Forget Silicon Valley and New York. If you care about technology and design, look across the pond to London, says New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The MoMA Store is releasing the London Tech City design collection, 17 innovative British-born products that push the needle in music, making, and transportation.
London has a vibrant startup scene. In 2013, studies showed that as much as 49% of all new businesses in the U.K. were started with less than $3,000. More than 90,000 new business launched in the first six months of 2013 alone, many of them in London. We asked Emanuel Plat, who curated the collection for the MoMA Store, what makes London so special when it comes to innovative tech products.
Cheap Rent Fuels Great Ideas
Since 2013, MoMA’s curators have been paying close attention to what they see as a renaissance of smart, innovative design coming out of the British capitol: for example, the Ototo music kit, which lets you make music from anything, and the DIY Gamer Kit, which lets kids create their own video games. (Both were recently added to MoMA’s permanent collection.) Almost all of the designers in the London Tech City collection come from the East London borough of Hackney. “Startups move there for the same reason they move to Williamsburg: rents are comparatively cheap,” Plat says.
A Collaborative Spirit
But Hackney’s tech scene has a very different character from that of Williamsburg or Silicon Valley. Plat says it’s more supportive, with little in-fighting or overt competition between startups. It’s also close-knit. The startup community meets up once a monty to exchange ideas, talk about what they’re doing, and keep in touch; Plat says that most of the items in the London Tech City collection were acquired after meeting upcoming designers during such a meeting in a disused Hackney warehouse. Part of the reason London is able to foster a supportive startup community is because many of these designers went to school together. Plat says an astonishing number of the designers in the London Tech City collection graduated from the Royal College of Art.
Making and Music
The London Tech City collection is marked by three obsessions that, according to Plat, seem common among many of the designers MoMA has met over the last two years.
The first is making, represented by products like Sugru (a moldable glue that can be used to do everything from clean your appliances to fix your gadgets), Bare Conductive’s Electric Paint (which lets you electrically connect circuit boards and transistors as if you were writing with a magic marker), and the Kano computer kit (which aims to teach kids and adults alike how to build a computer and code).
Music is also very important to London’s tech designers. Consider the VinylPlay, the world’s first plug-and-play turntable with a built-in amplifier, or Ototo, a kid-friendly circuit board that turns everything from bananas to house plants into musical instruments.
The most idiosyncratic obsession of London’s design community is bike safety. “Despite the fact that London is a dangerous city to bike in, there’s a really strong culture of biking there,” Plat says. Over 580,000 trips are made on bicycle in London every day. To ensure cyclists can safely get from Point A to Point B, London Tech City designers have developed everything from glow-in-the-dark, wash-off paint to the Visijax Commuter Jacket, a highly visible biking jacket with built-in turn signals.
“There’s a combination of factors at play that make London one of the most interesting design centers of the world right now,” Plat says. “We’re really glad to be able to bring that story of innovation to New York.”
Seventeen products are available in the London Tech City collection. Read more about them in the slide show above, and to purchase them, visit the MoMA Store online.