#DIF12 – Ben Hammersley – In 10 years’ time, all your tech talent will be in Silicon Valley

21 Sep 2012

Ben Hammersley, British Prime Minister David Cameron's ambassador to TechCity, speaks to delegates at the Digital Ireland Forum in Dublin. Photo by Conor McCabe Photography

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ambassador to TechCity in London Ben Hammersley threw the cat among the pigeons at the Digital Ireland Forum in Dublin, warning that companies like Google and Facebook are actually contributing to a drain of talent that flows directly to Silicon Valley.

While Hammersley was addressing an Irish audience more au fait with global distribution of our talent – we call it emigration – it felt like he was channelling a shock new experience for the UK, which is used to maintaining its engineering talent at home.

Hammersley’s statement met with a strong counter-argument from KPMG partner Anna Scally, who maintained the existence of multinationals in Ireland has important spin-off benefits for the local economy as a whole.

Games Ireland’s Paul Hayes struck a balance from the floor when he said he believed Ireland has the best of both worlds from an indigenous and multinational perspective.

Hammersley is also an author, technologist and writer, who specialises in the effects of the internet on modern society. He is also British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Ambassador to TechCity, London’s equivalent of Silicon Valley, and editor-at-large of Wired magazine in the UK.

Nevertheless, Hammersley drove home some interesting perspectives on how a country can go about building and developing a sustainable tech cluster.

How to build a sustainable tech cluster

He pointed out that the most successful tech clusters in the world – Silicon Valley and Israel – were created on the back of military spending, such as Silicon Valley, which came out of decades of US government spending during the Cold War.

“Now we are looking at situations of trying to build something that we can’t really tell, we don’t have money and don’t have a big enemy to point it at,” Hammersley said of countries like Ireland and the UK, which are striving to build their tech clusters.

Hammersley said that countries truly interested in their futures should plan for the long term. He lauded, for example, Lord Mayor of Dublin Mr Naoise Ó Muirí’s suggestion of 100Mbps synchronous but said why not strive for 1Gbps or 20Gbps rather than speeds that were old news in Japan and Korea five years ago.

Overall, Hammersley suggested countries should play to their natural strengths and the qualities that make them and their people unique.

“Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley and will remain there and it’s weird. Once you’ve been there you realise it’s kind of rubbish – a giant industrial park – not somewhere you want to live, raise children – it’s nightmarish, actually. Thirty years ago, it was apricot orchards.

“Dublin is a city with thousands of years of history, people live there already – pay attention to what you have, maintain and expose local talent. It is a well-educated place full of great people. Some are weird, but they are cool.

“Don’t look to other places – your first job is to look inward and find out what you have and allow them to shine. Concentrate on the opportunities that are here. If you want to showcase talent, it’s Culture Night tonight – do something with that.

“Don’t try to make the next Facebook clone or build a whole industry around something that may be bought by Twitter, make your own thing.”

Judging success

Hammersley also urged Ireland be careful about how we judge success. “Any number you put on wall it will go up, that’s human psychology – if you want to judge your success by financial metrics then you will skew your culture towards that. Take a long-term view of what those numbers mean for society.”

Hammersley gave an example of the city of Aarhus in Denmark, where he works with the city on its Smart City strategy. The company wants to remain a graceful, elegant place where people take their time and there’s an exciting café culture. Companies like IBM and Siemens are pitching Smart City technologies to help them get their workers to work more efficiently, for example, and the feeling is that could spoil, rather than preserve, the best qualities of the city.

“To IBM, shorter is better, but in Aarhus, the longer the transit time the better – optimised for watching pretty girls on bicycles, drinking coffee and enjoying serendipity.

“Do we buy this technology because it’s cool and shiny? If we implement it, will this change the culture of city for the worst? So the first thing you have to do is be careful about how you judge success, how you define the success of Dublin, its neighbourhoods and street lives.

“In Silicon Valley, it’s huge amounts of not-real money, we’ve done that in Europe and it didn’t work.”

“The next thing you need to do is take a step back and look at individual areas – what makes that area great in and of itself – I come to Dublin quite a lot and its lovely and extremely educated.

Don’t try to replicate Silicon Valley, be Dublin

“The TechCity thing I’m pushing for is its neighbourhood to be creative and we are next to ethnically diverse areas of London with deep connections to India, Bangladesh, and South America. These are the kind of advantages we have in London.

“Ireland has the same advantages in different places, you need to step back and look at what makes you all very special and maximise that. It is massively irritating to watch people in New York dressing in lots of green on Paddy’s Day proclaiming Irishness …. It is equally irritating to see other people in other cities dressing up as San Franciscans.

“Don’t try to replicate Silicon Valley, just be Dublin. Take everything that is great about this place and work out what it is you want to be great in the future and concentrate on that.”

Hammersley also said it takes generations to build truly successful digital clusters and the digital natives of today are just as confused as the policy makers.

“You need to start with the three- and four-year-olds. What you are teaching them in school and ask developers what it is they wished they’d learned when they were three and implement that.

“Then you’ll have a cluster built on a bedrock of deep community values, rather than the need to seek inward investment or feel the need to dress up as San Franciscans.

“Instead, they’ll come to Dublin and ask how to be Irish and that could be a nice thing,” Hammersley said.

Watch videos of Ben Hammersley’s keynote address here.

More coverage of the Digital Ireland Forum here.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years