City Bites Podcast: Digital + Small Business

This episode of the City Bites ‘Connections’ series is on the evolving relationship between digital and small business – including how local government is supporting Small & Medium Enterprises or SMEs.

Across the UK, businesses at all scales have shifted from wholesale to consumer sales, or from ‘B2B’ to ‘B2C’, while people at risk of job losses have been urged to ‘pivot’ their careers.

Some of that is working: While many large-scale sectors wilt and the ONS shows 247,000 fewer people working in June-Sept 2020 than 2019, the Centre for Entrepreneurs reports a record 570,000 start-ups to date this year, with 29% year-on-year growth in September alone. Many are tied directly to pandemic-related health products, but digital has at least a promotional and logistics role there, and a much larger role in services.

Small and micro business feature heavily in those figures and have always been an economic force. In 2019, some 5.9m UK SMEs accounted for £2.2tr in turnover, or half the UK total, and 16m jobs, or 60% of the total [Federation of Small Business].

In a Covid context, they range from shops which can’t stay open or sell online through digital agencies embracing work-from-home to the Amazons and Etsy makers whose businesses are thriving in relative terms.

As Covid’s one-year anniversary rolls into view, some of the questions to address about digital and small business include:

  • Equal citizen access – How do we include everyone in emerging economic and connection opportunities (and do that better than we have in the bricks-and-mortar world)? This is one of London’s Recovery priorities, and it appears across the UK as an issue.
  • Equal commercial access – Making sure small, diverse and locally based tech companies get a crack at government work, currently procured in silos and shared among a small number of very big players. This is one of guest Onyeka Onyekwelu’s projects.
  • Integrating digital into organisational strategy as opposed to having it sit “over in IT”. This has a major learning component, especially since platforms and devices proliferate so fast. How do we communicate with colleagues, customers and communities? Who are we reaching and what can we do with commercial, place-based or other data? To paraphrase speaker Joe Mathewson, if doing things online automatically creates a record, we should be able to streamline and share better.
  • Resilience: As guest Alison Partridge points out, start-up and survival aren’t the same thing. Are there [digital?] ways to share more support and guidance so that 2020’s record number of business births is sustained over the long term?
  • Security: of systems, of Intellectual Property, of personal data. This podcast was recorded before the crippling Hackney Council breach so doesn’t address cybersecurity, but with home-based digital companies spreading like wildfire, are we protected enough?
  • Format innovation: Can we make hybrid live/online contact work and be inclusive? [As a corollary, will Zoom and Teams become the PowerPoint of the next decade? A bit crap as an experience, but the default when our learning time is sucked away by.. online meetings?]

Today’s guests deliver or support digital services in a small-business world, and cover the above and more… 

Alison Partridge is Managing Director of OneTech, part of the Capital Enterprise family. For nearly 30 years she’s worked across EU cities to support inclusive entrepreneurship and innovation. In 2018 she founded OneTech with colleagues and members at Capital Enterprise to tackle the lack of diversity in London’s tech start-up ecosystem. Alison’s been at the forefront of Covid impact on the tech sector and responses to it.

“I think we can try and turn this into an opportunity and see digital and tech as a bit of an equaliser: you can access new markets, you can access talent, you can talk to people anywhere in the world. These are things we could do for the last 5, 10 years, but probably haven’t done habitually… But there are still a lot of people who are excluded, so one of the things we’re trying to do is to connect under-represented people with the opportunities in London’s tech start-up ecosystem.” – Alison Partridge

Joe Mathewson is co-founder & Chief Operating Officer of Firefly Learning, a fast-growing EdTech platform for parent engagement and learning continuity. Joe and his business partner created Firefly while doing their GCSEs, when the experience was very close to home. In response to Covid-19, Firefly has offered schools free access to the platform through the end of December.

“Our customers are having to take a much more strategic approach to technology than I think many of them have done before. It’s something that senior leadership teams are engaging with more than ever… I think that’s probably just going to grow from here.” – Joe Mathewson

Onyeka Onyekwelu is Strategic Engagement Manager at the London Office of Technology & Innovation. LOTI helps boroughs collaborate on projects that use the best of digital, data and innovation to improve services and outcomes for Londoners. She’s also worked with the UN Women, Equality & Human Rights Commission and the Bar Associations on access to justice, digitisation of the courts, and equality and diversity. During lockdown, she’s worked with colleagues on digital methods for public engagement.

“[Boroughs] are doing amazing work, but they don’t always know what each other is doing. We’re committed to supporting boroughs to share the knowledge and resources being developed, ensure that they’re aligned with the higher-level missions of the London Recovery Task Force, and that they’re replicable and scalable by others.” – Onyeka Onyekwelu

Listen to the podcast to hear their lively discussion…

Further resources and links

  • Federation of Small Business: Digital Skills Initiative – visit the free resource hub.
    Firefly Learning launches a new Parent Portal on 11th November and is offering free access to its Parent Engagement & Learning Continuity platform through 31st December 2020: find out more here.
  • For surviving remote work in all its guises, check out Bruce Daisley’s excellent Make Work Better newsletter & website. The Nov 4th edition shares the concept of a digital commute…the work/home transition you need, without the armpits.
  • London Office of Technology & Innovation‘s main site, with projects, data & resources is here
  • LOTI ‘Thirty3’ London procurement resource – including council tech contracts – is here.
  • OneTech Entrepreneur & Enterprise Incubator: a 12-week programme to give entrepreneurs skills, opportunities and access to get to the next stage and achieve their goals. Find out more here.

Catch all podcast episodes on the Future of London City Bites page.

Mapping our future

This is a guest post from Rebecca Lee, Senior Architect at Pollard Thomas Edwards and Future of London ‘Leaders Plus’ alumna. She and Coherent Cities director Lisa Taylor organised the Dec 2019 #MapLondon conference based on Rebecca’s FoL Proposal for London – and her growing obsession with digital mapping…

In 2017, as part of FoL’s Leaders Plus course, I presented a proposal to improve London by creating a comprehensive, citywide map to help us understand the many layers of contemporary city life. I wanted to digitise mapping, inputting historic and current data to learn about the past, understand the present and see where we might be going in the future. I knew it was a good idea when I realised that many people, across several disciplines, were already pursuing it!

Since the FoL course, I’ve become a champion and a nuisance for map creators, eager to get experts of all kinds talking so they hurry up and build the tools I want to use, both in my work as an architect and as a city-dweller.

The culmination of this was the December 2019 #MapLondon conference, organised by me and Coherent Cities, supported by Future of London, Pollard Thomas Edwards and Commonplace, and hosted by Arup.

Cartography is a long-standing form of data visualisation and #MapLondon will explore how new tools and techniques are being used to engage and inform built environment professionals and the public. What follows are a few of the issues that have driven me as this event and network come to life…

Should we map change better (again)?

Mapping has historically been a priority following disaster or cataclysmic change. The map below shows the impact of the 1666 Great Fire of London, when narrow streets packed with badly constructed wooden buildings led to 373 acres of the city and 13,000 homes being consumed (Source: British Library)

Similarly, many maps documented the devastation WWII wrought on London. The bird’s-eye view below shows how close St Paul’s Cathedral came to destruction. My favourite fact about this map is that no one is sure how the detail was achieved. It’s been suggested that architect and artist Cecil Brown sketched from a hot air balloon, but there is no proof of this. (Source: London Topographical Society, Pub. No 142, 1990. Photo: Rebecca Lee).

Abercrombie’s 1944 London Plan used creative cartography to respond strategically to the problems London faced during and after the war. It helped structure the approach to rebuilding, but also addressed poverty, overcrowding, poor housing quality and traffic congestion. Having recently surpassed London’s pre-war population, we now face many of the same challenges (Source: BarbicanLiving).

How can digital mapping make cities and regions more coherent?

Back in the present day, the digital maps that 26 of the 32 local authorities have been developing can be incredibly useful for understanding a site in context, or “beyond the red line” as we say at Pollard Thomas Edwards. However, what happens along the many kilometres of edges where boroughs – and their policies – meet?

Further, many of these borough-commissioned or off-the-shelf maps use different levels of information, graphics and interfaces. A consistent strategy is required to stitch these edges together and provide a coherent approach to development across the city. For more on this, see FoL’s work on Overcoming Barriers.

The Greater London Authority is central to this effort, driving cross-borough collaboration and providing valuable data and tools such as the London Datastore, London Infrastructure Map and Cultural Infrastructure Map. The recent requirement for planning applications to be logged via the planning portal informs these maps, to ensure that data is reliable and up to date.

The more I’ve spoken with people developing digital mapping tools, the more I’ve heard that my original proposal for “one map to rule them all” was a terrible one. Who would input the data? How could we make sure it was up to date? How could we avoid misrepresentation? Who/what is included or excluded? Essentially, how could we trust it?

No matter the format or scope, what is critical is that maps, data and the people who work with them speak to each other, so we can plug in different data sets and begin to see where societal needs correlate. #MapLondon connects end-users with those gathering the data and building the tools, providing a platform to expand collaboration across sectors.

Can maps support democracy?

Maps have always been tools of power and propaganda (among other, more benevolent uses). What makes recent advances in open-source data and GIS so exciting is the democratisation they allow. We are moving toward a place where everyone – as professionals or citizens – has access to tools to understand and help define place. ‘Empowerment’ is one of the conference workshops; appropriately enough, the topic was crowdsourced via the Urbanistas network for women in the built environment.

Do maps need to be beautiful?

A critical thing for me is visualisation of data, the wonderful combination of art and science. That maps are digital shouldn’t mean any less attention is paid to the aesthetics of the representation; a map must have a beautiful clarity in order to best communicate information to the user.

This is exemplified in the book Information Capital, by James Cheshire & Oliver Uberti (Penguin 2016). What makes these maps so interesting is the connection between place and people; we can all recognise the shared experience of living in a city, but there is beauty in seeing it from a new perspective.

The visual nature of mapping also drove us to host a poster competition. You can see the excellent finalists here and they were also on display at the conference; attendees received an A3 copy of the winning poster by colleague Peter Watkins (I’d stress that the judges were all independent!).

Can maps bring us together? (Yes!)

In closing, I found it surprising that those who could benefit most from these tools often seem unaware of their existence, but it’s understandable: the speed with which platforms and apps appear is near-impossible to track; experts can operate in silos; and end-users are often too busy to look up or too frustrated to ask questions.

#MapLondon tackled these disconnects by bringing people together across the industry. One of our goals is not just to do better here, but to make London the prototype for collaborative digital mapping, and to lead the way in the UK and internationally. Enabling a global mapping dialogue is a distinct possibility; a proposal for the world, maybe?

To see conference speakers & presentations, visit the #MapLondon page; to find out more, email