The Royal “Disruptor” – The Duke and Tech City

CHARLES20ARMSTRONGThe Duke was the first member of the Royal Family to visit Tech City, the cluster of high-tech businesses in Shoreditch, East London. Charles Armstrong, Director of The Trampery, recalls how HRH has been able to bring people together to support this centre of British excellence.

People often associate the Royal Family with Britain’s past; a powerful element of our heritage and tradition that has little role in driving economic or cultural change. However seeing HRH The Duke of York in action over the past two years has made me realise the fallacy of such a view. Paradoxically, the Monarchy has the potential to be one of the UK’s greatest assets in fostering innovation and change.

My involvement with The Duke came about through The Trampery, the social enterprise I founded to support technology and creative entrepreneurs through flexible working environments, new connections and a community rich in experience and ideas. The Trampery started life in 2009, opening the first shared workspace in Shoreditch; the heartland of London’s “Tech City” innovation cluster. We were so swamped with talented startups seeking a home that in 2011 we moved to a new building (on Bevenden Street) with double the capacity.

This was the point at which Downing Street put me in touch with The Duke’s office. The conversation opened up the possibility of The Duke coming to open our new building. Up until then there’d been no official visit to Tech City by a member of the Royal Family. This would be an important milestone for the startup community as well as an honour for The Trampery.

What I expected was a mountain of protocol and discussions that remained safely moored in pleasantries. From the moment The Duke arrived any such preconceptions were shattered. The visit began with a briefing where The Duke proved to be formidably well informed about the economic make-up of Tech City and the obstacles faced by entrepreneurs growing new businesses.

We moved on to a round table discussion with entrepreneurs from The Trampery and across Tech City. Initially the participants were shy but The Duke put everyone at ease and the conversation became increasingly vigorous. The prepared discussion points quickly went out of the window and The Duke engaged each entrepreneur in turn, questioning them about how they set up their business, what resources they needed to get to the next stage and what difficulties they foresaw on the path ahead. It was a serious and fascinating discussion but there was also plenty of laughter. At a certain point I remember being struck that the entrepreneurs were speaking to The Duke as if he was another entrepreneur, a testament to his natural rapport with innovators.

The final part of the Bevenden Street visit involved the unveiling of a plaque. It didn’t seem like The Trampery style to have an unveiling with the usual velvet curtain and drawstring. So on the Sunday before the visit I went down to Brick Lane market and came back with an offcut of purple suede, a nine inch nail and a clothes peg on which an art student had drawn a lady’s face and stuck pipe-cleaner arms. We glued the nail into the bottom of the suede as a weight then secured the suede to the top of the plaque with the clothes peg. When moment of the unveiling arrived The Duke surveyed the set-up and without missing a beat unclipped the clothes peg, sending the suede curtain plummeting to the floor with a clang, then turned around and stuck the clothes peg on the lapel pocket of my jacket. The room erupted in applause and laughter. It was a perfect Trampery opening.

During the first half of 2013 The Trampery opened two more sites. Mother at The Trampery, a warehouse in the middle of Clerkenwell’s design community, opened in May as a partnership with communications agency Mother. It’s focused on creating new kinds of connection between the smallest innovators and the largest corporations. Two months later The Trampery London Fields opened in Hackney in partnership with Hackney Community College and the London College of Fashion. This building provides studios for some of London’s fastest-rising fashion labels together with specialist fashion equipment that’s available for anyone to use and a huge Victorian hall, complete with coffered oak ceiling, for hosting catwalk shows, conferences and receptions.

The Duke has been kind enough to come and open both of the new buildings. On each occasion his visit has acted as a catalyst to bring together people from the top echelons of business, academia, culture, finance and government alongside entrepreneurs and innovators. I have also participated in a variety of other discussions around the UK which The Duke has chaired. He always cuts to the point and seeks to drive the conversation towards practical and tangible outcomes. He has a gift for getting young people and entrepreneurs to talk freely and an equal gift for skewering humbugs or stuffed shirts.

The coming decades will be a defining period for Britain. Much of our institutional fabric must be woven anew to support innovation and growth in the areas where we are strongest. This is a formidable task which cannot be achieved by any one section of society. The only way we will succeed is if the leading figures of Britain’s establishment join together with a new generation of innovators and apply their combined resources to the common purpose. The Royal Family, outside of any partisan or sectional interest, is the institution best placed to bring together people from every part of British society in this way. This is what I have seen The Duke doing so effectively.

The Duke is particularly well placed for this role because he has a reputation as an innovator or “disruptor” in his own right. In 2011 he hosted a reception for Tech City entrepreneurs at Buckingham Palace where for the first time in the Palace’s history several guests were permitted to enter dressed in jeans. I understand The Duke personally directed horrified staff to admit the guests contrary to all established custom. Then in 2013 The Duke became the first member of the Royal Family to open an account on Twitter, posting the first message himself. This might have seemed a simple matter to the public, but behind the scenes it meant overcoming centuries of protocol dictating how members of the Royal Family should communicate with the public.

In spring 2013 The Duke agreed to become Patron of The Trampery. That was a moment of great pride for myself, my team and all the businesses we support. The Duke’s support has redoubled our faith that great things can be accomplished when people from different worlds come together around great ambitions.

Charles Armstrong, Founder, The Trampery

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