The Silicon Valley of South London

London’s deputy mayor for business Rajesh Agrawal and Croydon Central’s Sarah Jones MP tell Augusta Riddy why Croydon is becoming a hotbed for fintech talent

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It has been almost seven years since riots took hold of Croydon, and many residents would argue that it is today a very different town. This regeneration can be seen everywhere in the area, but perhaps the best evidence is to be found in Croydon’s thriving tech scene. And while the riots are for many a painful memory, Jonny Rose, founder of the not-for-profit tech hub Croydon Tech City, says that disruptive time “had a real galvanising effect”. Rose, who was then a recent graduate, says the riots inspired him to return to Croydon, to build something positive at home. “We couldn’t just sit on our laurels,” he says. “We’d come back from university, we were full of ourselves,” he remembers, but says that when he began thinking of starting up, a sense of place and limited resources made Croydon the obvious choice.“Let’s do it from our parents’ houses, rather renting up in Islington.”

Between 2011 and 2013, Croydon’s tech scene grew by 38 per cent. The area is now home to more than 1,500 tech start-ups, progress the Deputy Major for Business Rajesh Agrawal describes as “phenomenal”. He calls Croydon Tech City “London’s fastest growing digital, creative and technical start-up cluster”. Rose, too, is very proud of the progress that has been made, but he attributes the growth to bottom-up regeneration. “You don’t build the UK’s fastest growing tech economy by waiting on politicians.”

So, what is behind Croydon’s tech boom? Rose says the area already possessed all the necessary parts, and that it just needed a “unifying body” to unlock its potential, as Croydon Tech City has been successful in doing. As the “largest town in Europe,” the talent was there in spades. “Croydon is almost a city within a city, and if you think about the sort of people, the sort of talent you need to create a tech ecosystem ... [they] are all present in Croydon.” The borough is a major commuter belt, and Rose points out that talent was there, but simply commuting elsewhere. “We knew the talent was going uptown, so why not build an ecosystem here to retain it? This has really been one big retention exercise.” Crucially, Croydon was already home to some major tech companies, such as Dotmailer. Rose says this “proved that you could build a tech city here”, provided the means to create a well-connected tech community.

At the forefront of this community are a number of fintech firms that have been born and raised in the borough take off in recent years. Notable success stories include QuidCycle, an “ethical financial services company” that re-finances high-interest credit cards and loans, and Uniqodo, a “voucher code platform for eCommerce marketing”. Agrawal is himself a successful fintech entrepreneur, and he agrees that Croydon held the “key ingredients of developing a good ecosystem” including cheap rent and excellent travel links. For Agrawal, a particularly important factor is the makeup of the workforce: “[something] that really is attractive to entrepreneurs is diversity, and Croydon is very diverse”.

The newly-elected Labour MP for Croydon Central, Sarah Jones, is equally enthusiastic about Croydon’s future as a home for fintech companies. “As a new MP, I’ll be looking to quickly get involved and build relationships within the tech scene. I will be listening closely to firms already here to ensure we are doing all we can to support them,” she says. Like Agrawal, Jones points to a diverse talent pool as one of the factors central to the borough’s tech success. “Croydon is a vibrant community with incredible diversity and energy so it is no surprise that young and innovative companies are increasingly choosing to set up here”. In local government, too, the potential of tech start-ups is recognised and encouraged; Croydon Council was named digital council of the year in this year’s Local Government Chronicle awards.

A nationwide debate on the technological skills gap has emerged in recent years with the growth of Britain’s tech sector. Jones says it is “vital that people from Croydon are contributing to and benefitting from our burgeoning tech scene. In the longer term this means investing properly in skills both for young people and adults – helping develop those lacking in basic digital skills and abolishing the digital divide.” There is a strong feeling that the growth of Croydon’s tech scene should not benefit only a technologically savvy elite, but the community as a whole. At City Hall, Agrawal points out the Mayor’s £7m Digital Talent Programme, which is aimed at training young people in digital skills, while at Croydon Tech City, Rose and his team have set up Future Tech City, a volunteer educational programme “converting non-tech locals so at least they have the skills to access jobs in the scene on their doorstep”.

Rose is so enthusiastic about his home town that he has recently started a line of T-shirts that read: “Croydon vs The World.” He talks excitedly about a recent local exhibition by Damien Hirst and an urban saffron farm round the corner from East Croydon station. “Now everyone has got a bit of vigour whereas once people were a bit ashamed ... Croydon is no longer a place where we lay our head at night”. Clearly, fintech firms are not the only things taking off in London’s leafiest borough and, as everyone is keen to point out, it’s all just 15 minutes from central London.

Augusta Riddy is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman.