Why not the North?

This is a guest blogpost by Ted Dunning, chief application architect, MapR Technologies.

I am a foreigner to the UK. I am an engineer.

These characteristics are what shaped the first impressions I had of the north of England over twenty years ago. I came then to consult at the university in Sheffield and was stunned by the rich history of world-class engineering in the region. The deep culture of making and building across the north struck me at the time as ideal for building new ventures based on technology and engineering.

Twenty five years on, when I come back to visit, I am surprised to see that the start-up culture in Britain is still centred around London with small colonies in Edinburgh, Cambridge and Oxford. The north of England is comparatively a start-up vacuum.

The sprouting of technological seeds like the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) at University of Sheffield show that the soil is fertile, but that success makes the lack of other examples all the more stark.

Drawing necessarily imperfect analogies with US cities, the former steel town of Pittsburgh has suddenly become a start-up mecca for self-driving cars, but Sheffield has not had a comparable result, in spite of scoring well in the last, 2014, Research Excellence Framework in Computer Science and Informatics – 47% of the submissions scoring 4*: “quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour”. For comparison, Oxford scored 53, Cambridge 48, and Manchester (with its Turing-related heritage in computer science), 48: so Sheffield is in a similar bracket of excellence.

Invention and start-ups are like a rope and cannot be pushed. The inventors and visionaries who would pull on that rope can, however, must be inspired and encouraged. The real magic of Silicon Valley is a sense of optimism and willingness to attempt the impossible. Closely related to that optimism is a generosity of spirit and willingness to help others for no obvious short-term return. There are stories about places like the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Mountain View where engineers from different companies used to share problems and solutions over beers. Unfortunately, it seems to be a common impression that this licence is somehow geographically bound.

It isn’t.

It is woven into all of our expectations of what can and cannot be done. The same sense of “yes, we can” can be applied in the north.  If that idea could turn sleepy California orchard towns like San Jose or Sunnyvale or a gritty steel town like Pittsburgh into technological powerhouses, it can do the same for Sheffield or Liverpool or Manchester.

The time to start is now.

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Couldn't agree more Ted. Being born and bred in Doncaster, I am ripe for piling-in on this one. There's a rich seam indeed. As a slight aside, at the Rio Olympics in 2016, Team GB ranked second in the medals table. Interestingly, 5 of the 27 gold medals were won by Yorkshire athletes. If Yorkshire were a country, it would have ranked 17 on the medals table, ahead of New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. I have always wanted an opportunity to personally broadcast that fact to a wider audience :).

Manchester fares well for investment and the BBC's creation of MediaCityUK in 2011 was disruptive but arguably successful. While it is deemed to not have generated the follow-on investment it had hoped to stimulate, it equally wasn't the failure that many had said it would be. I am sure that's a wider debate. 

As a Yorkshire lad, the North/South discussion has been raging for decades and has been the fountain of much humor in that time. When I was younger, I felt on the 'wrong-side' when it came to credentials and momentum. Not so today. Regards San Jose, Pittsburgh and Sunnyvale? While there are many stars that need to align to drive the mix of things suggested by Ted, we can confidently state that there are many places to gather for beers in Sheffield where the information exchange can flourish. One can only hope that 'beer + talent' will ultimately prevail!