6 November, 2012 - 08:13 By Tony Quested

Cambridge finally shakes off medieval mantle

Cambridge has come a long way since the first vestiges of a settlement were discovered here 3,500 years ago.

The raggle-taggle backwater that Bede described in the 7th century as “a little ruined city” has had a number of metamorphoses under first Roman rule, then Saxon, Viking, Norman – and onto the modern day.

In the 52 years since the Cambridge Technology Cluster was originated, the city has found it hard to shake off its medieval mantle. The traffic doesn’t move much faster now than it did in the days of Olaf, his ox and handcart, but as a virtual city driven by its brainpower Cambridge has attained world renown.

It is about to be unveiled by the Government as one of the new hotspots in the City Deal initiative – granting the cluster significantly greater economic autonomy.

The Northstowe new town is just around the corner, geographically a few miles north of Cambridge – or three week’s travel time given the A14’s continuing impersonation of a Canadian logjam – and a new Science Park railway station shunts closer by the month.

In a reversal of another kind of one-way traffic, Microsoft Research is set to move back into the city centre, reviving Cambridge’s business downtown almost at a stroke.

Technology entrepreneur David Cleevely has long argued Cambridge’s case for a greater voice in Whitehall, notably through the creation of a unitary authority. Dr Cleevely coaches top politicians on appreciating the value of entrepreneurship to a nation’s economy.

He tells Business Weekly: “City Deal status is an important step forward for Cambridge. It is clear that the city is an economic powerhouse and we cannot go on with the fragmentation in strategic thinking and budgeting involving three separate authorities. The City Deal will bring them together, save money and deliver a better future for Cambridge.”

At the same time we are witnessing a much more concerted and effective outreach strategy being pursued by the University of Cambridge while the city is lucky to have another world class university at its heart, with the business-savvy ARU.

Nobody doubts the impressive nature of Cambridge’s constituent parts. But Dr Cleevely is right – someone or some body has to pull all these parts together to unlock the full power and potential of this economic hothouse.

Special Interest Groups need to predominate over the self-interested variety that have ruled over Cambridge for far too long; the cliques give way to collectives.

In trade terms – and here I am indebted to my leading research partner, W.Pedia – Cambridge has been no slouch down the centuries. During Anglo-Saxon times “Cambridge benefited from good trade links across the hard-to-travel Fenlands,” WP records. It adds: “The Vikings' vigorous trading habits caused Cambridge to grow rapidly.”

RPP in the Viking lexicon had clearly morphed from Rape, Plunder and Pillage to Research, Produce and Peddle. Erik the Red and Bodrun Bloodaxe had somewhere along the line been replaced by Lars the Light Blue – a flaxen haired, pioneering entrepreneur.

The only screams heard from Cambridge during their tenure reportedly emanated not from maidens fleeing their Fenland homes at the slightest glimpse of a longboat but from Viking conquerors who stumbled unsuspecting into an ancient forerunner of Waitrose Cambridge and fled in horror at the price of the fruit and veg. In their memory perhaps we should re-Christen the Cambridge new town Norse-stowe.

Medieval Cambridge has made the step to modern Cambridge but now needs to make a quantum leap from micro to macro in terms of its significance globally.

This will require even more collaboration between the major networks - Cambridge Network, Cambridge Wireless, One Nucleus and Cambridge Cleantech – to ensure the full power of the cluster is unleashed.

The future success of the cluster in universal terms demands an approach that emphasises: 1voice; 1vision, 1Cambridge.

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