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How London’s historic docklands paved the way for fintech’s future
Connecting London Docks’ history to the myriad of fintech and crypto visionaries within Level39 in London's business district, Canary Wharf.
“Standing on the stones” was the phrase to describe the last resort of the many desperate, hungry, unemployed London workers in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.
Men who had no fixed employment would rock up early in the morning, thronging in masses to await any possible job tickets that were dispensed two or three times a day.
150 years later, the London docks are the base for businesses at the interface of finance and technology.
Today, fintech entrepreneurs stand on the stones of what remains of the beating heart of trade in the London Docks. Fintech workers like those at Level39 now find themselves “slamming the keys” as they work in offices high above the Docklands’ West Wood Quay, now called Canary Wharf. In doing so, these innovators continue the vibrant trade history of the London docks.
Canary Wharf was named because the docklands’ primary trading partners were the Canary Islands, a Spanish group of islands 3,760 miles from London off the coast of West Africa.
Curiously, the islands themselves were named after the large native dogs inhabiting the islands. Since the Docklands are located on the Isle of Dogs, it was only fitting to name them Canary Wharf.
From 1802 to 1939, this area of London was one of the busiest docks in the world. Harking back to the time when innovation played a vital role in establishing the backbone of society, you can now see a return to these values as a new breed of fintech craftsmen embed themselves in the heart of Canary Wharf.
Designed by world-famous architect, Cesar Pell, One Canada Square established Canary Wharf as a new financial centre.
It was completed in 1991 and was initially the tallest skyscraper in London (it is now the third). It has been followed by another thirty skyscrapers that serve as residential and business establishments.
Set on the 39th floor of One Canada Square in Canary Wharf, the eponymously-named Level39 is a prime example of how a company can successfully provide a space and community for tech startups and scaleups. Level39 was launched in 2013 by Canary Wharf Group, a commercial and residential property company who, as owner, manager and developer, is responsible for the regeneration of 128 acres of the once-derelict Docklands district of East London.
Level39’s Ecosystem Development Manager, Nancy Gonzalez-Rivera, told CryptoSlate:
“Over the past nine years, Level39 has grown significantly, now occupying 80,000 sq ft in One Canada Square and boasting a vibrant community of over 180 member companies, operating in fintech, cyber security, smart cities, green tech, and most recently, life sciences and medtech.”
One Canada Square indisputably paved the way for establishing Canary Wharf as one of the main financial centers of the world. But it almost didn’t happen.
A billion-dollar bet that almost went horribly wrong
In the mid-80s London needed to build a new financial hub. At one point while One Canada Square was being constructed, the private group financing the construction was unsure whether establishing Canary Wharf would be a giant failure. The increasing construction costs and lack of an underground transportation line connecting it to the rest of London were the critical factors.
The London financial scene had already changed in the mid-80s when deregulation of the stock exchange occurred and the market went digital; Canary Wharf was primed to address that reality in a way that would facilitate its role as not just a financial center, but the leading fintech center of the world.
How Level39 provides fintech infrastructure
Some of the biggest names in fintech which have made Level39 home have grown to become billion-dollar brands. Heavyweights such as Revolut and Etoro have helped it develop a strong reputation within the fintech and crypto communities.
Of course, taking the leap towards entrepreneurship is not for the faint-hearted. Being associated with Level39’s infrastructure facilitates credibility and strength for the ambitious entrepreneurs diving head-first into the innovative and enigmatic waters of fintech, providing safe sailing to succeed.
Research conducted by the Harvard Business Review found that people who co-work demonstrate higher levels of thriving than their counterparts, resulting in increased autonomy, well-designed work environments, and a better-curated experience.
According to Samantha Yap, founder of blockchain-focused PR firm YAP Global, Level39 hits the mark on each of these dimensions:
“I notice countries send fintech delegations to Level39 as the go-to hub to learn about fintech in the UK. I appreciate the connections I’ve been able to make from Level39 and it’s a great space to connect with other members of the fintch ecosystem.”
Unlike WeWork, which operates thousands of co-working locations worldwide, Level39 only occupies 3 floors at One Canada Square. Since space is limited and Level39 is committed to specific technology sectors, an application is required to become a member of Level39. Once approved, Level39 offers the space and connections to benefit from its ideal location and dynamic ecosystem in Canary Wharf.
Canary Wharf has become London’s premier financial and business hub
Why Canary Wharf? Traditional finance giants including HSBC, Morgan Stanley, and Credit Suisse were some of the first tenants in Canary Wharf. The evolution to becoming a mecca for the major players in the fintech space seems natural, if not destined.
Although Level39 focuses on several areas of tech, including cybersecurity, retail tech, and smart cities, fintech and blockchain companies have increasingly become a significant part of the London financial technology ecosystem.
Over the past decade, Canary Wharf has established itself as an enclave of biodiversity, architectural elegance, and sustainable living. Level39’s highly-desirable location makes it an attractive proposition for a lunchtime meeting or an evening event.
As you tilt your head backward and direct your vision skyward, you are instantly immersed by the vast skyscrapers, distinctive to Canary Wharf. With the enormous buildings of the top-tier businesses and their logos strewn across the forefront of your vision; it’s clear you have stepped into a pantheon of global banking, and more recently, a modern, vibrant and sought-after place to live.
Canary Wharf is one of the first districts in London to demonstrate the 15-minute city model. The thoughtfully designed space includes a balance of offices, residential, leisure and retail, providing everything you should need within the proximity of a 15-minute walk.
A global reputation with leading players in fintech and blockchain
As a brand, Level39 is globally recognised and its members have come to London from all over the world.
Adi Ben-Ari of Applied Blockchain believes that some clients come to see the view as much as they do to hear about his services.
An office that inspires confidence and impresses investors becomes a source of energy for the teams that work there.
Applied Blockchain designs and develops next-generation business applications; Ben-Ari had heard about Level39 before procuring his office space there.
Other fintech heavyweights at Level39 include Phlo Systems, a fintech startup tackling some of the biggest issues facing international trade; Coinjar, one of the longest-running digital currency exchanges, and recently FCA-approved TAUcoin, which is developing a perishable proof-of-transaction consensus.
David Wu from TAUcoin was looking for a place to meet other fintech entrepreneurs. He noted:
“As a fintech company, it is good to feel connected to the bigger community.”
Level39 empowers fintech organisations to create better community connections. Working side by side, its members often help each other by offering advice and networking opportunities, investor relations, and client introductions. It is much more than a place to work. Rather, it offers multiple opportunities for the growth of one’s enterprise.
Asher Tan, the founder of Coinjar, added:
“[Level39] is great for connections, not just for fintech, but also general services, too. Introductions are easy to be had and the fact that all companies are in the same industry makes it even easier.”
Membership for a hybrid workplace approach
In a post-Covid world, there will be an increasing need for flexible workspaces and virtual communities. Level39 has adapted to these challenging times by offering “hybrid” memberships, designed for remote workers to benefit from its ecosystem without being physically present. Samantha Yap manages a global team with global clients:
“Our team is quite global. We’ve got five people in the UK, as well as team members in Berlin, India, Goa, Seattle, and Hong Kong. We’ve also got a team of four or five people in Singapore, and a team in Australia. All of our clients are global.”
As with all physical office hubs during the Covid pandemic, Level39 had to rethink how it delivers its services. Having found that many of the member benefits could be gained remotely, Level39 went virtual, offering a hybrid membership model.
Members of Level39 offer their employees flexibility and support their desire to choose where and how they want to work, providing them the most comfortable space to be productive. Such membership flexibility has become a key selling point for companies on the lookout for new talent.
Level39’s Ecosystem Development Manager Nancy Gonzalez-Rivera told CryptoSlate:
“With the launch of virtual memberships, we are able to engage even further with our global audience! Innovation is at the heart of Level39 and collaborating with industry partners is key to our support network, including Innovate Finance, London & Partners, UCL, InChorus (and more).”
Canary Wharf has clearly carried on and expanded the tradition of global trade.
Historical symmetries and the importance of reflection
We can only picture the buzz of the docks in the early days, raw materials bartered at the port, and growth and prosperity apparent through trade, collaboration and adopting new technologies.
The setting we see to this day with its clean city scope and modern, the well-functioning exterior is the byproduct of hundreds of years of development and underwent abandonment, crime, poverty and global market crashes.
Capital investment, community, and entrepreneurship have created the prosperous environment Canary Wharf is today. Level39 is a beneficiary of those efforts and continues to attract and support a variety of startups and scaleups, assisting them on their growth journey.
What’s been interesting to observe is that many new-age financial firms working within crypto and decentralization have the opposite approach to doing business. They collaborate and elevate one another.
It is only in recent years that we’ve seen cryptocurrency become more accepted by the general population. Crypto investors, traders, believers, and firms had to work together to create credibility for themselves and the industry.
The greatest benefit of a community is the ability to harness the positive attributes of all its members to collaborate in a vision for the future. This is certainly the case with the members of the fintech community at Level39.
Samantha Yap observed that Level39 goes above and beyond when providing value to its member companies:
“The Level39 team is there to support the members. And I really do feel like they check in on us often. Amy French, who is the Level39 Director, is always busy connecting people with one another. If I ever needed anything, I know that she would be putting me in touch with people. This is one of the few workspaces that actually cares about the growth of its companies.”
Level39 is very much the beneficiary of the evolution of the London Docklands and the establishment of Canary Wharf, providing a space to call home for hundreds of entrepreneurs building at the intersection of finance and technology.
Working alongside fintech peers facilitates access to a broad network of contacts and welcomes exciting and innovative entrepreneurs into the ecosystem. In doing so, Level39 and Canary Wharf are paving the way for the future of fintech.