How tech is redefining Edinburgh’s historic core

Edinburgh’s thriving tech scene is helping to spur office and residential development across the city.

August 22, 2019

In Edinburgh’s historic city centre a very modern transformation is underway.

While the Royal Mile and the Palace of Holyroodhouse continue to draw in tourists, its growing reputation as a tech hub is pulling in a rather different crowd of software developers, AI experts and data scientists.

And while the city’s most famous tech unicorn Skyscanner has been snapped up by Chinese giant Ctrip, plenty of other local start-ups are creating a global name for themselves like AI-enabled healthcare company Current or hospitality focused QikServe. They’re joining household names like Amazon, which has a development centre in the city, and Lloyds Banking Group, which in May announced plans for 500 jobs at a new Edinburgh tech hub.

“We’re seeing more tech firms move in, from established businesses to start-ups as they look to recruit local tech talent and join its thriving tech community,” says Craig Watson, JLL UK director National Office Agency.

Edinburgh is talent-rich, according to JLL’s Innovation Geographies research which places the city 15th globally for tech expertise. Much of this is down to the presence of high-quality universities; the University of Edinburgh is a leader in computer science and informatics, while Heriot-Watt University’s Discovery and Innovation Centre focuses on computer science and technology.

They’re producing a steady flow of graduates, along with cutting-edge research, to help boost the tech sector above the £1 billion mark as of 2017. The presence of CodeBase, the UK’s largest tech incubator, and CivTech, an initiative helping start-ups engage with, and solve, public sector challenges, are also playing their part.

Investors, too, are taking note: Edinburgh received more high-tech foreign direct investment than any other UK city between 2015 and 2018, according to JLL.

Find the right space

Tech now accounts for a third of office take-up in the city and Edinburgh’s growing digital sector is increasingly looking for workplaces that can compete with anything on offer in London or Manchester to attract and retain the specialists they need.

“It’s all to do with the need to attract highly skilled tech workers so firms want to be based in accessible locations near the university in vibrant communities where their staff can have easy access to high-quality amenities such as gyms and cafes,” says Watson.

Developments like Haymarket, for example, offer a mix of high-end office space in Edinburgh, complete with retail outlets and cafes.

However, the nature of Edinburgh’s historic core means redevelopment is restricted and space is in high demand for many different uses, from offices to hotels and leisure. As developers can’t build upwards to create more office and residential towers, some are choosing to move outwards.

“I don’t think the city centre skyline will change too much because of the restrictions in place, but it’s the edges of the city that will see real change,” says Watson.

“These developments aren’t really about height, but what’s new is that offices are being built alongside homes and amenities to create 24-hour sustainable communities in the suburbs.” 

Parabola’s new urban quarter at Edinburgh Park is a mixed-use development helping to reimagine the city’s suburbs. Here new offices, leisure, civic square and public spaces, are being built alongside 1,800 homes, including affordable and family housing and it’s located near the city’s tram network, as is the planned waterfront park, offering 1,600 homes, a boardwalk and extensive parkland.

Affordable housing is a key issue for the city, with many of Edinburgh’s young professionals priced-out of the expensive city centre. Edinburgh Council and housing associations have committed investment to build 20,000 new affordable and low cost ownership homes over ten years.

“Edinburgh is a vibrant and dynamic capital city. The quality of life is second to none, with a wide range of amenities and beautiful green spaces,” says Jason Hogg, JLL UK Director Residential.

“Property prices are set to grow by circa 16.5% over the next five years. Demand for accommodation is currently outstripping supply, which is putting pressure on house prices within the city,” he adds.

Creating lifestyle choices

Yet with high levels of competition for well-paid tech specialists, there’s also a market for higher-end apartments offering the lifestyle amenities akin to those in other big European cities. 

The £850 million Edinburgh St James redevelopment of a former 1970s shopping centre which is currently taking shape will bring new prime apartments to the city along with an array of retail and entertainment options. It will also add a 5* W Hotel into the mix to further enhance its appeal for business travellers.

Such urban developments are necessary if Edinburgh is to be able to attract the talent, the established companies and the investment it needs to ensure its tech and innovative industries prosper.

“The reality is that there’s low unemployment in Edinburgh, especially in the tech sector, so companies are competing hard for the best talent,” says Watson. “If they can’t find the workforce they need, they will look elsewhere.”