Book review: The Cambridge Phenomenon: Global impact – Kate Kirk and Charles Cotton

By Jade Fell

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Third Millennium Publishing, June 2016, 223 pp, ISBN 978-1908-990-617, £45.00, Hardback

“There’s a well-known saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ and in Cambridge, you could say ‘it takes a cluster to raise a company.’”

For nearly 40 years, a technological powerhouse has been growing in the English countryside. Nestled on the southern tip of East Anglia, Silicon Fen, also known as the Cambridge Cluster, may pale in popularity to its older, wiser sibling – Silicon Valley in California – but is of no less importance locally and indeed, globally. Widely acclaimed as a centre of excellence for knowledge and education, Cambridge is ranked as the No.1 University in the world, but its contribution to technological development is less known.

It is remarkable to consider just how many life-changing technologies originated in a small city in the heart of the English fenland. From the discovery of the DNA double helix by Watson and Crick – the findings were announced in the Eagle pub, Benet Street on a cold lunchtime in February 1953 – to the first Acorn computer, the beige and black, blocky creatures loved by school children of the 80s and 90s. At the heart of the cluster you find the university, a place that nourished revolutionary academics including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Lord Byron, whose fascination with the arts and science helped shape the romantic period. Still an academic centre of excellence, the university has transformed through the years into the advanced hub that it is today.

In their new book, The Cambridge Phenomenon: Global Impact, authors Kate Kirk and Charles Cotton attempt to highlight the influence that Cambridge has as a powerhouse for innovation and excellence – an influence that, according to the authors, has been largely underestimated. They argue that developments in Cambridge today and in the past have not only had a hugely positive impact on UK economy, but around the world in everything from computer chips to gene therapy.

Much of the technology we use is available thanks to Cambridge innovations, from the chips within a smart phone – the majority of which owe their existence to ARM – to anything equipped with Bluetooth technology. To date, some 4,300 knowledge intensive companies are located within a 20 mile radius of Cambridge, 15 of which are valued at over $1billion, two at over $10billion. 25 are the largest corporations in the world (such as Amazon, AstraZeneca and Microsoft) which have opened operations in the heart of the city.

In the forward to their first book, The Cambridge Phenomenon: 50 Years of Innovation and Enterprise, Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote that the impact of Cambridge ‘reaches every corner of the globe’. In this year’s follow up publication, Kirk and Cotton advance on this point, highlighting the growth of the Cambridge cluster and the people and businesses behind this technological revolution. Cambridge is no longer just the birthplace of great technological advances, but a place to transfer knowledge and grow multinational business.

At the launch of the book, Kate Kirk commented in a similar vein that “the Cambridge phenomenon has reached a status of brain gain rather than brain drain. Instead of early-stage technology companies being bought up by overseas companies and taken away from Cambridge, we are now seeing multinational companies using acquisitions as a way of becoming part of the Cambridge ecosystem. These ‘sticky acquisitions’ are a major indication of Cambridge’s success.”

To this end, the book explores not just particular products and services that have emerged from Cambridge, but also the research institutes and technology sectors that are behind some of the city’s biggest successes. From life science and healthcare to inkjet printing, a wealth of technological innovation encourages competition and attracts talent to discover the potential of the Cambridge Cluster.

This book is important, not just in what it says, but in the work that it represents and the great minds that it credits. Much of the work within Cambridge gives birth to bigger and greater products and services. The effect that this small fenland city has in the wider world should not be underestimated.

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