In the modern era, London’s economy has relied on professional and financial services; media, digital and creative industries; cultural and entertainment sectors; medicine and scientific research; and a rump of engineering and manufacturing. This balance no longer works to support the city economically, morally or practically. The craft skills and creativity of the city are sectioned off and underexploited as a source of innovation and wealth creation.
London was historically a centre of forward-thinking manufacturing, with ship-building on the lower Thames; watch-making and precision engineering in Clerkenwell; brewing around the City perimeter; weaving in Spitalfields; printing in Blackfriars and Fleet Street; consumer electronics on the Great West Road; and aerospace and automotive industries in Hackney. With the establishment of Ford’s Rainham Marshes works, Barking and Dagenham became the most diverse industrial area in London, if not the UK.
Historically, London was also a centre of creativity and innovation. Just think of the brilliant improvements that came from the Royal Institution’s laboratory, where Faraday’s work on electro-mechanics laid the basis for the modern-day Internet of Things. Or the great industries created in corporate facilities such as EMI’s Central Research Laboratory in Hayes, which pioneered commercialisation in broadcasting systems, stereo, airborne radar and CAT scanners. In fact, many of London’s great creatives were creative technologists, from Christopher Wren to Isambard Kingdom Brunel to Frank Whittle and James Dyson.
London still benefits from both of these legacies. And, in some ways, the ‘digital revolution’ has helped dissolve the boundaries between creativity and innovation, creating ‘digital entrepreneurship’ at a time when established industries aren’t delivering innovation. But we still struggle to overcome the artificial divide between creatives, technologists and engineers.
Creatives are lauded by government and the media for their free-thinking and their untethered lifestyles, while technologists are seen as somewhat autistic geeks and engineers are seen as unglamorous and uncreative detail merchants. In reality, the most exciting creatives in London are designers who are also engineers, and engineers who are also designers. These people understand how to take new ideas and use them to create new products, services and environments.