Why do businesses continue to cluster in London?

London! City of dreams! Image: Getty.

You don’t need to be an economist to know that businesses tend to cluster together in cities: 14th Century Ghent was famous for woollen cloth, 15th Century Florence for its fine arts and by the 16th Century Bordeaux was already a wine city. In the 17th Century, Delft was known for its pottery, while 18th Century Venice specialised in fun – opera, carnivals, fine food and ‘courtesans’ – and 19thcentury Manchester in cotton mills. In the 20th century, L.A. became the centre of the US film business, just as Detroit did for the car industry. 

As the understanding of the economics of urban agglomeration has spread, so city leaders and their economic advisers have come to see their job at least in part as preserving their city’s edge in one “cluster” or another or incubating new clusters.

This is a helpful way of thinking, but in the case of a global city like London it also has its limits. London is a teaming cluster of clusters. Yes, the city has particular strengths in creative industries, financial and business services, tourism and higher education, among other things. Each of these has its own particular set of opportunities and issues, and which demand particular attention from city leaders and policy makers.  But there are so many of these clusters in London, and they are so inter-connected, that it’s hard to make this a way of organising economic strategy.  

Last week Centre for London published a report that offers a different and perhaps more useful way of thinking about the capital’s economic specialism. The research looks at the role that headquarters play in the London economy. 

There are good reasons after all for any city to want to grow, attract and retain head offices. Headquarters create highly paid jobs and tax revenue and feed valuable professional and business service clusters. They attract a lot of business visitors. Bosses are less likely to move a headquarters to another city than they are a “second tier” function. Headquarters are “sticky”.  And headquarter functions, like strategy, governance, HR, comms and public affairs, are less vulnerable to automation than other business functions. 


Moreover, London’s headquarter economy has boomed. Between 2003 and 2018, London was the top ranked destination globally for foreign direct investment into head offices, measured by number of projects. The big multi-nationals have overwhelming chosen London as their European head offices. Employment in head office functions has grown faster than even fast growing and valuable sectors like accountancy and consultancy. Indeed, if London has a leading sector, it’s not financial, business or creative industries. It is headquarters. Headquarters are to London’s economy what steel-making was to Victorian Sheffield, or digital technology is to Silicon Valley. 

But the single most important factor in explaining the rise and rise of London as a headquarter city has been its ability to attract talent at every level of business – much of it from the EU.  In centuries past, businesses clustered together in cities because the goods needed in manufacture were cheaper in cities, and cities provided an accessible market for finished products. 

But the modern service industries in which London and other global cities specialise in don’t depend on raw goods or access to customers in the same way. They don’t rely heavily on raw goods and internet allows them to sell their services around the world.  What businesses are looking for in a head office destination is a good pool of highly skilled workers. As one property broker we spoke to put it, “Head office decisions are probably 90 per cent about people.” Finding a location that appeals to a modern skilled, and ultimately mobile workforce is therefore essential.  

Both the Conservative government and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party have prioritised preserving the free flow of goods in their approach to Brexit – in part because they are rightly worried about the damaging effect barriers to trade in goods would have in the UK’s poorer industrial heartlands.  But if we want to maintain London’s invaluable role as the world’s leading head office capital, we need to preserve the flow of talent as well.

Ben Rogers is director of the Centre for London.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.