Spatial Imaginaries and Tech Cities: Place-branding East London’s digital economy. Journal of Economic Geography. 2018.

Co-authored with Max Nathan and Emma Vandore, this paper explore place branding as an economic development strategy for technology clusters, using London’s ‘Tech City’ initiative as a case study. Drawing on extensive econometric and anthropological material over a long time-frame, we explore the use of ‘spatial imaginaries’ around technological systems - simplified and selective ‘mental maps’ of a supercomplex reality which selectively draw on existing territories, places, networks and scales, as well as symbolic markers and sites.

The Old St Roundabout is the physical heart of Tech City, and provides a resonant visual symbol of the cluster. The roundabout is not conventionally photogenic but there is little sign that it discourages business from locating in the area. Indeed, streetscape improvements were the lowest priority identified by local firms surveyed in 2012 (Nathan and Vandore, 2014). Nevertheless, in December the same year, David Cameron and Boris Johnson unveiled surprise proposals for a radical redevelopment of the roundabout, featuring a multi-storey, architecturally iconic hub for startups and the local community – ‘Europe’s largest indoor civic space’ – and extensive surrounding pedestrianisation and streetscaping. The only visual detail was provided in renderings, leading The Register to dub the development ‘The £50m THING’.

The THING makes sense as part of a branding-led strategy, in which visual identity and messages of transformation and change are central. However, as a concrete proposal it suffered from three major problems. First, the actual delivery of the proposals was unfortunate: they were presented by the politicians to a room full of local technology firms and critical urbanists, many of whom immediately took to social media to air their reactions.

Second, the proposals lacked credibility: it was a further example of a top-down attempt to terraform the area, and as such was immediately in tension with the PM’s stated desire to ‘go with the grain’ and ‘help where we can’ (Cameron, 2010). Worse, there was no evidence of any real local demand for the proposals: rather, this was a classic instance of selectively co-opting an existing asset and repackaging it for an outside audience of investors and developers. Third, and most prosaically, the plans turned out to be impossible to deliver: Transport for London objected that the proposals placed too much physical weight on the tube station below. That this basic issue was not picked up pre-announcement is another example of the limits to the ‘loose’ approach to policy.