This is a term that refers to the fastest growing business cluster in Europe, but the term just does not convey how hip, energized, and energizing this pocket of East London really is. Tech City is not a set geographical unit with official boundaries. It is an area of creative energy, a cluster of startups and the burgeoning ecosystem supporting it, ordained collectively "Tech City." Hackney is the East London borough in which this cluster of energy is situated.
This little borough blasted onto Austin's SxSW scene in 2013 with “Hackney House” – a brand to be reckoned with, more on that later. That happening of Hackney House cemented on this end of the Atlantic Austin and Hackney’s “friendship city” agreement--a multi-faceted collaboration-type agreement between two “cities” that interact like long-lost soul mates. Let me be clear on just how atypical this arrangement is. Austin is a big city. It was just named the 11th largest city in the United States. Hackney is not a “city” – it is an area, a city, within a city - the immense multicultural city of London. It is a borough. It has its own governing council, yes, but as one observer who knows Hackney stated on seeing Hackney House set up in Austin: for the little geographical vicinity of Hackney to set out across the Atlantic and stake out a claim with another city in the US is akin to South Austin’s entering the international arena as its own brand and marketing it.
(Site of a previous Hackney House in Hackney: now re-used, again, as a food trailer venue; love the chain link fence design; the space glows red at night)
A neighborhood within Hackney is Shoreditch. Pronounce it more like “shortage.” I was not sure what to make of this Hackney business development/connection-making trip with other Austin business types, a trip centered around a digital economy conference, Digital Shoreditch, now in its third year but with aspirations to be a SxSW. But I went because of the potential French connection. Maybe I can evolve the French business from and through Hackney. Or so it was pitched to me. Good enough for me. I was in. I had no idea what I was really in for.
(Pub on Charlotte Street)
As we know, I am a longtime, deep to the core of my being, Francophile—since seventh grade, and despite being raised deep in the bowels of West Texas. The Paris aesthetics, the French language – all of that combined was for me the apex of culinary and cultural sophistication. London....Never gave it a whole lot of thought. Sure, I visited a couple of times, but never got a real sense of it. I certainly was not in love with it.
What was it about this short 4-day trip that got this dyed-in-the-wool Francophile so gobsmacked about Shoreditch—and had her sitting in a pub with friends and a half pint of pale English ale. And loving it! I have thought long and hard on this through my jet lag, on what makes Hackney, and Shoreditch in particular, different--and on a palpable, visceral level.
(Signage at Mother at The Trampery; The Trampery may epitomize the convergence philosophy running amok in this area as well as the Hackney-Austin collaborative friendship city relationship)
It is, I have decided, this: the emotional and intellectual appeal of the jarring contrast of the grit of an inner-city urban landscape alongside sophisticated yet simple, creative design.
For example: the above street art. Contrast that against the chic lines of simple yet refreshing design in a newly renovated pub (Princess of Shoreditch...yes, I’m talking about you), with motley array of wood tables, scattered throughout the space comfortably, flickering votive candles everywhere, and the building set in the same landscape as a tumbling brick façade reused as canvas for street art.
Shoreditch is very urban, but still downright cozy. It seems almost village-like in its streets, walkways--and shockingly bright green grassy squares lined with wrought iron ornamental fences. It has maintained a sense of neighborhood, even amidst the tech startups and the hard edges of some of the new urban designs, such as the Boxpark--the "World's First pop-up Mall"--single small retail stores, each one fit into train boxcars stacked side by side.
The pubs, the cafes, the up and coming artisans in their experimental exhibit spaces co-exist peacefully, for now it seems, with the investor & startup CEO meetings taking place here and there all around them.
The unhemmed edges of Hackney are still out there for sure. That is the impression I took away from some conversations. But clearly there are no frayed hems around such places as Albion, a high-end French-style epicerie, crazy busy at the lunch hour with families as well as business types.
(Albion...where I enjoyed purchasing several colorful tins of tea, as I started to be so sad about leaving)
(Boundary Street, making my way back across town to City University from Albion...should have taken a cab...)
Developers are moving in now with more super high-end, small-scale luxury boutique hotels and apartments, building around and within and integrating centuries-old brick structures that regulations (thankfully) prohibit demolishing.
(View from inside The Old Shoreditch Station, a coffee shop/artists' collective/exhibition space, where I so enjoyed my first Cheese Toastie)
Indeed, the residential/hotel real estate craze is so intense that it threatens to destroy what allowed “Tech City” to happen (in part) in the first place: cheap spaces in which to create and innovate. Part of fighting the good fight now involves gathering the resources, political and financial I imagine, to preserve the old abandoned warehouses for commercial space and not see them transformed into lofts for the affluent hipster. See this one for example.
(On our walk around the co-working spaces, all clustered around near the all-day seminar at the Open Data Institute by the folks at UK Trade & Investment--view of the gleaming London financial district in the background)
Just ten years ago, they tell us, this place was nothing. And in fact, there are still some places on the periphery you would not want to visit, so they tell us. But the boom in this once unventureable place of London is evident now even to newbies like myself. And unlike other technology-based clusters this one seems different: it has an earnest, authentic soul.
(Mother at the Trampery: Nordic delegation and reception in another thrilling-to-the-design-senses space)
Towards the end of the trip, we met at Mother London to brainstorm for what is next (rather, I listened to officials and creative agency partners and consultants brainstorm): where to next for Austin and Hackney. Here was up close for me to see and hear for myself the philosophy of Mother London, the creative agency deep in the heart of all this: namely, the philosophy and purpose for focus on imagining how to bring along all of Hackney into the economic promise of Tech City. If we do not get more reach out into the community to focus on the under-served, and get the kids involved and excited about science and technology, what we have now is not sustainable. If there is no widespread, genuine social impact, then Tech City, and/or Hackney’s role in it, is nothing. It is one thing for a political entity or non-profit to be espousing this view. It is quite another for a for-profit, high-end creative agency (Mother London) to be focused intently on this mission. I learn this is no mistake. The “Mother” brand is premised on a nurturing, inclusive philosophy.
(Mother London front lobby...a creative agency housed in the historic Tea Building)
Ergo the portraits of every employee’s mother on the wall, and the business cards identifying each employee through his or her mother.
(The massive concrete table at Mother London; at one end it slopes up like this, like a ramp at a skateboard park; all workers are assigned, randomly, diferent places to sit in the office every month. No one, regardless of position or status at the company, is exempt; note the gorgeous fabric for the light fixtures)
“Hackney House” embodies all of this. I learn that Hackney House is not just a one-time made for Austin SxSW 2013 visit. It is a living, breathing philosophy about repurposing, across as many strata of the creative economy as possible. It’s about working with what you got. One Hackney House was in an abandoned lot, in Hackney, surrounded by chain link fences. Hackney House is always a temporary set-up, taking advantage of the abandoned to create and display in the crevices whatever theme might be appropriate for local artisans, artists, coders--whatever. Now, post that particular Hackney House, that abandoned lot space is a food trailer park, which glows bright red at night thanks to a wall of red light bulbs within the decorative chain link of the fence.
During the days of meetings and conferencing, walking from cool design space to pub to co-working space (i.e., “Google Campus”—was prepared to, wanted to, hate it---loved it) with such design spaces being Mother at the Trampery, and Mother London in particular, a small voice in my head started to demand that I listen to it. I never said it out loud. But I finally had to think it: Paris has some work to do. No wonder London was confident in trying to lure the French startups away from Paris when French public policy turned so anti-startup, anti-innovation. They--Hackney, Tech City, London--are ahead of France in this regard. There. I said it. But competition is good. I hope France – along with the many French entrepreneurs fighting for the economic landscape required to get an innovation economy really set up for success – gets to this place. It is close, to be sure, but there is work to be done. I look forward to Paris giving Tech City a serious run for its money, as all of Europe competes for who does startup ecosystems best.
I hope the Hackney coolness can last. I am not privy to the struggles that surely exist in the politics of all this Tech City hubbub. The more I dig and learn I see cause for concern that Hackney’s charm in the convergence of grit and design is already threatened. The people and places that have helped make Hackney what it is may no longer be able to afford to live or work there. Regeneration activities that include welcoming high-end retailers, such as Burberry, seem at odds with the narratives out there for social justice and change through the boom brought about by Tech City's success.
I don't envy the challenge facing Hackney's leaders of balancing out this new prosperity and Hackney's inherent authenticity with a sustainable social justice platform.
And I can't wait to get back to Hackney and Shoreditch. (Right after I get my Paris fix.)(Moon over Hackney: after Vietnamese food outing, another one of our very, very late nights)