How to build an innovation and tech cluster in Norfolk

Huw Sayer, Co-owner of Business Writers Limited


You probably know that the first #TechNation report, published by Tech City UK on 5 February 2015, identified Norwich as one of 21 tech clusters in the UK. This is excellent news for the city because it raises our profile with policy makers and will make it easier to attract more inward investment to the county. It also raises an important question: how do we build on this success?

Before answering that, it’s worth considering what makes a vibrant cluster and how Norwich came to be included in the report. We all have a role to play in our city’s continuing success. As you will see, there are many ways for you to get involved.

What is a cluster?

There are various definitions of a cluster and it’s often a case of “you know one when you see it.” Some say it’s a tight-knit community whose members are “within walking distance” of each other (although it’s unclear how far they are prepared to walk). They might give ‘Silicon Roundabout’ as an example but the original Silicon Valley (c. 30 miles long by 20 miles wide) wouldn’t fit this definition.

The #TechNation report defines clusters as urban areas with an above average concentration of tech businesses. The report refers to ‘Norwich (and Norfolk)’, effectively recognising the city as both a cluster in its own right and a hub for the surrounding community. This makes sense because it’s not where you work that matters, so much as how easily you can meet.

That’s because a vibrant cluster is not just a concentration of disparate businesses. It’s also a community of people who are willing to share experiences and ideas – and collaborate on projects. As Tech City UK’s Cluster Alliance head Emma Swift made clear to me last year, this sort of cluster has to have strong grass-roots support rather than a top-down imposed structure.  

How did Norwich get on the UK’s tech map?

When Tech City UK announced its provisional list of 12 UK tech clusters early in 2014, Norwich was not on it. When some of us asked why, the answer was effectively “you didn’t appear on the radar.” Yet this is a city with “one of the largest and most experienced” university schools of computing in the country, a world-class agri-tech research park, and numerous thriving tech business groups, including SyncNorwich with over 900 members and Norfolk Developers with over 500.

Something was not right – quite simply we lacked a coherent voice on the national stage. People in the local tech community knew it existed but, in typical Norfolk fashion, they were not telling the outside world. This despite the UEA and SyncNorwich successfully inviting TechCrunch’s European Editor-at-large Mike Butcher to give the keynote at a packed conference in 2013.

In July 2014, a group of local business people set out to improve matters. We started by marshalling the evidence, such as the fact that the Norfolk Indie Game Developers group had been recognised as “one of the largest in the country” and students had voted Norwich University of the Arts “the best specialist arts, design and media university in the UK” – for the second year running. With the help of the EDP Business team, we asked Tech City UK to look again at Norwich.

In September, Tech City UK launched its #TechNation survey, to map the UK’s tech ecosystem. This was our chance – and the local community responded with enthusiasm, using social media to encourage people to take part. We knew that if at least 30 businesses completed the survey, Norwich might get a mention in the report: as it was, over 300 businesses across Norfolk responded.

This helped persuade Tech City UK’s Emma Swift to visit Norwich in November, in time for #SyncTheCity, an amazing 54-hour start-up event organised by Fiona Lettice and John Fagan. She also heard about the Norfolk Developers Conference, scheduled for 27 February 2015. Because of all this activity, Emma publicly endorsed our campaign for national cluster recognition – much to everyone’s delight.

What’s next?

The eventual #TechNation report highlighted Norwich’s “growing startup scene supported by one of the highest concentrations of academic research parks in the UK.” It also noted the strength of the “great support network in the area,” including groups such as SyncNorwich, Norfolk Developers and HotSource. You can now help build on this success by joining these groups – and others like them – and by promoting them to your business networks, particularly on social media.

You can emphasise the depth of our talent pool – which includes 14,500 people employed in the digital sector. You can also promote your business’s involvement by adding it to this Tech Hub Map of East Anglia. Above all, you can challenge national press reports that ignore or under-report the scale and enterprise of Norwich’s tech community – because, quite simply, we’re stronger together.

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