Silicon Canal is an organization here in Birmingham with a mission statement focused around promoting and growing the tech community. As I’m famously suspicious of gatekeeping and organizations which could be perceived as representing diverse tech communities, I asked on Twitter if anyone in the local tech community had seen value out of the organization. Silicon Canal reached out, asking if I would like to attend one of their meetings.
What Silicon Canal does
At the moment, not much. But they’re working on it! They currently run a series of monthly drink ups in Birmingham and handle inbound press queries about the Birmingham tech scene. The meeting covered a range of possible future actions, including an industry awards event, developing a local jobs board and a more complete directory of technology companies in the West Midlands.
Where Silicon Canal could prove valuable
Based on their current membership and focus, Silicon Canal could be a great asset for working to drive business development for the tech industry in Birmingham through outreach with existing and upcoming traditional tech businesses, investment and policy makers. This is an area that many fledgling tech scenes fail to properly manage, so could be an incredible opportunity for Birmingham to grow.
Where Silicon Canal misses the mark
While their mission statement and ambitions cover the whole of the tech community in Birmingham, their lack of outreach into the wider community limits their ability to represent those outside their immediate networks. At one point during the meeting the phrase “This may be patronizing, but the community doesn’t always know what they want, what they need” was thrown out in response to a question about how input from the community had helped shape their actions. The members seemed to have a fairly limited perspective of the individuals and resources available throughout Birmingham, understandable in our famously decentralized tech scene.
Transparency and governance may prove an additional challenge. At one point a public bids process for some web development work was proposed to add transparency to the process. Another member suggested that it might be a good idea to accept bids from the public to garner the appearance of transparency while going forward with awarding the bid to another Silicon Canal member at the close of the process.
Can Silicon Canal represent the community?
Silicon Canal would be well placed to represent a narrow set of business interests within technology in Birmingham, which they seem to be doing capably. Given that they’ve been operating for a little more than 2 years and have thus far managed to spotlight only individuals and companies from a narrow portion of tech in Birmingham, they may not be well placed to represent the vast and disparate interests of the larger community.
My advice for Silicon Canal
I would love to see Silicon Canal better shaping their mission statement to reflect the scope of their activity to date. While I’m still looking quite critically of a Silicon Canal aiming to promote and represent the wider Birmingham tech community, I would be the biggest cheerleader of the organization presenting narrower claims of representing growth around business interests in the tech community here in the West Midlands.
My advice for the tech community in Birmingham
Silicon Canal seem like a great group of people, well suited to help support us as we grow the ecosystem. During the meeting members pointed out several times that an organization always develops to represent a tech scene. If you don’t feel like Silicon Canal is best poised to do that, it’s a good time to start your own project. Don’t worry about burning bridges, Silicon Canal members talked happily about welcoming competition in this space.
Having seen a wide range of talent, interests and passions in technologists across the West Midlands, I sincerely believe that we can create a tech scene that doesn’t mirror the often wasteful and exclusionary dynamic other cities cope with. I would love to see community driven engagement coming from our tech scene doing outreach on behalf of this same community.
My advice for tech journalists
The Birmingham tech scene is exciting, I’m glad journalists are interested in it. But Birmingham’s tech scene is wonderfully decentralized. If you’re Googling for “tech scene Birmingham” and reaching out only to the first org you find, you’re doing a bad job. Check out Birmingham.io, Impact Hub, Innovation Birmingham, FizzPop, The Black Country Atelier, BOM Lab and other resources to get a better perspective of the ecosystem.