By Brigette Currin 8 minute read

It’s that time of year again: like the rest of the UK tech community, we’ve been poring over the recently published Tech Nation Report. As the key national barometer for the health of regional tech, the report always provides food for thought and helps galvanise action.

The Report reveals that the tech sector is growing 2.6x faster than any other and is now worth £184bn to the UK economy. It’s good news for those who work in tech, too: on average, tech employees earn £10k more than other workers.

They key themes pulled out in this year’s report are international competitiveness, the UK’s digital ‘suburban’ hotspots (areas with a high proportion of digital workers that are not themselves the obvious urban centres), collaboration in the sector, as well as jobs, skills, and talent.

More locally, the report provides a positive health check for the state of the East of England tech sector. According to the report, Cambridge, Ipswich, and Norwich turned over £2.9bn collectively and created 255 new tech startups in 2017. The region also contributed £2.3bn GVA to the economy in 2017, up from £1.18bn GVA in 2016.

What’s different this year? A new look and innovations

This is the first report published since Tech City UK’s rebrand at the end of last year to Tech Nation, and there are several differences between this report and those from previous years. On the whole, these changes are welcome and positive.

The most significant is Tech Nation’s smart decision to open up the 2018 data under the Open Data Initiative. All the statistics featured in the 2018 report are available for download and use by third parties. According to Tech Nation, this data transparency allows researchers to validate the research, as well as ensuring maximum usefulness before the data becomes stale and outdated.

Tech Nation has been very vocal in encouraging regional communities to ‘hack’ the data. There’s potential for us to learn so much more by digging deeper. In fact, as a community partner to Tech Nation, TechEast is in conversations to organise meet up events to help facilitate report data ‘hacking’. Watch this space! Ideally we would also like to see TechNation work back to open up the key data from previous years, too.

We are also pleased to see an enhanced focus on jobs, skills, and talent in the 2018 report. In our view, this is the top priority for growing the tech economy. The UK especially needs to cultivate homegrown talent to maintain success in the face of Brexit. The report reveals that the UK has the fourth most international tech workforce in the world. TechEast predicts that 10,000 additional and replacement jobs will be needed by 2024 in the East of England alone, and Russ Shaw of Tech London Advocates sets an overall target for 1m UK tech jobs by 2023. Following our exit from the EU it is essential both to grow thousands of tech jobs in the region as well as working with government to extend the current visa arrangements for overseas talent.

The structure of the report arguably has room for improvement. We’re delighted to see three East Anglian clusters featured in the report for the third consecutive year. However, it would be powerful to see some aggregated data about the region as a whole. The 2016 reported grouped Cambridge, Norwich and Ipswich together, but that ‘East-wide’ view was dropped in 2017. We’d like to be able to drill into the data at a regional level across the coherent economic geography that is the East.

Tech Nation on tour – our field reports from London and Cambridge launch events

To celebrate the publication of the report, we joined Tech Nation on their tour of some of the clusters featured in the report. The tour kicked off in London, followed by a series of regional events.

At the London launch, we were pleased to hear speakers including our very own Matt Hancock MP, Secretary of State for Digital and West Suffolk MP present an inclusive view of national tech success. Overall, the East of England was very well represented. Cambridge-based cyber security unicorn , Darktrace were on the panel, and Gerard Grech CEO of Tech Nation mentioned Norwich-based George Davies from SenLab in his keynote address. Sandy McKinnon of Edinburgh VC Pentech Ventures praised the work of the Norwich tech community and George Windsor, Insights Lead at Tech Nation gave a shout out to Step into Tech, the Norfolk based community interest company providing tech opportunities for young people. Considering this was an event covering the whole country, we were delighted with the level of recognition for East Anglia.

The following week the tour moved on to Cambridge and was hosted by the Bradfield Centre where TechEast is a network partner. While the event was well attended and demonstrated the global significance of Cambridge in leading-edge areas such as AI, we had hoped for a more in-depth analysis of tech entrepreneurship in the wider East of England.

Considering the promise of Tech Nation as a national organisation, it remains to be seen whether the planned East of England node in Cambridge will truly fulfil its potential, promise and ambition. Tech clusters differ in their specific dynamics from place to place, so the challenges faced by entrepreneurs in Cambridge are significantly different from those in say Ipswich or Norwich.

We were genuinely pleased to see Tech Nation back in East Anglia for the Cambridge tour date, yet the event perhaps missed an opportunity to tell the full story of what’s going on in the East among regional tech businesses. We hope that as Tech Nation develop their network of Entrepreneurship Engagement Managers with a Cambridge representative coming soon, these individuals will have a wide remit to engage with a range of startups and scaleups irrespective of postcode, city or county limits.

‘Challenging’ the challenges

As well as highlighting the strengths of each cluster, the Tech Nation Report also identifies challenges that must be overcome for these local hotspots to succeed. The 2018 report identified ‘access to talent’, ‘limited infrastructure’, and ‘poor transport links’ as three of the biggest hindrances to tech growth in East Anglia.

Talent – well we would agree wholeheartedly. We are driving the Digital Skills Taskforce to continue to focus on upskilling the region, and we at TechEast will continue to lobby and influence for improved transport and infrastructure.

Infrastructure and transport. It’s interesting to note that the challenges facing the East of England tech cluster are similar to those facing a lot of regional clusters and changes are already taking place to help the region overcome these challenges. The A11 carriageway has been widened and Crossrail is poised to dramatically ease journey times through London and across to the key M4 corridor with its high density of multinational tech businesses. Meanwhile Suffolk Chamber of Commerce has launched a campaignto minimise delays on the A14, and the chamber, BT, New Anglia LEP and Suffolk County Council are collaborating on the Better Broadband for Suffolk initiative.

The public-private partnership in Norfolk and Suffolk is working well and if we are to become a top five tech hub by 2020, the region must continue the good progress already made.

The East leading the charge

This year’s report survey received the highest response ever. This is great news and we were especially pleased to see Norwich taking the top spot with more survey responses than any other area of the UK – including London. 3,400 people took part in the Tech Nation Survey, with 364 of those in Norwich and 238 in London.

For us, this is no surprise. Norwich has one of the most demonstrably connected and well mobilised communities in the UK. The Cambridge, Ipswich and Colchester communities all responded strongly too.

While celebrating our tech communities is important – it’s partly what we’re here to do – it would be fascinating if Tech Nation could show the correlation between highly engaged communities and other metrics. How about a league table of the clusters with the most respondents and engagement? The more data Tech Nation has to play with, the better it is for the UK tech sector and the digitally intensive industries it supports.

The future of Tech Nation

We look forward to working closely with Tech Nation and hope that the Tech Nation Report continues to evolve to provide the maximum benefit in profiling the UK’s regional tech communities, building on this years innovations.

While it’s great to have a hat-trick of East of England clusters in the report, we’d also like to see Colchester included in 2019. This cluster has some notable and distinctive features, including the University of Essex, plus local businesses and local authorities showing real ambition. Colchester’s close proximity to London, Cambridge and Ipswich also raises the possibility of a true ‘tech diamond’ in the East, running by rail, road and business collaboration from Shoreditch and Stratford through Essex and Suffolk to Norfolk and back down to Kings Cross via Cambridge. Now there’s a super-cluster to be excited about!