Archive for the 'cities' Category

Citizen Jane

May 8, 2017

Like a boss.

We went to see the new Jane Jacobs documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. It’s pretty good, with plenty both for Jacobs fans and those who don’t know her work. It pulls in some big-name contributors, including Saskia Sassen, Michael Sorkin, Mindy Fullilove, Mike Davis (!) and Geoffrey West (*). But it also – perhaps unintentionally – shows up some of the limits of Jacobs’ thinking as it applies to today’s cities. Here’s a review of sorts.

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The film has two particular strong points. The first is the precis of Jacobs’ most famous work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Director Matt Tyrnauer nicely summarise the key ideas: cities as organised complexity; street life as a ‘dance’ of uses and users; the rebellion against modernist city planning, cities for the car, and high rise living; the importance of ‘eyes on the street’, mixed uses, old and new buildings, and short blocks – concepts now hard coded into masterplans and design standards in cities across the world. Crucially, these ideas developed over many years’ close observation of New York streets and neighbourhoods, and through test runs in Jacobs’ journalism: her first book arrived in the world fully formed and ready for use.

 

 

The film’s other big plus is its retelling of the epic struggle between Jacobs and city planner Robert Moses in 1950s and 60s New York. With minimal resources, Jacobs somehow turned around Moses’ big money plans to bulldoze and run roads through Washington Square Park, the West Village and ultimately Lower Manhattan itself. These are perhaps the most gripping parts of the picture. Moses is a monstrous figure – see also Robert Caro’s 900-page biography, summarised here by Jackson Lears – while Jacobs is revealed to be a total badass.

Machine politics, corruption and the abuse of power run up against agile and well-networked social activism: we see Jacobs wearing a ‘Mailer for Mayor’ badge, organising a series of brilliant publicity stunts and photo opportunities, and roping in Susan Sontag, Margaret Mead and Eleanor Roosevelt to help out.

 

 

The gender dynamics are striking. Moses summons an army of besuited male planners, and notoriously dismisses Jacobs’ female-led network as ‘just a bunch of mothers’: fatally underestimating his opponents, but also, as a talking head points out, ’you’d only say that if you thought people didn’t matter at all’. Jacobs’ publisher sends Moses a copy of Death and Life: he returns it in a terse note (‘Sell this junk to someone else’); Lewis Mumford dismisses the book as ‘Mother Jacobs’ Home Recipes’.

The filmmakers link Jacobs’ tactics and successes to other 1960s social struggles: feminism, the environmental movement, civil rights. There’s an important point here about shared repertoires of protest tactics. It’s also true that Jacobs was both a feminist and an environmentalist. But I needed a bit more convincing that the bigger links really held together.

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The racism in US post-war urban planning is still shocking to see. James Baldwin appears in the film to point out that ‘urban renewal means negro removal’, with housing projects and highways used as tools of segregation. The minority urban poor were pushed into badly designed blocks at the city’s edge, just as in France the following decade – with similarly grim results for the victims.

The film starts to connect these practices to Moses’ development model, which raised land values in redeveloped zones, and leveraged huge federal budgets. I was left wanting to know more about the political economy: was this racial redlining? Patronage politics? Or some toxic mixture of the two?

The Cross-Bronx Expressway (1948-72) is perhaps one of the most notorious Moses schemes, literally cutting the neighbourhood in half and blighting lifechances for years afterwards. As Mike Davis points out, it’s ‘perhaps the single most damaging urban development in US history’. Jacobs was active in New York at the time, and the film is curiously silent about this. Was she involved in opposing this? If not, why not? Did she try and fail? (Was her model of protest anchored in the neighbourhoods she knew? Did construction help spur her into action elsewhere in the city?)

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If the film is sometimes in danger of reifying Jacobs’ older ideas, it also misses out some of her newer thinking. That’s a shame: The Economy of Cities (1969) is a foundational text in urban economics, with important ideas about how cities help innovation to happen, long term growth and urban resilience. Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1985), which posits cities over nation-states as the key unit of development, feels ahead of its time. And her environmental work – which I know less well – also looks increasingly prescient.

The film also skips some chances to reassess that legacy. Jacobs was a progressive and a futurist – but not a fan of big government. Her anti-planning stance has made her popular with the libertarian right: it’s the antithesis not just of the government cynicism that produced Pruitt-Igoe and Ronan Point, but also the state-funded optimism that gave us the LCC and Park Hill.

Sure, the Lower Manhattan Expressway would have been a concrete stake through the city’s heart. But I dare you not to look at the renderings and at least wonder what a Brutalist icon it would have made.

 

 

Some of the limitations in Jacobs’ vision become clearer in the second half of the film, which lays up Jacobs’ neighbourhood prescriptions against urbanisation outside the West. As Saskia Sassen puts it, the pace and style of urbanisation in the urban cores of China and India are ‘Moses on steroids’ . ‘How can we apply Jane Jacobs’ thinking to these cities?’, asks another contributor.

Good question. The film drops some hints: successful urbanisation can’t shut out the public realm; cheaply-built towers are a terrible false economy; existing urban settlements, however visually shabby or informal, embody their own ‘dances’ and should be valued by planners, not bulldozed away (see Stewart Brand for more on this).

Nevertheless, the film can’t escape the conclusion that Death and Life … has plenty of say about preserving old neighbourhoods in old cities, but rather less about building new ones:  Jacobs’ New York was losing population, as their heavy industry began to be globalised away; the cities of the BRICS are growing at speed. Equally, today’s New York is struggling with an affordable housing crisis; other US cities are still feeling the aftershocks of de-industrialisation.

As Jacobs put it in 1958: ‘the best way to plan a downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them.’ Today’s urban crises need urgent solutions, and significantly, by her death in 2006, Jacobs didn’t seem so interested in these issues: as her last interviews show, she had moved on to other things.

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The film is a great appreciation of Jane Jacobs’ finest hour. Her elegant and radical thinking was inevitably a product of its time. But bettering our contemporary cities may require both a re-tooling of Jacobs’ ideas, and new thinking from other voices.

‘After Florida’ wins a prize

December 21, 2016

I’m delighted (and honestly, surprised) to have won the 2016 Jim Lewis Prize for my paper on the economics of diversity – After Florida – which is out in European Urban and Regional Studies. The prize is awarded for the most innovative paper published in EURS the previous year.

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You can read the whole paper here. To give you a flavour, the abstract is below.

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 assesses 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 creates space for a post-Florida agenda based on economic microfoundations.

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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The paper has its origins in the intro chapter to my PHD thesis. If you fancy wading deeper in, that’s here.

Physicists explain things to me

August 19, 2016

1 6sljSYxo4QWBg3PAIHIUEQ

I’ve written a long post on cities, superlinear scaling and universal laws over at Medium.

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I’ve been gradually building a presence there: it’s a platform that works particularly well for long-form pieces like this. Go take a look!

 

Jane Jacobs: City Limits

May 18, 2016

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

City Limits is a lovely 1971 film about Jane Jacobs. You can watch the whole thing here; it’s about 30 mins long. Directed by Laurence Hyde for the Canadian National Film Board, the documentary features Jacobs talking through her ideas, interspersed with some terrific footage of Toronto, New York, London and other cities around the world. I’m indebted to Martin Dittus for digging it out of the NFB archives.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

The 30-minute film is worth watching for many reasons. For starters, Jacobs herself appears in much of it – sat in a park, shopping in a market, buying a newspaper, and at one point clambering into a helicopter to survey Toronto from above.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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At the same time, the film is a great summary of Jacobs’ big ideas about how urban neighbourhoods – and cities – work, when they succeed and when they fail. Jacobs is a superb writer, but she never spells it out for you. The film does, and in the author’s own words:

A city is an organism, and a very complex  one, and an ever changing one.  I would like us to see cities as ecologies – because that’s what they are. As surely as the ecologies of the natural world. The ecology of a city is of the same order of complexity as the ecology of a woodland. And this is what proper city planning ought to be directed to.  

This is the essence of a crucial chapter buried in the back of The Death and Life of Great American Cities: ‘The Kind of Problem a City Is’ (page 558 in my edition). It’s the research design for the book: it’s also Jacobs’ whole way of doing urbanism.

jacobs34 jacobs21 jacobs16(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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Watching the film reminds me how prescient Jacobs was. There’s a surprising sequence on cultural diversity, which Jacobs presents both as an amenity, and as a channel of innovation:

Foreign districts introduce extra dimensions into a city. They often introduce new kinds of food, new customs, new music, even new kinds of clothing. And they’re a lot of fun for people who aren’t familiar with those customs, foods and so on. … that’s the way things spread in cities. And from cities to other places.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

This innovation argument is the big idea from The Economy of Cities. ‘Jacobian externalities’ are knowledge spillovers across sectors: these are self-reinforcing, and help cities become resilient to economic shocks. What I hadn’t previously spotted was that Jacobs sees *cultural* and *economic* diversity as so closely intertwined.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

Jacobs also makes some subtle points about mobility and technology. She came to prominence in New York opposing Robert Moses’ megaschemes for urban motorways and ‘sum clearance’:  not surprisingly, then, much of the film is concerned with congestion and pollution. But Jacobs has a much more profound argument:

People worry that there’s too much progress – in fact it’s just the opposite. … Automobiles don’t represent     progress any more – they’re pretty old …

There’s no solution in saying people should live close to their work and shouldn’t travel. People change their  jobs, goods have to move. So the problem is mobility – but the automobile isn’t providing much of an answer.

In other words: the car-based city is old thinking. The future is mass transit, bikes, and mobility as a service, enabled by technology. Scroll forward to 2016, and that future is taking shape all around us.

In 1971, however, this meant ‘Dial-a-Bus’ [link7] – a prehistoric Uber Pool, summoned to your house by landline and whisking you and fellow commuters to the local train station.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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Jacobs was a thinker and an activist, not a consultant. It’s not as easy as it looks to derive practical guidance from her work – not least because she is the original full-field urbanist, drawing together history, built form, economics, social structure and culture into her analysis. Watching the film is a salutary reminder of this; it also emphasises how much Jacobs’ work draws on close observation of specific places she knows well.

Death and Life … tends to be distilled into four urban design tropes: high density, short city blocks, mixed use, old buildings. Result: every 1990s block of flats with space for a shop at the bottom (but VAT rules that incentivise developers to knock down old buildings). That’s clearly not enough to make a street or neighbourhood ‘work’, if it has no relation to the demographics and socio-economic life around it. The film is a neat reminder that we shouldn’t reduce Jacobs to design code box-ticking. But it also highlights just how tricky it is to roll her ideas into generalised practice. ‘What should a city be like?’ asked Reason in 2001. Jacobs’ answer: ‘it should be like itself’.

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(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

The film also highlights how much Jacobs’ thinking about urbanism is a product of its time. All around her cities were losing people to the suburbs, and losing old urban grain to modernist, car-centric city form. Many neighbourhoods were emptying out. In London and New York today, all of that has flipped around: populations are growing, high-value activity is back, and we have an urgent crisis of housing and cheap space.

Ed Glaeser famously has a go at Jacobs in The Triumph of the City, arguing that preserving old buildings simply chokes off the supply of bigger, newer ones, and the subsequent gentrification pushes out the artists and mixed communities she sought to preserve. I’m not sure that’s completely fair: she was dealing with a different era’s problems. But it also seems that she had fairly little to say about today’s urban crises. That is the message from of this 2003 Brick interview, conducted three years before Jacobs’ death. She’s asked whether today’s cities are in better shape. She replies:

In some ways there’re worse and in some ways better. The things that are worse I don’t think are so much focused or anchored in cities as they are in our North American culture as a whole … I think that things are getting better for cities in that there’s not the great ruthless wiping away of their most interesting areas that took place in the past … however, I think the urban sprawl outside of cities has gotten much worse.

In the Reason interview she goes a little further, citing Portland, Seattle and San Francisco as ‘attractive places … where good things are being done.’ The interviewer asks about gentrification and rising prices. She bats away the question.

By this point her  writing had also moved on to other issues:  the nature of work, economic ecosystems. Clearly, she wasn’t much interested in going back to the street.

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It’s early morning, and the city is beginning to dance. The camera follows Jacobs as she crosses a busy street. A man walking beside her notices the camera and gazes in increasing curiousity at our heroine, trying to place her. Unable to do so, he wanders away. Lost in thought, she disappears into the crowd.

jacobs9 jacobs8 jacobs10 (c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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Here’s the link to the film again.

 

Big data and local growth policy

March 11, 2016

Twitter.

I’ve written a couple of posts for the What Works Centre on how to use new data sources, and data science techniques, in designing and evaluating local growth programmes.

In parts of the interweb ‘Big Data’ is now such a cliché that dedicated Twitter bots will dice up offending content – see above. But in local economic development, and urban policy more broadly, researchers and policymakers are only beginning to exploit these resources.

The first post lays out the terrain, concepts and resources. The second post is more focused on evaluation, research design and delivery.

Happy reading!

 

Microsolutions to megaproblems

December 9, 2015

I have a chapter in this nice new Policy Press book, After Urban Regeneration, expertly edited by Dave O’Brien and Peter Matthews.

Here’s the intro [pdf].

The book takes a critical look at urban policy in the UK, particularly in the post-crash period, and explores the way thinking  about regeneration has changed under austerity, and under localism.

It tests the idea that we’re now in a ‘post-regeneration’ era; it also takes a close look at the way communities and ideas of ‘community’ have been used to design, deliver and justify programmes on the ground.

My chapter covers the recent history of UK economic regeneration, sets out what we can expect programmes to achieve given the mega-trends shaping urban economies and communities, and also explores how the ‘what works’ agenda can help, both in developing the evidence base and in hands-on policy design. Cities and communities have been in tough times for years now, but I try to find some grounds for cautious optimism.

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The editors put together a strong and diverse team: we have excellent contributions from Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Antonia Layard, Kate Pahl, Liz Richardson and Chris Speed, as well as my Birmingham colleagues Catherine Durose and Phil Jones.

You can get the paperback here, or the hardback for a terrifying cost.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

 

 

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