First-Person Flaneur

November 1, 2015


(c) 2015 Laurence Lek


Bonus Levels is a series of beautifully realised recreations of London locations, re-imagined as Ballardian dreamscapes, elements of an impossible city. In After Us, creator Lawrence Lek describes his work as ‘architecture as site-specific simulation’, in which existing parts of the cityscape and its institutions are ‘reconfigured and subverted’ by some apocalyptic or economic shock. I think this can help us think about real-world urban change too. Let’s look at a couple of examples.


In ‘Dalston, Mon Amour’, some familiar landmarks of the Kingsland Road – the Rio Cinema, Gillett Square and once on-trend Efes Bar are rendered empty and open to the elements after a biblical weather event. Terraformed by desert and water, Renais’ film plays in the background as the sky darkens.


(c) 2015 Laurence Lek


You can certainly treat this work as satirical – hipster touchstones crumbled into dust – and Lek is clear that this is part of the point. The use of video game aesthetics is also nice, although as Lek points out, ‘the player begins when the game is already over’: it’s first-person flaneur. The game framing also exacerbates the dreamlike quality of each episode – background sounds pan around, and there are sudden changes in perspective or time of day.

There’s also a deeper, uncanny power to it. Places we knew and hold dear, transformed into dreamspaces. As Adam points out, Vermilion Sands, The Sprawl or De Chirico are never far away. But also – for some viewers – their own memories are reconfigured. As Lek argues, the more time you spend in each episode, the more meaning your own mind layers over it.


I experienced a real-world retelling of my own world a few months back, in farcical form, as a group of us were taken on a guided tour of ’Silicon Roundabout and Tech City’. The tour had felt like a good idea as part of a new paper we’ve been writing on the East London tech scene: in practice it involved much psychodrama.

As the tour went on, for example, I was alarmed to find that the guide’s spiel included numerous factoids taken from my own research, fed back in slightly distorted form. Even worse, as we left Old St roundabout we were taken to the Foundry, a now-deceased bar and venue my friends and I spent much time in during years gone by, and which was shut down amid much protest. The guide described it as an ‘important cultural institution throughout the 90s and some of the 00s’: opening up a chasm of lost time in the process. The site now houses the Hoxton Pastry Union, an almost comically resonant symbol of the changes the neighbourhood has since gone through.

Sharing this moment with friends afterwards, it became clear what a powerful charge it packed.



A more formal way to think about Lek’s project is a series of spatial imaginaries, Bob Jessop’s term for the mental maps we all use to get purchase on everyday life. More formally, Jessop means imaginaries to act as mapping systems or ‘fixes’ that allow agents to navigate otherwise impossibly complex late capitalism.

Imaginaries – like Silicon Roundabout / Tech City itself – are necessarily partial, pushing some elements to the fore and ignoring others. They are thus ripe for the kind of reconfiguring and questioning Lek engages in.

Part of the paper I’m working on looks at Here East, the vast Olympic Broadcast and Media Centre which is being rapidly transformed into a new, maker-focused neighbourhood. On a recent visit the site was still under construction, but we got a clear sense of the developers’ vision.


(c) 2015 Max Nathan


Notice how the rebrand involves both a new name, a new industrial niche, and a spatial repositioning of the site, away from Stratford and into Hackney, specifically the artist-centric milieu of Hackney Wick which sits just over the canal.


I was happy to see that Bonus Levels has also engaged with this territory. ‘Delirious New Wick’ is a hysterical rebuild of E9 and the Olympic Park, in which the Games’ iconic structures float above the park and are accessed through teleporters. A gorgeous Burial soundtrack runs in the background as we float high above the city, before descending onto the ruins of the Westfield mall, now partially submerged in an Arthurian Lake. It is heady, brilliant stuff.

Mapping London tech

October 22, 2015



Science and tech employment counts, 2013, IDBR


The Tech Map London is out, and so is the research that underpins it. It’s an extremely impressive piece of work, and anyone remotely interested in urban tech ecosystems should take a look. Kudos to the GLA for commissioning it, and to Trampoline Systems and SQW who put the thing together. Other city-regions should try and do something similar.

Here’s some notes I made. It gets a bit geeky in places.


1/ Patterns – one widely-reported headline is that London has a whole bunch of technology hotspots, not just one. That makes sense, and chimes with other recent analysis. And as some colleagues and I explore in a forthcoming paper, even pre-2010 Silicon Roundabout was linked into a much larger system.

Another is that the tech sector is ‘shunning’ the Old St area. That’s harder to see, as there’s no time dimension in the data, but it’s clear that as that neighbourhood’s technology scene grows, and the area gets pricier, things will tend to spread out. This is what I found recently in some work for Centre for London.

2/ Definitions – The definition of ‘tech’ is important, and this NESTA piece makes clear, there’s a bunch of competing definitions in play. The project team base their work on the recent ONS science and technology categories, though they tell me they tweaked these a bit. This feels sensible, and has the advantage of allowing them to consider (say) medicine and life sciences alongside ICT.

3/ Data – the report uses high quality IDBR data for some of the analysis, but relies on Companies House data for the actual mapping, which identifies tech firms using self-reported industry codes. This isn’t great, as the authors acknowledge: a non-trivial share of firms don’t report anything, others put down non-informative codes (say, ‘other business services’), and SIC codes often don’t tell us much about products/services. Companies House data on employment and revenues is also quite gappy, and comes off of a selected subsample. Use those numbers with caution.

Anna Rosso  and I have used a big data-driven approach [unlocked version] to try and get around some of these issues, though this isn’t perfect either. We’re now testing a combination of administrative and modelled info which should plug a lot more of the holes.

4/ Location – I’m still scratching my head a bit on this. Companies House data gives the address of a registered office, not the trading address. The two could be quite different, and in extremis, not even in the same city. The project team did a survey to explore these issues, finding that for most SMEs, the two addresses are the same, so developed the map on that basis. It’s obviously critical that the survey is robust for us to believe the map.

I couldn’t find that much detail in the report, but assuming the survey is sound, this is a pretty helpful finding for me and others working with company data. Meanwhile, we can get a rough sense of the correspondence by comparing the map at the top of the page with this one.


Digital technologies employment counts, 2013, Companies House


The first uses IDBR employment data from actual plant locations, the second uses Companies House registered addresses. For some reason, the first map covers the whole of science and tech, while the second only looks at digital technologies (around 18% of all science and tech jobs in 2013) and is in logs, not raw counts. The two line up *fairly* well, but really we need to see a like-for-like comparison using plants/enterprises, not jobs. Note: I’d be very happy to update this material if the team can furnish me with more detail.


New job

September 1, 2015

New St Signal Box (c) 2012 Max Nathan

Some news! I’m starting a new job at Birmingham University in October, based in the Business School.

I’m going to be a Senior Birmingham Fellow in Regional Economic Development. This is basically an Assistant Professor position, but focused on research until 2020 after which it converts to a regular tenured slot. So it’s a lovely thing to have.

I’ll be working on a bunch of projects looking at technology ecosystems and clusters across the UK and further afield, as well as helping out with the new City-REDI initiative. More details on those soon. I’m also planning to continue research on diversity and migration, with new colleagues at the Institute for Research into Superdiversity. And I’m looking forward to kicking off new ideas with colleagues in Geography, Economics and elsewhere on campus.

In true academic fashion I’m keeping my LSE affiliation, and will continue at the What Works Centre there. I’m also becoming a visiting fellow at NIESR.


What I did in New Zealand

August 4, 2015

Matiu / Somes Island. (c) 2015 Max Nathan

Am back from New Zealand and just about over the jetlag. Thanks again to Motu and the Caddanz team for hosting me. I’m already plotting a return trip …

Here’s my talk from the Pathways conference. This is on the economics of migration and diversity, and brings together various projects from the past few years.

Here are slides and audio from my public policy talk at Motu. This looks at the What Works agenda in the UK, particularly the work of the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, and some of the opportunities and challenges these institutions face.

New essay on London’s digital industries

June 27, 2015

I’ve written a piece for the new issue of London Essays, the beautifully-designed journal published by Centre for London.

Having covered soft power, the latest issue looks at technology. It launches on 1 July, but you can read my article early here: I take a look at London’s digital industries and their contribution to the city’s economic future, crunch some new numbers and try not to make too many jokes about artisanal products.

Hope you enjoy reading it!

Writing it has been good preparation for the LSE lecture I’m chairing on 7 July, where Gerard Grech, CEO of Tech City UK will be setting out his thoughts on London’s digital future, and the prospects for the tech sector across the country. If you can make it, please come say hello.



Diane Coyle reviews ‘Urban Economics and Urban Policy’

June 23, 2015

I’m excited to see that Diane Coyle, one of my heroes, has reviewed my book. Happily she likes it. Read the full review here.

Future chat

May 20, 2015

(c) 2015 Max Nathan

I’ve been busy working on a bunch of projects recently, but will be escaping the office to do a couple of talks over the summer. Each very different …


On 7 July I’m chairing an LSE lecture by Gerard Grech, CEO of Tech City UK. We’ll be talking about the extraordinary growth of London’s digital economy, and where these sectors could take us next.

I’ve just completed a long piece on London’s digital evolutions for the Centre for London think tank’s new London Essays imprint, so I’m looking forward to this one. Emma and I met Gerard recently and were impressed by his openness. It should be a great session. Details are here.


On 23 July I’m in New Zealand at the ‘Pathways, Circuits and Crossroads’ conference on the economics of immigration and diversity, which is organised by the University of Waikato, Massey University and Motu. I’m very grateful to Jacques Poot and Dave Maré for inviting me over. They’re just beginning a major programme of work on immigration and diversity in NZ, and I’m hoping we can kick off some interesting collaborations when I’m in town. More details of that event when I have them.

If you’re around for either of these, come and say hello!

Training entrepreneurs: does it work?

March 24, 2015

(c) South Park

Here are some highlights from last Friday’s joint What Works Centre / SERC seminar, which was given by Prof Rob Fairlie from UC Santa Cruz. The talk was part of the Spatial Economics Research Centre’s regular series of seminars, and the first in an occasional series of collaborations where we get the chance to dig into an innovative piece of local growth policy.


Rob’s talk looked at policies to promote entrepreneurship, and focused on whether training programmes for entrepreneurs can help these new businesses grow their workforce. This taps into some major policy concerns in the UK and elsewhere. Since the Great Recession, US and UK policymakers have been very keen to push entrepreneurial activity as a way to generate economic growth. Existing US evidence suggests that small and young firms account for the majority of new jobs generated; and most of that job creation comes from a very small number of those firms (although we should bear in mind that at least some of these jobs created come at the expense of jobs lost in incumbent businesses).

So are there policy interventions that can a) help move people into entrepreneurship and b) help those new businesses grow?


One cluster of interventions is accelerator and incubator programmes, in the tech sector and more broadly, which select a small number of participants for intensive training. In the States, entrepreneurship training has also been applied as part of active labour market policy, with programmes that aim to help long term unemployed people set up their own businesses. We covered some of these programmes in our evidence review on business advice. Rob’s talk focused on one of the largest, Project GATE, which was set up as an RCT covering over 4,000 people, of whom over 50% were unemployed at the time. Project participants received a package of training, classes and seminars and 1:1 counselling / advice on setting up and growing a business.

A key question for policymakers is whether new entrepreneur-owned businesses generate additional employment, and where this comes from: an unemployed person who becomes a business owner has generated a job (for themselves), which is a success from a ‘welfare to work’ point of view. However, from a local growth perspective, what we really want to know is whether these firms also hire additional employees.

The conclusions from the evaluation are not hugely encouraging. There are positive but not statistically significant effects of the programme on hiring a new employee, and the training did not have an effect on the number of employees hired.


What might explain this? The RCT results are average effects, so it is possible that the training might be more effective for firms in specific industries, or for specific types of people (the paper also uses descriptive evidence from the Kauffman Firm Survey which suggests quite a lot of heterogeneity in hiring patterns across different types of entrepreneurs).

Another issue is programme aims: this particular intervention focused on moving participants into business ownership, not growing workforces; many participants reported that the hiring advice they received wasn’t terribly helpful, and the number of hiring firms was low, making inference difficult.

A third issue contamination: is that over 50% of the control group also ended up getting some kind of entrepreneurship training. As one of the seminar participants pointed out, although they spent less time on training and reported lower satisfaction than the treatment group, it’s possible that a sub-section of the control group ended up more motivated – and likely to succeed – than the treatment group.


So what can policymakers take from all of this? First, amidst all the excitement about incubators and accelerators, be wary about claims that entrepreneurship training is a silver bullet for local growth. Second, try to set up some experiments so we can properly test such programmes in a UK context. Third, be very clear about what your entrepreneurship training programme is designed to achieve, and make sure that the policy design and evaluation strategy are able to pick this up. Finally, make sure that participant and performance data is available to researchers. Initial evaluations of Project GATE suggested it had positive impacts, leading the US Department of Labor to spend large sums on further rollout. After several years chasing down the data, Rob and colleagues found mistakes in the original studies and concluded the actual effects were substantially smaller than claimed.


A version of this piece was originally posted on the What Works Centre blog.


Estate renewal and neighbourhood regeneration

March 8, 2015

(c) Max Nathan 2012

At the end of January the What Works Centre on Local Economic Growth, where I’m a Deputy Director, released its review of estate renewal programmes. For many of those who’ve worked in regeneration policy, and (like me) want such programmes to succeed, the results were deeply disappointing.

The team found that

1/ Estate renewal programmes do a good job of improving housing, public space and physical amenities.

2/ Estate renewal programmes lead to increases in property and land prices and rents, although not necessarily for nearby properties that do not directly benefit from improvements.

3/ Programmes tend to have a limited impact on the local economy in terms of improving income or employment.

4/ Programmes tend to have a limited impact on the local area in terms of reducing crime, improving health, wellbeing or education.

Worse, we found no evaluations that were able to unpick effects on existing residents, as opposed to people moving into an area. This matters, because it means that – for example – area-level improvements in employment rates might simply be driven be people moving into the area, rather than real improvements in life chances for people already living there.


A few thoughts on this.

First, as Ruth Lupton points out, we have to be careful to assess such programmes on what they set out to achieve. The main aim of estate renewal is usually to improve the quality of housing supply, the built environment and other local amenities. The review shows programmes are pretty good at achieving these. An important result.

Where such programmes score less well is on broader objectives. New Labour broadened estate renewal into a wider ‘neighbourhood renewal’ agenda – programmes like the New Deal for Communities included economic as well as social goals. The review included a number of independent and officially-commissioned NDC evaluations, and the results on these wider goals are not great. As John Haughton suggests, this is consistent with a larger body of evidence on ‘people’ vs ‘place’ interventions, and where views cut across the political spectrum.

It’s worth thinking a moment about why this might be. Urban economies are complex, and adjustment is hard to predict, sometimes chaotic. There’s clearly space for for neighbourhood regeneration programmes to try and deal with co-ordination problems, provide public goods, and try to mitigate some of the problems facing people in deprived areas.

On the other hand, these programmes are microsolutions for megaproblems: the economic elements of NDC are trying to roll back huge structural trends that two decades of national intervention under Labour more or less failed to shift. I’ve got a chapter coming out in this book, edited by Dave O’Brien and Peter Matthews, which talks more about these ‘regeneration expectations’.

Second, as John also says, it is important to understand in more detail *why* some estate renewal programmes have not delivered on their objectives. John suggests a few reasons: lack of community ownership, a lack of learning culture in the ‘estate renewal industry’, and shifting / conflicting central government priorities (a point also made by Ruth and others).

To dig into this, we need better quality impact evaluations (the What Works team used just 21 out of over 1,000 candidate studies). We also need to look through the complementary literature on programme process, implementation and management. The Centre has now started to do this – across a range of policy areas – and will be reporting back in the coming months.

Third, we need to set our expectations for such policies in the future. As a whole, regeneration programmes involve an implicit contract with communities, as Lee Pugalis and David McGuinness argue, and there remains a strong equity case for such initiatives. However, effective urban and neighbourhood policy is hard to design: neighbourhoods and cities are complex systems, which adjust in messy and uneven fashion. This creates space for policymakers – dealing with market and co-ordination failures – but also implies that impacts are likely to be incremental at best. That means presenting a realistic positive case for regeneration and estate renewal, rather than asserting economic transformations that stand little chance of coming about.

Two new (old) papers

January 4, 2015

(c) 2015 Max Nathan

A couple of papers that have been online for a while have now been physically published.

These are the minority ethnic inventors paper, which is out in the Journal of Economic Geography, and another paper on a ‘post Richard Florida’ framework for thinking about the economic effects of diversity. This is the lead article in the new European Urban and Regional Studies, which is nice.

Abstracts are below. You can get an earlier, working paper version of the JOEG paper here, and for a limited time you can download the EURS paper here.


JOEG:  Minority ethnic inventors play important roles in US innovation, especially in high-tech regions such as Silicon Valley. Do ‘ethnicity–innovation’ channels exist elsewhere? Ethnicity could influence innovation via production complementarities from diverse inventor communities, co-ethnic network externalities or individual ‘stars’. I explore these issues using new UK patents microdata and a novel name-classification system. UK minority ethnic inventors are spatially concentrated, as in the USA, but have different characteristics reflecting UK-specific geography and history. I find that the diversity of inventor communities helps raise individual patenting, with suggestive influence of East Asian-origin stars. Majority inventors may benefit from multiplier effects.

EURS:  In recent years, most European countries have experienced substantial demographic changes and rising cultural diversity. Understanding the social and economic impacts of these shifts is a major challenge for policymakers. Richard Florida’s ideas have provided a popular – and pervasive – framework for doing so. This paper assess Florida’s legacy and sets out a ‘post-Florida’ framework for ‘technology, talent and tolerance’ research. The paper first traces the development of Florida’s ideas. ‘Florida 1.0’, encapsulated by the Three Ts framework, has performed badly in practice. There are problems in bringing causality to the fundamental relationships, and in consistently replicating the results in other countries. ‘Florida 2.0’, though suggests that Creative Class metrics have value as alternative measures of human capital. This create space for a post-Florida agenda based on economic micro-foundations. I argue that the growing body of ‘economics of diversity’ research meets these conditions, and review theory and empirics. Urban ‘diversity shocks’ shift the size and composition of populations and workforces, with impacts operating via labour markets, and through wider production and consumption networks. While short-term labour market effects are small, over time low-value industrial sectors may become migrant-dependent. Diversity may help raise productivity and wages through innovation, entrepreneurship, market access and trade channels. Bigger, more diverse cities help generate hybridised goods and services, but may also raise local costs through crowding. All of this presents new challenges for policymakers, who need to manage diversity’s net effects, and address both economic costs and benefits.


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