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London mayoral candidates debate tech

The four mayoral candidates have set out their plans for the tech sector, including creating skills academies, harnessing kinetic energy, creating a London passport and setting up new tech hubs, but Tech London Advocates founder Russ Shaw says they all missed the mark

Ahead of London’s mayoral election in May, the four main candidates laid out their plans for the capital’s tech sector during a virtual event at Here East, all of them aiming to show their support for the industry.

The debate followed the launch of the London tech manifesto last week, which called on the next mayor to put a clear focus on technology to help the capital’s post-pandemic economic recovery, and champion skills, infrastructure and diversity.

The manifesto, developed by Tech London Advocates, Here East, Plexal, TechUK, Centre for London and London First, set out a roadmap for how the new mayor can help tech companies in the capital continue to grow and promote London as a global hub of digital excellence.

All the mayoral candidates were keen to show their support for the tech sector and the manifesto, with all of them pledging continued investment in the sector through various initiatives, including skills, diversity and jobs.

Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey said he wanted to use City Hall’s convening powers to “provide mentorship and support for aspiring entrepreneurs”, empowering young Londoners from “all backgrounds to realise their potential”. Liberal Democrat candidate Luisa Porritt said she wanted to create a London apprenticeships hub with a dedicated team at City Hall “helping small businesses, including the tech sector, to overcome some of the barriers that currently exist to create apprenticeships via the government schemes that currently exist”.

Incumbent London mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, highlighted his work so far as mayor to ensure digital skills growth and a thriving tech sector. “If I’m re-elected, I’ll continue to champion our tech sector, making the case for improved access to talent and standing up for a regulatory environment that supports – and encourages – enterprise and innovation,” he said, promising to establish a £32m “good work fund”, creating four skills academies, including one focused on the digital sector.

Khan added: “In the next 20 years, it’s expected that 90% of jobs will require digital skills. So it’s now more important than ever to mainstream these skills. I’m pleased to say we’re already on the right path. With our £7m digital talent scheme, we’ve been able to provide many young Londoners with the digital skills that employers want.

“But we must now build on this progress. One of our key missions as we recover from the pandemic will be ensuring that Londoners are able to access good work.”

Green Party candidate Siân Berry was also keen to show her support for the tech sector, saying it has an important job in helping to build a more equal and green London.

Berry promised to support startups with a working rent concept, and to develop new tech hubs, particularly one in the centre of London.

“We really don’t need an airport on the site of City Airport,” she said. “It’s right in the city – this could be a technology-based quarter, one with homes, new parks, new jobs and new businesses, genuinely set up to be a tech hub in the heart of London, supporting jobs right through the east of London as well as businesses.”

International investment and attracting skills from overseas were also key parts of the tech manifesto, and something the candidates touched on. The Lib Dems’ Porritt said she wanted to go on a tech delegation trip to Israel to develop a closer relationship with Tel Aviv, as well as advocating free labour movement.

“Increasing digital talent is vital for protecting the tech sector, especially where Brexit has threatened to restrict the talent that we could attract to London,” she said.

“I want to introduce a London passport so that fellow Europeans working in the tech sector who have made London their home have an insurance, a physical document that proves their status to reside here in London. It will make it easier for them to stay and ensure they still feel welcome as well.”

Read more about London and technology

  • Here East’s CEO Gavin Poole on why the next mayor must ensure London remains the tech capital of Europe, and the importance of learning from the past.
  • The London tech manifesto, put together by several tech organisations, calls on the city’s next mayor to support tech companies, increase digital skills investment and tackle the lack of diversity in the sector.
  • London First’s director of connectivity and competitiveness, David Lutton, explains why data is at the core of the capital’s recovery plan.

The Greens’ Berry said she wanted to provide practical support to migrants so they can “work in our economy and contribute to our economic activity”, while Labour’s Khan said there was no doubt that international promotion is important, “so we’ll continue to do all we can to ensure London stands out as an attractive option on the world stage”.

All the candidates pledged to ensure a post-Covid-19 economic recovery plan with tech at its heart, but there was a lack of detail on how this would look. However, some specific ideas were put forward by some of the candidates on tech initiatives to boost the economy, while also ensuring a greener London.

The Conservatives’ Bailey said he wanted to invest in “innovative green technology to support a green recovery and make London an international green tech industry leader”.

He added: “We have in London many home-grown green-tech solutions like Pavegen’s kinetic energy tiles which produce electricity by the weight of pedestrians’ footsteps.  

“I will harness the kinetic energy of Londoners in high-foot traffic locations around London to provide off-grid green electricity for London streets and TfL stations. Pavegen tiles could be installed four abreast the length of Oxford Street. On an average weekday, there are 138,000 pedestrians on Oxford Street, rising to 500,000 at peak time. That could generate more than 3,200 watts per hour, per day, which would provide electricity to Oxford Street, even during long, dark winter nights.”

Berry said she wanted to address the lack of access to digital devices by making sure “we reuse, repair and redistribute digital devices to the people in London who’ve been shown to need it”.

She added: “I want to set up repair centres in every high street. And I really hope digital companies will be willing to lend help and support to these social enterprises and spaces as they develop.”

Khan said he wanted to expand the Civic Innovation Challenge to “encompass public services, research institutions and the tech sector, bringing everyone together to make our city fairer, cleaner and easier to get around”.

Ahead of the debate, the mayoral candidates were all given the London tech manifesto, as well as a series of questions on how they would ensure a thriving tech sector.

However, Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, who wrote the manifesto together with a range of other organisations, said that although there were some really good ideas from the candidates, “there was a significant missed opportunity here”.

“These candidates and their campaign teams received this manifesto a few weeks ago,” he said. “It’s not like it came through the door yesterday. They had ample time to prepare up to an eight-minute video. We gave them some questions but, quite frankly, they could’ve come in and said ‘this is my vision, this is my articulation of what I think about the London tech sector and where I want to take it’, and sadly I don’t think any of the candidates really stepped up to the mark.”

Shaw said there might be challenges in the sector, but London is consistently ranked as a top-five global tech hub “and we need to have leadership that has that bold and visionary thinking on how to engage with the tech sector and how to use it for economic growth”.

He added: “Tech and digital is really remaking the London scene and I don’t think we heard the commensurate level of thinking and vision from our candidates today. They had an opportunity to do that and they didn’t take the opportunity.”

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