration between universities and startups, and a more open attitude to procurement and data from local and national governments.

And how do we make sure every part of the UK, not just London, benefits from digital startup growth?

“Every city has the potential to be a Tech City,” Grech said. “But every city has its own DNA. We need to leverage the different strengths of cities around the UK and get them working together.”

Getting Cambridge companies (experts in hardware) to work more closely with London companies (experts in software), for instance, would help the UK lead the world in the Internet of Things, he said.

That’s certainly a challenge big enough to keep us busy in the next parliament and beyond.