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Where in the world is the UK's silicon valley?

Defenestrating the UK tech scene

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Opinion The UK tech industry has never boasted a throbbing heart to match Silicon Valley. The industry, such as it is, is scattered across a multitude of business parks throughout the country.

But as the power of the voodoo around Web 2.0 reaches unprecedented heights, it seems appropriate to mount an expedition in search of the internet scene in the UK. Maybe the magic of JavaScript will fill the coffee shops of Leeds with MacBook-wielding web polymaths who’ll create a virtuous circle of startups, successes, and gloriously unpunished failures.

Or not.

Decades of attempts to address the lack of a physical place for bright young minds to congregate have fallen flat: technology triangles, innovation incubators, and a hundred other EU grant-funded initiatives have failed to create anything remotely comparable.

Of course, our search is an act of self-flagellation. For a start, we've never had a proper label for the disparate successes that punctuate the tech industry's history in the UK. There's nothing that even approaches the instant recognition and understanding that the words "Silicon Valley" generate.

Silicon Fen outside Cambridge pretty well scuppered its chances of becoming a genuine phenomenon as soon as it invited the comparisons with the region that birthed HP, Apple, Google and Intel. Steady successes like chip designer ARM have emerged from the Fen, and it claims to be the second largest venture capital market in the world behind Silicon Valley. But we're after Google-sized internet hype here: weightless share price, government influence, Teflon public image, that kind of thing. Alas, there's never been justification to mint a buzzword even as nebulous as Web 2.0.

No matter, perhaps we can ride its wispy coattails. Witness Ofcom's plans for a "Public Service Publisher" to dish out millions of pounds in taxpayers' money to webby startups, and the endless soporific babble of Facebook anecdotes from mainstream outlets' banner columnists and Sunday supplements.

We could be on to something.

A couple of months back, a ripple of excitement ran through newsrooms when CBS bought net radio outfit Last.fm for a $280m pile of cash. Nevermind the fact that CBS is a giant American media conglomerate, this had to be the start of Swinging London 2.0! In the months running up to the sale, founder Martin Stiksel told us he was already being called upon to bat away breathless suggestions of a thriving London web scene to rival northern California.

Unfortunately for us anyone who goes down to Last.fm's very unassuming east end HQ doesn't find a MySpace in waiting, or a swarm of venture capitalists raining money down on passers by, just a bunch of music fans who know how to work the internet.

Last.fm’s location certainly holds no clues to the heart of our web scene either: it naturally found a home in the Nathan Barley borough of Shoreditch because it primarily considers itself a music company. Cheap (for central London) rents mean a few old sheds nearby are home to some key internet firms, but really we’re talking routers and data centres. The buzz you can feel is most likely from the uninterruptable power supplies.

Instead, Last.fm struggles to find enough competent PHP developers to build its site. Contrast that with Google in the US, which resorts to a Krypton Factor-esque filtering process to differentiate the hordes of eager graduates and Yahoo! refugees who queue at the gates of the Googlag.

British Botching Corporation

When comparing the UK tech climate with the seething capitalist intensity of activity on the US west coast, it's easy to forget the comfy old BBC, which employs more UK web development talent than anyone else (as well as everyone who got a 2:2 in classical civilisation at Oxbridge).

Ignoring the waste and delays over iPlayer, and the debacle of its online education service Jam, the Beeb is hugely respected worldwide as an innovator in online technology and content.

If there was a coherent UK web scene, the BBC would be heart of it. Complete with high blood pressure and a furry aorta.

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