The Cambridge Phenomenon

Public Health <- Introduction -> Index

The Growth of High Technology Industry in a University Town

In the Sixties to Eighties many Cambridge University graduates stayed here and founded a range of high-technology companies (mostly computer-related) and this attracted others and related developments.

This led to the tag of "Silicon Fen", due to the similarities with Silicon Valley. There was much the same effect in "Silicon Glen" - high-tech industry near Edinburgh. In each case a strongly-scientific university community is on hand to supply ideas and personnel.

This phenomenon was studied and published as...

The Holford-Wright Report

This city plan for Cambridge was published in 1950. Its starting point was to keep Cambridge's character as a University town of international importance. Half the team was from the newly-formed County Council Planning Department [Town and Country Planning Act 1948] and it had the Government's backing. The other partners were the (then) Borough Council and the University. It was chaired by Sir William Holford, an eminent architect and planner.

It proposed halting the growth of the City and the immediately-surrounding villages in favour of the next ring of villages, and to encourage the growth of market towns to revitalise rural areas.

It recommended that industrial expansion in or near Cambridge be limited and that new large-scale production activity be discouraged throughout the county. A large area west of Cambridge was to be reserved for Cambridge University development.

Also proposed were a number of central Cambridge developments, such as:

The plan was submitted with modifications by the County Council to the Government in 1952 and was largely accepted in 1954, though with Lion Yard a pedestrian precinct.

This guided planning controls till the early Seventies, resulting in many cases of key business/r&d ventures - naturals for Cambridge - being unable to set up and going elsewhere (IBM European R&D Labs being the most famous).

See also Transport Planning History.

The Mott Report

Cambridge University set up a subcommittee of the Senate in 1967 to to consider the planning aspects of the relationship between the University and science-based industry. The City Council supported this as it was frustrated by the County Council's limits on housing & employment expansion (and hence income from the rates). Local employers also supported it as they faced serious recruitment problems due to the lack of housing. The report took over a year to compile, with extensive consultation and debate, but represented a consensus (all too rare here).

The report recommended careful relaxation of policies and in particular the establishment of a science park on the edge of Cambridge. As a result, Trinity College founded the country's first Science Park in 1970.

The committee's recommendations were accepted in the early Seventies and have guided planning ever since.

The Phenomenon

  1. The presence in and around Cambridge of many high-technology companies (computing, biotechnology, electronics & scientific instruments mainly);
  2. A very high proportion of young, small, independent and indigenous companies and a corresponding low proportion of subsidiaries of large companies based elsewhere;
  3. A long record of high-technology company formation;
  4. A tendency for high-technology companies to concentrate on research, design and development rather than production;
  5. The many complex direct and indirect links between the companies and Cambridge University.

1997: The Phenomenon Revisited

In 1997 it was said there's a second Phenomenon, based largely around telecommunications and biotechnology.

A new report, Cambridge Phenomenon Report Mark II, was prepared by Segal Quince Wicksteed, funded jointly by the EU Commission, the Science Park, the St John's Innovation Centre, Cambridgeshire County Council and CambsTEC.
(CEN 6-Apr-1998)

It criticised the lack of support from central Government to allow growth of high-tech business sector and in particular the lack of infrastructure developments, leading to planning pressures.

1,200 firms were surveyed to form the final part of the report, which was due to be published around October 1998 but actually appeared two years later.

Cambridge II

Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Acorn with Chris Curry, was part of a Cambridge II initiative. His venture capital company Amadeus (with funding from the likes of Microsoft) is helping to start up companies. At a dinner he, Alec Broers (C.U. Vice-Chancellor), Marcial Echenique (C.U. School of Architecture, transport planning specialist) and David Cleeverly (Analysys) decided to try to take the City forward. The initiative started around March 1997 and after a number of phases was due to conclude by the end of 1998. It looked at various issues such as land use, transport systems and telephony. The aim seems to be a new Science Park to permit expansion, with close, structured collaboration between C.U. and industry. [At a rough guess, it may well suggest following C.U.'s grand plan for its West Cambridge site, convenient for the M11 and A14.]
(CEN 23-Sep-1997)

Cambridge Futures

In October 1997 a related initiative was launched by the Cambridge II group with support from local Councils and local businesses. It aimed to inform the public of options and solicit views, culminating in a big exhibition, originally to be in summer 1998 but which was actually in the Grafton Centre between 17th & 23rd May 1999 [associated Web site: Cambridge Futures]. Packs of educational materials were supposed to go to schools to involve pupils.

Summary of the options:

Other Initiatives

Newsweek 1998

Newsweek's much-quoted Where Wired Is A Way Of Life by T. Trent Gegax added to the hype about Silicon Fen. The article compares ten high-profile high-tech centres.

The statistics for Cambridge are:

The article starts (as is so typical of American ones) by being impressed by the age of the University of Cambridge Vice-Chancellor's office. Further choice phrases:


The Information Technology journalist Guy Kewney reckons that the Cambridge Phenomenon has another side, having just toured some of the firms. Apparently the culture in high-tech consultancies involves a lot of internal politics - offence and defence. This holds back growth & spin-offs.
(IT Week 28-Jun-1999)

The Grauniad 1999

"We're fuelled by coffee, pizza and sleepless nights - it's just like Silicon Valley'" appeared in the Guardian on 29-Nov-1999, causing much mirth. It begins: The hype continues: Apparently, (whatever that means). There's plenty more like this. Hermann Hauser and Roger Needham are the focus of the article.

Other links

Biotechnology Clusters
August 1999 report of team led by Lord Sainsbury
The Government at last seems aware of the national importance of Cambridge but isn't ready with the dosh & permissions to let things flourish. Just before this was published the Secretary of State for Environment, Transport & the Regions, John Prescott, rejected the plans for the Hinxton Hall biotechnology cluster. Whatever happened to the New Tory Government's promise of "joined-up government"?

Public Health <- Introduction -> Index
Cambridge : History