Rohan Silva: Britain needs tech support – and here's the man to provide it
Rohan Silva wants all of us to be able to create our own websites. He tells Ian Burrell how he's going to help
Rohan Silva might be only 31, but he already has the ear of David Cameron and George Osborne. In the ornate and old-world surroundings of the Chancellor's Dining Room in Downing Street, the technology expert sets out his bold plans for turning the UK into a nation of computer programmers.
Mr Silva is looking for a British Sergey Brin or Mark Zuckerberg, who can build a business of the scale of Google or Facebook in the land of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet. But he also wants as many of us as possible to play a part in putting Britain at the forefront of the international technology race.
In 2013, Mr Silva, a senior policy adviser to the Prime Minister, will oversee a government push to "get behind coding generally". He is not describing a curriculum change but a national movement to help the public set up its own websites. "This is not just in schools and not just in universities but for people everywhere. We are going to be launching a big new initiative on this that pulls together all these amazing programmes," he says, referencing computer coding initiatives. "That's going to be a big thing for next year."
It is Mr Silva who invariably escorts Mr Cameron and ministers such as David Willetts and Michael Gove to the East End backstreets when they want to be seen showing interest in technology start-ups. This is the neighbourhood that the Government – at Mr Silva's suggestion – has championed as "Tech City", a beacon of British innovation.
To mark Tech City's second birthday last week, Mr Cameron announced a £50m initiative to regenerate the neighbourhood. A grubby traffic junction at Old Street will be transformed by a "civic space", where tech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and artists will intermingle.
Mr Silva says the name Tech City was chosen to denote "global ambition". The new building programme is intended to counteract the disappointment some would-be foreign investors have felt on arriving at the gloomy gyratory system. "We have actually lost a few companies to the UK who have visited Old Street roundabout itself and said this was not what they had in mind," he says.
Even so, the initiative has produced remarkable results. An unaffiliated collection of 200 companies has grown into a thriving community of more than 1,200 businesses which has won international fame. This was not the case when Mr Silva was first given his mission by Mr Cameron, after returning from a visit to India. "The Prime Minister's advice was, 'Get on a plane, go out to Silicon Valley and do some deals'." Mr Silva, who left university to work as a "fast stream" policy analyst at the Treasury before becoming an economic adviser to Mr Osborne when he was in opposition, secured a meeting with Eric Schmidt, only to hear that the then chief executive of Google had no inkling of the technology cluster. Since then, the world leader in search technology has established a seven-storey "Google Campus" near Silicon Roundabout, in which British start-ups are offered desk space and mentoring.
The latest investment announcement included news that Microsoft, IBM and accountants KPMG are moving into Tech City. Imperial College and University College London are on board to supply science graduates to this digital ecosystem. Despite Mr Silva's confident sales pitch, not everyone is convinced by the project. Public investment and government hype for the capital city is regarded with cynicism by some working in Britain's other tech hubs, such as Cambridge, Manchester, Bristol and Dundee. Some see Tech City as largely a branding exercise, earning political capital for Mr Cameron while putting money into softer tech companies that invent clever media-friendly websites and apps but contribute relatively little to the economy. Mr Silva's argument is that the London digital cluster was vibrant before he became involved. It receives only £2m of public funding a year and its intimate relationship with Westminster politicians, he says, has helped companies all over the country by highlighting common problems and provoking government action in the shape of tax breaks and entrepreneur visas.
The geographical competition he is focused on is between the UK and other nations of Europe. After years trying to get the population online, the Government wants to go to another level and encourage more of us to be computer literate.
That is Mr Silva's vision. "What Tech City is really about at big-picture level is saying, where is it we want this country to be in the next 10 years. And that means looking at the role of universities and the tax system but it also means looking at the skills that all of us will need to have if we are going to be truly competitive in this global race, as the Prime Minister puts it," he says. "You see Paris, Berlin and Stockholm racing to catch up with London." He's not worried by Paris ("because of the attitude there, the hostility to entrepreneurship") but admits Berlin has "a huge structural advantage" in its supply of cheap office space.
But the imminent arrival of Joanna Shields as chief executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation has convinced him the "global race" can be won. Shields, born in America but a long-standing British resident, amassed two fortunes working in social media, at Bebo and then Facebook. "Joanna is best in class in working out what the next big thing is going to be," Mr Silva says. "And her view is that all the global tectonic plates are moving in London's direction. The next year or two is going to be all about the rest of the world and this is when Tech City really will go global."
Hi-flyers: three firms fulfilling Silva's vision
Ian Hogarth and Pete Smith raised investment for the music concert service Songkick from Sequoia Capital, the Silicon Valley investment fund, and that prompted a lot of investors to take London even more seriously.
It produces everything from interactive books to radio shows. It's saying creative content can't be pinned down to one medium.
Digital marketing and social media are among Tech City's strengths, and Mother is an advertising agency that has been there from the beginning. It has regenerated an entire street and its top floors are home to start-ups.
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