Inside London’s ‘Tech for Good’ moment

Remember Silicon Roundabout? There was a time, a decade ago, when London’s tech ‘scene’ was so new you could visit it. If you took a tube to Old Street, you’d find the capital’s hottest gaming companies, web titans and app makers all in one place. Today, however, London’s tech sector has spilled far beyond the confines of Shoreditch. Technology has been equated with the wider London economy: that great cross-industry melting pot of micro-enterprises, global corporations and everything in between that serves as the UK’s financial engine room.

The capital is responsible for nearly a quarter of the UK’s GDP, and since the early days of the Silicon Roundabout, its reputation as a tech hub has gone from strength to strength. It’s no surprise, then, that many of Britain’s most progressive tech companies have chosen to locate here. Just ask the participants of WIRED’s Trailblazer programme, an initiative run in partnership with HSBC UK, which shines a light on small and medium-sized businesses that are pioneers in their fields. “London is the tech capital of Europe in terms of investment,” says Aron Gelbard, CEO and co-founder of online flower delivery company Bloom & Wild. “Access to capital and talent here has helped us scale our business, grow and become pan-European. It made sense to build our headquarters in London as a springboard for national and then international growth. This year, London was named the second most innovative city in the world after Silicon Valley in Startup Genome’s Global Startup Ecosystem Report.

What is more surprising is the proportion of London businesses that improve society through innovation. Many companies chosen for WIRED’s Trailblazers program show that it is possible to grow financially while being a force for good in the world. Take Huma, for example, which is Europe’s fastest growing healthcare company. Operating on four continents, it provides a remote patient monitoring platform to run digital “home hospitals”. Or consider Carbon Clean, which makes carbon capture technology profitable for industry. By October 2022, it had removed more than 1.7 million metric tons of carbon from 49 factories around the world. And then there’s Elvie, a women’s health company whose quiet, portable breast pump has proven to be a game-changer in the femtech world. Working with companies looking to make a positive impact is a rapidly growing trend according to Matt Osborne, head of corporate banking at HSBC UK in London. “We work with a growing number of high-growth, technology-focused London businesses tackling environmental, social and governance issues. This is not a trend that will go away, nor should it. A sustainable global economy begins with individual acts of conscience and responsible citizenship, and we have found that over the longer term, companies that consider ESG factors will be better positioned to succeed in the future.”

In 2019, Nesta named London the top city in Europe for developing technology for social good. A key factor he identified was the wealth of specialist talent available in the capital. With a population of over 9.5 million in 2022, London’s workforce offers a wide range of expertise. “We started our business in London because we were looking for the best people we could find for the technology and science aspects of the business,” says George Hadjigeorgiou, co-founder of the personalized nutrition program ZOE, who has grown importance during the pandemic for using its technology to conduct one of the world’s largest studies of COVID-19.

What is particularly important for social enterprises is not only access to a smart and diverse pool of people, but also to a large engaged community. Hadjigeorgiou says this has been an important part of ZOE’s success. “The capital is not only home to a high concentration of smart people, but also smart people with a conscience. People who want to make a difference.” Tessa Clarke, co-founder and CEO of food-sharing app OLIO, agrees. She credits the early success of her business – founded in 2015 to support her local community. “Hundreds of people joined at the time to volunteer and offer help,” she says. “Now we have 50,000 ambassadors and 60% of our signups are by word of mouth.”

Diverse talent and communities have long been a part of London life. Arguably what has galvanized these characteristics to serve London’s ‘tech for good’ scene is the rise of impact investing. Research by EY and the Impact Investing Institute “conservatively estimates” that a minimum of £58bn is currently flowing into this space, with around 27% of all impact investing with a known geographic concentration ranging in London. The appeal of the area goes beyond being a haven of peace and the financial capital of the UK. The Think Tank Center for London notes that it is a city that faces “many growing challenges, making it fertile ground for impact investing”. This trend has undoubtedly benefited social enterprises. “Our investors have been a combination of angels, VCs and impact funds,” says Clarke, who raised a $43 million Series B funding round in September 2021. “As female founders operating in the ‘tech-for-good’ space, we are extremely grateful to be where we are because the odds were stacked against us. OLIO now has six million users who have collectively shared over 66 million servings of food and six million household items, removing the equivalent of 200 million car miles from the road and saving 10 billion liters of water.

Like all cities, London is not lacking in challenges, from providing public services to pollution. This provides both impetus and opportunity for technology companies with a social purpose. Clarke believes fast-growing companies like OLIO can completely transform the nature of the London business scene. “London was one of the major financial capitals of the world in the 20th century,” she says. “I would like it to become the impact and ‘tech for good’ capital of the world for the 21st century. If you look at the amount of money invested in the impact space, I really believe the opportunity is there for London to take on this role.

About Maria Hunter

Check Also

Tech Champions 2022: the shortlists

In response to our call for entries for this year’s Tech Champions project, nearly 300 …