There are many out there who claim credit for what’s now known as London’s Tech City. But behind the scenes at central government there’s one man who’s been key to driving the policies behind growth in East London and beyond.
I met with Rohan Silva, Senior Policy Advisor to David Cameron at No.10 Downing Street to find out more about him and his vision for the future of Tech City.
Against the gaudy and, frankly, bordering on chintzy backdrop of No.10, Rohan Silva is a breath of fresh air.
As we walk up the central staircase I’m immediately captivated by a man who’s both laid-back and also infectiously enthusiastic.
Dressed in denim and a casual shirt, everyone he passes as we walk through Britain’s corridors of power smiles and says hello. This is a man who, despite only being in his early thirties, is already at the top of his game.
Banging the drum for Britain
As we sit in one of the No.10 dining rooms, Silva tells me how, up until now, the Tech City project has been about something very un-British – shouting loudly about our successes and putting London on the map in terms of technology.
Concept behind brand ‘Tech City’
“We chose the name Tech City deliberately because it broadens the geographical ambitions beyond Old Street. If London’s going to be recognised globally, we need to look to Kings Cross, Stratford and even further afield.”
Just two years ago, many on both the East and West coast of the US wouldn’t even have heard of London’s ambitions to be a tech centre and Silva hails its recent recognition as one of his proudest accomplishments to date.
It isn’t well known that Tech City was actually born out of David Cameron’s visit to India in June 2010. Silva fought to get three small companies on the delegation because he believed it was important to get some high growth firms on the trade mission.
The Tech City idea was born out of David Cameron’s state visit to India in June 2010
One of those companies was Berg, the founder of which Silva met for the first time on the plane out to India. On the last night of the trip, Matt Webb, founder of Berg, urged him to take a look at the scene in East London, and address many of the issues the community faced.
This was the first of many examples he cites where policies have been created as a direct result of community feedback.
Matt Webb told Silva there weren’t enough places or opportunities for the growing and yet fragmented community around Old Street roundabout.
“There’s now a sense of community identity and we’ve played a small part in that,” he tells me and connects this change with the likes of Google setting up its Campus in September 2010 followed by the General Assembly launching its first base in Britain.
Shortly before Tech City was officially announced by David Cameron, Silva was told by Seedcamp’s Reshma Sohoni that Britain needed entrepreneur visas and this was fed straight back to the PM and put on the agenda.
Index Venture’s Robin Klein also urged Silva to address the problems for high growth firms launching on the London Stock Exchange. This, Silva tells me, was acted on and led to the Exchange’s new high growth segment which is now under review.
Fast stream to the top
Silva rose to the top as the result of a lucky break while working at the Treasury as a civil servant on the Fast Stream Programme, a public sector scheme for gifted individuals. One of his proudest achievements there was introducing behavioural economics into British policymaking.
After 18 months at the Treasury he got a tap on the shoulder and went for a coffee with George Osborne. He gave up the pension and canteen to work in what he refers to as David and George’s startup in a garage.
Working within a small team, he formulated the Tories’ technology strategy while still in opposition. In May 2010 he says they had their “IPO of sorts, and a bit like Facebook our IPO didn’t go exactly as planned and we ended up in coalition”.
Once in government, Silva quickly found himself in his current role where he directly advises David Cameron on technology policy.
Despite being one of the most influential men in tech, he describes himself as a fairly “typical consumer’’.
He dabbled a bit in programming as a kid and started out with a ZX Spectrum 48k, his first computer. He now carries his No.10 confidential Blackberry, a Samsung Galaxy SIII, iPad and a Macbook Air.
What’s next for Tech City
The much publicised Old Street roundabout redevelopment is still very much on the agenda but Silva accepts there are policy challenges in terms of balancing the different needs and interests of Hackney and Islington councils as well as Transport for London (the owners of the roundabout site).
Ever keen to keep the momentum going, he hinted to us about plans for a temporary building nearby while the new site is being constructed so that a series of events and other facilities can be put in place and transplanted to the new site around the Old Street roundabout.
Education is one of his key interests and he tells me he’s proud to be helping University College London to set up a new campus around Newham in East London.
He’s also taking a lead in reforming the ICT GCSE and moving it from ‘teaching Word and Powerpoint’ to teaching students coding.
The Cambridge connection
Silva is passionate about personalised medicine and bioinformatics and singles it out as an area of innovation where Britain can lead in the future.
The relationship between London and Cambridge will be key for this as the capital’s expertise in software development mixes with Cambridge’s life sciences sector. He believes that interplay, particularly in the area of genomics, will be “hugely exciting”.
In response to this, he revealed there will soon be more direct fast trains between Cambridge and London Liverpool Street as part of a reorganisation of the rail timetables. Again, this was as a result of a community request, this time from Autonomy’s Mike Lynch.
Throughout our interview Silva reiterates his view that listening to the community is the best way for the government to play a role in Tech City.
“Our job is to deal with challenges that stand in the way of a British Google, Yahoo or Facebook coming through. What will the challenges be next year? I don’t know, but anytime an entrepreneur/investor says please fix a problem, we’re here to help and long may that continue,”