Technology

'I resent the people who got lucky'

Cambridge Image copyright Zoe Kleinman/BBC
Image caption Cambridge, known as the Silicon Fen, has a groaning transport infrastructure

A successful tech hub may bring with it the riches of innovation, investment and political kudos - but not everybody wants one on their doorstep.

Teacher Radel Swank is having a drink in a bar in San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley.

It might be a while before she's able to do so again - since becoming unemployed, Ms Swank is experiencing first-hand the high price of living among a successful tech hub when you're not part of the IT crowd.

She has already had to trade in her flat for a rented room in a shared house, and with Silicon Valley property prices averaging just below $1m (£656,000) according to the US National Association of Realtors, the first rung of the housing ladder feels further away than ever.

Image copyright Alison van Diggelen
Image caption Drinkers in the Britannia Arms, San Jose

Before Steve Jobs et al put the Silicon into Santa Clara, the area was renowned for the apples in its orchards - and land was cheap. Those days are long gone.

"If you're one of the lucky people, and you're in the tech groove, everything's great. You're making great money, you're riding the wave," said Ms Swank.

"But if you're a teacher or a waitress or something… I resent the people who got lucky and got to just get out of college, get a job, buy a house, be rich instantly."

Property premiums

Meanwhile in Cambridge in the UK, known as the Silicon Fen because of its booming tech and biomedical communities, a hospital had to close a ward for elderly people because of a staff shortage as the city's soaring housing prices and overloaded transport system began to bite.

"We simply couldn't find enough nurses," said former MP Julian Huppert.

Image copyright Zoe Kleinman/BBC
Image caption The former site of the hospital in Cambridge is now home to the Judge Business School - and a wine bar

"Nurses are not well paid… not well paid enough either to live in Cambridge often or to be able to afford the travel in easily."

Cambridge is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success.

House prices in the city have doubled in the last five years, according to local estate agent James Milner.

"For local people, on average salaries, it's a massive problem," he told the BBC.

"The average salary in Cambridge is about £35,000 ($53,000). The average property price is around £350,000. In central Cambridge that's a two-bed flat."

Image copyright Zoe Kleinman/BBC
Image caption This new east London cafe hopes to whet the appetite of the IT crowd

No wonder perhaps that some communities are seeking to make the most out of the well-salaried tech workers in their midst.

London's Silicon Roundabout is in the east of the city - an area that has historically battled poverty.

Bon appetit

Community Centre St Lukes, which cares for the less privileged part of the population of Old Street, has decided to extend a warm welcome to its wealthy tech neighbours with the launch of a new cafe that is poles apart from the traditional greasy spoons which have traditionally served the area.

"We've tailored our offer with the tech crowd in mind," said catering manager Lisa Ingles.

"In the cafe there are a million plug sockets - if you go to any cafe in this area you see people beavering away on their laptops with a coffee."

Image copyright Zoe Kleinman/BBC
Image caption Raw cake and coffee, anyone?

"Because they are a younger crowd, the vegan, vegetarian, healthy options we know are very popular with them, so there are a lot of salads, a lot of raw cake treats - substituting sugar for coconut sugar, that sort of thing."

The day-to-day users of the community centre itself seemed a little bemused on launch night, as the cocktails flowed, the canapes were paraded and the music pounded on the cafe's trendy rooftop.

Downstairs in the foyer, one cautious older gentleman in a felt hat, who would talk to me only if I took the batteries out of my recorder, said he feels his generation - the poor who grew up here after the war - is "unseen".

And yet he will be one of the direct beneficiaries if the cafe succeeds - St Luke's intends to use profits to continue to fund its hot meals service for more than 10,000 people aged over 55, which currently costs more than £50,000 a year.

"A lot of the older residents have lived here all their lives and some feel quite pushed out. They see the wealth and affluence and changing neighbourhood," said director of services Karen Wiltshire.

"It's important people don't feel alienated."

'Snake charmers and yoga'

That's a lesson already learned the hard way in Bangalore, home of India's largest tech hub.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Bangalore is India's Silicon city

Today, there is national pride in the city's success.

"India was seen as a land of snake charmers, yoga and maybe good food," said Rajeev Suri who works in the software industry.

"Then for the first time IT actually took on the first world on their own turf - and won."

But Bangalore was once a place with "sleepy little ways" recalls author Varun Agarwal. By the early 1980s, it had caught the eye of tech giants Infosys and Wipro - and the floodgates really opened when Texas Instruments moved there in 1984.

"The guy who ran a restaurant who had five customers a day suddenly had 100," she said.

However, racial tensions flared when an unexpected language barrier became apparent.

"People from outside who came here didn't speak the local language, so they wanted the local people to speak Hindi.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Bangalore launched a Metro in 2011 to try to ease commuting for the tech workers

"The locals obviously refused to do that - they were very happy speaking the local language which is Kannada - so that caused a lot of harm and resentment."

In Bangalore as elsewhere, the tech scene has also struggled to attract women.

In the early 2000s, fewer than 10% of tech workers were female, said start-up founder Jayshree Mukundun.

While she says the situation has improved she admits there is still a way to go.

"We have women run our country, women do so many things in the corporate world but not in the tech world," Ms Mukundun admitted.

The world's oldest tech hub

Perhaps all tech communities could learn something here from arguably the world's first tech hub - Bletchley Park, home to Alan Turing and his colleagues, the British codebreakers of World War Two.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Today Bletchley Park, home of World War Two codebreakers, is a museum

Turing and his colleagues faced perhaps the opposite problem to the gender challenges facing today's tech industry - of the 10,000 workers on site at its peak, around 7,000 were women. Many of them shared homes with the locals, whose children were away fighting.

"It was a remarkable, egalitarian place - way ahead of its time in those terms," said author and historian Michael Smith.

"Women were treated exactly the same as men... rank became irrelevant."

Work was simply assigned to the person deemed the best for the job, he added.

"Women certainly weren't held back here."

Listen to the BBC's Business Daily programmes about tech hubs and communities here and here.

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