Education the Key to Ensuring Our Digital Future

24/08/2012 12:43 BST | Updated 23/10/2012 10:12 BST

This is an exciting time for East London. The regeneration of the Stratford area will prove one of the lasting Olympic legacies. Tech City, the cluster of digital and technology start-ups around the Old Street Roundabout, has mushroomed to 3,200 companies employing 48,000 people according to a new Centre for London report. In 2008 that number was a mere 15.

Such a swift and decisive embrace of the digital economy can only be good for East London, and the UK as a whole. Tech City has built foundations that may one day allow it to emulate Silicon Valley as shorthand for a nationwide sector of booming digital activity.

But the afterglow of the Olympic summer is not a time to rest back on the achievements of the last four years. Instead, it is vital that we recognise and address problems that are beginning to affect Tech City, and equip it to be Britain's (and Europe's) digital leader for decades to come.

The Centre for London report, A Tale of Tech City, highlighted the rapid growth of digital start-up activity in the Shoreditch area, but also exposed several areas of ongoing concern. Operationally, there is a connectivity deficit, which risks holding back digitally reliant businesses, and a spreading concern that the cheap rental rates which have been such an attraction cannot last.

But beyond slow wi-fi and creeping rental, there is a more fundamental issue: people. A skills gap and lack of graduates and school-leavers equipped to thrive in the digital economy is doing more than anything else to threaten Tech City, and all attempts to move Britain forward on a digital footing.

A worrying number of the Tech City businesses interviewed by the Centre for London identified the lack of a skilled recruitment base, both in developers and support staff, as one of their primary concerns. The skilled migration cap is limiting their attempts to bridge this gap with developers and computer scientists from outside the EU.

But problems bringing skilled digital workers into the UK should not distract us from the need to ensure that our own future generations are given an education which makes them fit for the digital sphere that will dominate their working lives.

That's why it's so encouraging that local schools and colleges are now getting involved in the Tech City ecosystem. Hackney Council are leading the way, investing in an apprenticeship scheme to get school leavers placed with Tech City firms, while in terms of higher education, UCL and Imperial College are partnering with Cisco to set up a Research and Innovation Centre in Future Cities, based in Tech City.

Spear, a brilliant local charity which supports disadvantaged youth in parts of London, offers services like coaching, CV preparation and mock interviews to help these young people get on the right track with a career path.

Projects like these will be invaluable in creating an educational foundation on which the future growth of Tech City can be based. The interface between the education and digital sectors is already being forged by figures like Stephen Caddick, the Vice Provost (Enterprise) at UCL, who was recently appointed to the Government's Tech City Advisory Group.

These linkages, and the projects they drive, will help produce the skills base needed to make Tech City, and the offshoots it hopes to generate, viable prospects for Britain's digital future.

That future is already hurtling into view. This year has already seen a number of blue-chip tech companies - including Google, Microsoft, Vodafone and Amazon - announcing big new investments in London, while the Olympic Park media centre is to be converted into a technology hub.

All this ambition needs a workforce of homegrown digital natives to sustain it. Only by equipping the next generation for tech careers can we ensure that what began as a hopeful cluster of start-ups will leave a lasting digital footprint.