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.