…which was when the drone passed by the pub

If you’ve lived and worked around Silicon Roundabout long enough, then you’ve seen it all. Or you think you have. Enough, anyway, that very few things garner so much as a raised eyebrow or that ultimate triumph of making strangers speak to each other out loud. This is London x 10. Londoners suspect anyone who is acting in an overtly different way of trying too hard. It’s a city of bewildering individuality and yet if something about your bearing even whispers, “Look at me”, then no one will. The harder you try to get attention, the more invisible you become.

Silicon Roundabout amplifies this trend because it lies in the heart of so much creativity. Fashion, media, advertising, TV, films and the startup epicentre of Europe are clustered around an ugly little gyratory. No startups can afford rent — at least no startups that are actually starting up — so everyone is forced to clash and rub along together in coworking spaces and among the coffee shops that proliferate and multiply like bugs.

Given your close proximity to someone who is trying to be the biggest thing in fashion, music, art or the next Uber, you block out everything. Those who bray too loudly and showily at Skype about the wondrousness of their particular thing are rewarded by a yawn.

And then a drone flew by.

It was gloriously sunny so I had come to one of the latest independent cafés to have launched that day. And the drone buzzed by our heads. This — a drone flying along a major London street at head height — I concede I had never seen before. Instinctively this felt unusual enough to merit at least an eyebrow raise. Maybe a comment. Should I turn to my neighbour and say something. Would I lose my Shoreditch pro status?

Some other thoughts: “Can a drone try too hard?” “Can an inanimate object itself be the recipient of kudos?”  And the biggest question of all: “Why?”

I kicked myself for such ignorance. Was Amazon running delivery trials around Old Street? If I knew for sure I could turn to the bearded, tattooed, unicycling guy next to me and yawn, “Amazon trial”, which trumps just saying, “Drone”. But that was all I had. Maybe a teen planned to snoop into people’s bedrooms (shake of the head, “Peeping Tom”) or an investment bank intended to photograph sensitive information through a lawyer’s window (“Tsk, corporate espionage”). The clock ticked.

In Silicon Valley the air is thick with technology. The only conversation is tech startups. There, they actually do know all about the latest drone trials. But Shoreditch doesn’t have the same mono-focus. So there could be a drone trial going on and quite legitimately you haven’t heard about it. Or it could be performance art. Or a fashion accessory. Or fintech.

I went for broke. I coughed, turned and micro-raised an eyebrow. And before I could say it, the be-bearded one pre-empted me. “Drone,” he said. I smiled like my condescending piano teacher used to, ostentatiously slurped my drink and resumed my posture of indifference.

Sixty seconds later, someone walked by, head down, transfixed and staring intently at their controller. This was the drone pilot. He was taking the drone for a walk.

I didn’t turn to my neighbour. And he didn’t say anything. We both knew that we had been bested by someone who wasn’t trying too hard.

Not long after this, and not surprisingly, the beard left. Ten minutes later the drone controller shuffled back and, curiosity winning the day, I asked him what he was doing: Mapping the streets? Making a movie? Working for Amazon?

“I’m trying to have an idea,” he said.

“That’s what I thought,” I nodded and retreated to my cold coffee. Damn.

It’s hard to keep up and that’s the point. That’s why the neighbourhood is an innovation growbag. While the rest of us think that even owning a drone and taking it for a walk down the street is in itself an “idea”, the next wave of startup founders (or artists) have realised that inspiration will be built on top of that idea. So they walk around the neighbourhood to invite serendipity and see what, sometimes literally, comes out of the air.

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