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Newham aims to harness local talent to build data economy in London

The London Borough of Newham sets out to enable its young, digitally savvy population to build a data economy for sustainable growth through the launch of Newham Sparks at London Tech Week 2021

The London Borough of Newham will have more residents aged under 24 than over 24 in 15 years’ time. At present, 38% of its population is 24 or younger.  

It’s one of the most diverse areas in the capital – some 70% of the population is black or from other minority ethnic communities. Its community speaks 242 languages and dialects. It’s been forging ahead on educational attainment for several generations of schoolchildren, who are digitally savvy. And yet much of its population lives in poverty.

Although jobs have been created in the area in recent years, partly thanks to its being the location hub for the 2012 Olympics, those jobs tend to be in construction or retail, and often zero-hours contracts.

Rokhsana Fiaz, Mayor of Newham, and the borough’s CIO Omid Shiraji are looking to change that with a “data corridor” that goes under the banner Newham Sparks, being launched today at London Tech Week.

It is being described as a “data sector” business initiative – not IT, but data – where the council acts as a catalyst for the borough and the wider digital economy in London and the UK.

Fiaz and Shiraji’s vision is for residents, innovators and investors to pull together to realise the untapped potential of Newham as a powerhouse of growth and social change. They are seeking investors to develop a data corridor for London, which is a specific tract of the borough earmarked for data and digital development, from the lower Lea Valley between the Royal Docks and the Olympic Park in Stratford.

“Newham Sparks is our open call for investors, innovators, local residents, community groups and businesses to...collaborate with us here in Newham as we seize the opportunities of the burgeoning data economy to grow the green businesses of the future and create new jobs”

Rokhsana Fiaz, Newham Council

Fiaz is launching Newham Sparks as a call-to-action to support innovation, business growth and new jobs in the borough as part of ambitious plans to accelerate the growth of the data economy in Newham and London as a whole.

At a London Tech Week anchor event, she is inviting data startups, innovators and investors to collaborate with Newham Council to create a Newham data corridor of businesses engaged in robotics, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies that will create jobs for local people.

“Newham Sparks is our open call for investors, innovators, local residents, community groups and businesses to work with us to leverage the untapped potential of data in response to three priority challenges across education and skills, data for the public good, and innovations to drive inclusive growth and to help us tackle the social challenges we face,” said Fiaz.

“It is a call to come forward to collaborate with us here in Newham as we seize the opportunities of the burgeoning data economy to grow the green businesses of the future and create new jobs.”

The London Tech Week event will open with a keynote speech by professor Sugata Mitra, a pioneer of “minimally invasive education” who won the TED Prize for his “Hole in the Wall” experiment, proving that children can learn to use computers without any formal training.

As part of a collaboration between Newham Council and University College London (UCL), the event – sponsored by Royal Docks Enterprise Zone and the English Cities Fund – will also highlight the potential of the data ecosystem in the UK and the opportunities for Newham and London as a whole.

Data sector emergent

In an interview ahead of today’s launch, Shiraji, whose job title is now Newham Sparks Strategic Advisor to the Mayor of Newham, said: “We’ve spotted the potential for an emergent data sector. If you think of how the world of tech and digital was 20 to 30 years ago, we think the data sector is at that same inflection point.”

Mayor Fiaz said: “In the context of Newham, we view this through the lens and the prism of inclusive growth, which is a very distinct economic concept. It’s predicated and built on analysis that we’ve done of the Newham landscape, which pre-Covid-19 experienced 10 years of significant growth, and yet we still have a majority of our resident population living in poverty.

“That’s a reflection of inefficacies of both the global economy – because this is something that manifests elsewhere – but also the inefficacies of the UK economy, where it has been very much in the vein of ‘trickle down’ and it’s not spread equally.”

“We’ve spotted the potential for an emergent data sector. If you think of how the world of tech and digital was 20 to 30 years ago, we think the data sector is at that same inflection point”

Omid Shiraji, Newham Council

She said Newham was “best placed to one day be positioned to invite, nurture, facilitate and embed the data sector of the wider digital economy, in line with what London has set out as its ambitions in this arena”.

Fiaz added: “We’ve got the appetite, the infrastructure and a population which is very young, skilled, agile and early [digital] adopters to be able to seize the opportunities in the context of inclusive growth.

“A lot of Newham’s growth was predicated on the Olympics coming to London, and I wouldn’t detract from that – it has been an engine for job creation, but it has largely been jobs in the construction sector or in retail – [but] in the context of wage stagnation, zero-hours contracts and the fragility of an economy, that’s not sustainable in the long term. We want to lift people out of poverty.”

Along with Tower Hamlets, she said, Newham has got an Opportunity Area Planning Framework (OAPF).

“Going into the lower Lea Valley, we’ve got some really significant housing developments, including one comprising about 5,000 homes by Barclay Homes,” said Fiaz. “We are proposing to designate that lower Lea stretch, [which] sits in between the Royal Docks and the Olympic Park in the Stratford area, as the location of our data corridor – scoping out the potential and having active conversations with investors around datacentres.”

Shiraji drew a distinction between what Newham would be trying to achieve with its “data corridor” and Silicon Valley. “There is enormous wealth and big business there, and there are ingredients like higher education, quite a young population, some great weather and good connectivity, but it doesn’t really benefit the local people.

“Also, mega tech cities like San Francisco, Tel Aviv and New York have predominantly focused on digital and tech. But the thing that’s unique here is grabbing data. Internationally, that’s not been done,” he said.

Fiaz concluded: “I always characterise Newham – and I say this as someone who grew up in the borough – as a sea of rough diamonds. There’s so much talent here that needs to be identified and polished so it can shine.”

Data can deliver prosperity

In connection with the event on 22 September 2021, Henrietta Moore, director of the Institute for Global Prosperity at UCL, said: “As data becomes an even more valuable commodity for business and commerce, it is vital that the prosperity it fuels is shared with the city and its citizens as well as those entrepreneurs and businesses that champion its use.

“I am delighted we have formed a partnership with Newham Council to explore the future of data in the borough and the capital, and ensure it brings prosperity and jobs to places that have struggled economically in the past.” 

Carolyn Dawson, managing director of London Tech Week, said: “I am proud that Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz and Newham Council have chosen London Tech Week to launch their Newham Sparks initiative.

“They are showing exceptional vision in their plan to attract data sector businesses to the borough, with enormous potential for growth, jobs creation and a greener economy.”

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