A New Data Dynasty: Newham Sparks and London’s Challenge to Silicon Valley

Imagine a vibrant hub of innovation, curiosity, and inspiration, where people of all ages and all walks of life converge to explore and shape the emergent data economy. What is the emergent data economy we hear you scream? Well, come with us on a fun-filled action-packed journey of discovery to find out!

 We start with anchor concept 1:

 Most of the core professions that enable a large business to operate, particularly in local government are quite well-established and mature. These include things like finance, legal and HR. If you are a finance professional, you’ll be delighted to read that your profession can be traced to the start of civilisation and started to be codified around 1790 BC with the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. Lawyers amongst you can find comfort in the longevity of the legal profession which has its origins in ancient Greece, with the profession itself emerging around 40AD in ancient Rome with the jurisconsults.

 And we also know, pretty much one thousand nine hundred and fifty-five years later, the internet rocks up and (with some artistic licence around timings), this “digital” thing emerges. 

If you think of “digital” and “data” as professions like finance and legal, they are incredibly immature. In the 90s and early noughties, it made it really hard to know what “good looks like” in the world of digital. In your organisation, you’ll hire a Chief Finance Officer (CFO), Finance Director, Section 151 officer or equivalent to lead Finance. Famous last words, but generally speaking you can be relatively assured they know what they’re talking about if they have chartered qualification from a standards body like the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). Those bodies have also helped to define what finance does, like accounting and audit. And the jobs and roles you need to recruit for are really well established and clearly defined. 

For those old enough, cast your minds back to the nineties and early noughties, when the tech/digital sectors were emerging. One person’s Chief (Technology/Digital/Information) Officer was another’s IT Manager. How did your organisation know if you needed a network engineer? A mainframe engineer? A project manager? The tech/digital market was full of snake oil solutions promising to solve all problems. IT was a black box which so many organisations didn’t understand. It was all too complicated, there were no standards and certainly no body of knowledge as found in other professions like finance, law and medicine. The education system attempted to teach “ICT” and then “Computing”. Over the last quarter of a century or so, standards bodies such as the British Computer Society have done an excellent job professionalising the tech/digital sector. So when you hire a business analyst today, you kind of know what they should be doing and to what standard. The digital sector is still making it up as it goes along but less so than ever before.

 And for brevity, anchor concept 2:

 When you think of a place, anywhere in the world that is synonymous with digital and technology, where do you think of it? Most people answer that question with Silicon Valley or California.

So, on our Newham journey so far we’ve got a couple of anchor concepts:

  1. Digital/Tech is a young sector and profession and was making it up as it went along, albeit it’s a toddler now.
  2. Silicon Valley is the go-to place in people’s minds when they think about the centre of the universe of tech/digital.

So what is the emergent data economy? It started as a hypothesis that we are at the start of a new and high-potential economic sector called “data”. It’s linked, but different to digital. Much like where digital/tech was in the ’90s and early noughties, “data ” is at the same breakthrough point. One person’s Chief Data Officer is another person’s Excel wizard. There are no standards in jobs in the data profession. The Data Analysts might disagree, but Data Ethicists, Data Detectives, Data Architects, Data Journalists etc. don’t have a leg to stand on. The data market is full of snake oil solutions promising to solve all problems. Data is a black box which so many organisations don’t understand. It is all too complicated. There are no standards and certainly no body of knowledge as found in other professions like finance, law, medicine and digital/technology. The education system isn’t even bothering attempting to teach “data” as a subject. So when you hire a data scientist today, you don’t really know what they should be doing and to what standard. The data sector is completely making it up as it goes along.

When you think of a place, anywhere in the world that is synonymous with data, where do you think of? Most people struggle with that one. 

So, the next stop on our Newham journey is two more anchor concepts:

  1. Data is at the foetal stage.
  2. There’s nowhere that is truly thought of as the global centre of “data”.

 There is a wider London opportunity that is being explored in response to those two concepts. Locally this is what Newham Sparks is starting to tackle. This could be big and we’re thinking about this as a never-ending story that is only starting to be written. In September 2021, the launch of this hypothesis; Newham Sparks Chapter 1 was a stake in the ground announcing that Newham wanted to become a catalyst and London’s destination for this emergent data sector.

 A year later, in collaboration with UCL, Newham Sparks Chapter 2 provided some of empirical evidence about the size of the prize in economic growth, employment, jobs, skills and education. If nobody does anything, this sector is still going to grow to be worth over £200 billion by 2035. If we do some stuff, this could be almost £999 billion. There could be 138k new data-related jobs in London, with 5.5k of them locally in Newham. Not to mention the opportunities and challenges associated with data citizenship, data education, identity, ethics, privacy, infrastructure and the professionalisation of the data profession itself. There’s a lot that could and should be done.

There are multiple streams to this ambition, from inward investment, attracting incubators/accelerators, tackling the “data life skills” and data profession skills, convening the various data-related institutes/standards bodies, creating jobs that don’t exist yet and much more. 

One exciting announcement at the Chapter 2 launch, was the intention to create a zone/cluster related to data skills and education cited at a re-developed and re-imagined East Ham Town Hall. What happens in that hub is up for co-creation, with the initial thinking that it could be the physical location that can start to tackle these two problem statements: 

  1. Everyone will need a set of basic data skills to survive and thrive in society, particularly as automation and artificial intelligence become part of everyday life.
  2.  New ‘professional’ Data roles are being created in the Data sector every week. There are no standards or accreditation for these roles and no one knows what ‘good’ looks like.

So this could be a place where a new “data” subject curriculum is created so schools can teach children at various age ranges. It could be the place where teachers are trained to teach this new subject. It could be the place where businesses work with educational institutes to develop appropriate training pathways into new jobs/data jobs. It could be the place where a large “data company” might locate a talent academy to develop its future workforce. It could be the place where we’re shaping UK national education policy in this area. All of this is up for development right now.

The Newham Sparks Initiative is a catalyst for change, designed to ignite the fires of creativity and collaboration in the data sector. This isn’t just a local phenomenon; the Napster of AI, ChatGPT is evidencing the disruption that is imminent.

Do you want to hear more about the Newham Sparks Initiative? Visit the Newham Sparks website, or sign up for our mailing list to stay in the loop.

This blog post has been written by Omid Shiraji, Consultant CIO and Amit Shanker, Deputy CEO and Chief Digital Officer at London Borough of Newham.

Omid Shiraji

Amit Shanker
26 April 2023 ·
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