A brief history of cryptography and codes

Matthew Jayes from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics reports on a recent conference on the history of mathematics, looking at the evolution of cryptography and the future of ground-breaking ideas.

On the sunny Saturday of 19 May 2018, London was a very special place to be – Chelsea FC defeated Manchester United FC in the FA Cup Final at Wembley; Saracens beat rival Wasps in a high-octane encounter before home fans in Barnet to qualify for Rugby Union’s Aviva Premiership Final; and there was the matter of royal matrimony in Windsor. At Birkbeck, the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics and the British Society for the History of Mathematics (BSHM) celebrated the 70th anniversary of Claude Shannon’s 1948 publication of his influential paper, ‘A Mathematical Theory for Communication’ at the annual History of Maths conference. The event featured six speakers, including Sir John Dermot Turing, nephew of Alan Turing, who took the audience on a journey from early cryptography to the present day, and into the future!

Dr Elizabeth Quaglia, Lecturer in Information Systems at Royal Holloway, University of London, opened the presentations with a journey through classical cryptography and the art of secrecy. The word “cryptography” is derived from the Greek words kryptos (hidden; secret) and graphein (writing; studying). Quaglia suggested that secret writing is arguably as old as written language itself, and early forms are to be found on Babylonian tablets dating back to 2500 BC. Today, cryptography is a science that involves a blend of mathematics, statistics, computer science and engineering; however, things were not always so complex. Early examples of concealing information (steganography) were chronicled by Herodotus (around 484 – 425 BC). In 499 BC, Histiaeus commanded a man to shave his head, after which he wrote a message on his scalp and waited for the hair to grow back to conceal the message. Demaratus removed the wax from a writing tablet to score a message directly into the surface and then covered it up with fresh wax. Steganography is still practised somewhat – in fact, Oliver Stone portrayed the hiding and transportation of classified information under a Rubik’s cube tile in his 2016 film based on the story of Edward Snowden.

Information has been hidden and smuggled, discovered or not, throughout the history of civilisations. Encryption, therefore, was developed in order to change the information to something that could only be understood by the sender and the intended receiver. The role of the unintended receiver, or eavesdropper, has been to make sense of this code through decryption. Various systems have been used, from the Spartan scytale to Caesar’s Cipher, which was a substitution algorithm involving a shift of letters three positions along. For example, ‘BIRKBECK’ may become ELUNEHFN moving forward or YFOHYBZH moving backwards. You may already notice that the security of this type of cipher is rather weak since there are only 25 code keys, which is the number of places one can shift along the alphabet to substitute, and one defunct key (the zero shift, which would render plain text). Given a relatively short period of time, the eavesdropper could try these keys and break the code easily.

It was soon discovered that to make the trial of keys by an eavesdropper too time-consuming to be practical, it is crucial for the key space to be large. The substitution cipher solved this problem by introducing the technique whereby each letter of the alphabet had a different alphabetic permutation – imagine mapping the alphabet to another alphabet sequenced entirely at random – rendering the number of keys to be 26! (factorial) or 4 x 1026. This method became ubiquitous and Quaglia provided a number of historic cases, including Mary, Queen of Scots’ exchange with her co-conspirators in the Babington Plot.

As with much innovation and discovery, the decryption method for this technique began with academics. In this case, Koranic scholars – notably  Al-Kindi – were using a technique to date words by looking at the frequency with which they appeared within the text (a practice still used, for example, in Google Books Ngram Viewer). Cryptanalysts (eavesdroppers) learned they could apply this method to consider the frequency of letters or words, especially popular letters and significant words such as the names of leaders or places, within a language (example of the frequency of letter use in the English language by Cornell Maths).

Quaglia highlighted that the Babington Plot was foiled through frequency analysis. This technique works well on monoalphabetic ciphers, even those using a large key set through substitution; so, the next step to deceive eavesdroppers was to introduce polyalphabetic ciphers credited to Leon Battista Alberti in the 15th century. This method used more than one permutation for each letter of the alphabet, and letters used most frequently were given the most permutations to try and hide linguistic effects previously discovered by frequency analysis. Blaise de Vigenère added keywords to this method, where popular or regularly-used words were codified using a single symbol to represent the whole word, creating le chiffre indéchiffrable (later known as the Vigenère cipher).

The Vigenère cipher held strong for roughly three centuries until it was finally beaten by the Englishman Charles Babbage, although he kept the solution secret. Quaglia described how one might break this cipher, first by identifying the length of the keyword using the Kasiski method and then determining the keyword using the faithful frequency analysis. Quaglia acknowledged there are many other ciphers to discuss and discover, but to keep to time, suggested that there are still many mysteries and unbroken secrets to discover in history through the study of codes and ciphers.

Klaus Schmeh accepted this baton and provided a thorough account of the types of challenges one might face when looking at cryptograms (defined as an encrypted text from the point of view of someone who wishes to break the code – the eavesdropper), especially those dating from around 1400 – 1970. These cryptograms are often still complex and require time and effort, especially as they are pre-computer age and one can encounter difficulties with the quality of the plaintext itself. Think of a damaged or stained document in an earlier form of modern language or using obsolete abbreviations. Schmeh clarified the concept of nomenclators – coding entire words rather than one letter at a time. He then described the complexity and impracticality of early codebooks, like a dictionary with specific code symbols for each word. The audience was also given a robust overview of Enigma, with a key space of around 276 keys.

Schmeh provides many wonderful examples of historic ciphers and codes through his blog and has blogged about this event too (Why this crypto history conference in London was better than the royal wedding). For cryptography enthusiasts, Schmeh highlighted the Kryptos artwork at CIA headquarters, the fourth and final section of which still requires breaking.

The last of the morning’s speakers was Sir John Dermot Turing, who discussed the combined effort required by codebreakers at Bletchley Park and beyond. Turing argued that the contributions of some linguists, mathematicians, and engineers working on cryptography during World War 2 has been sadly under-celebrated. Choosing to use his platform to rectify this, Turing provided a warm and thorough account of the codebreakers Knox, Tiltman, Welchman, and Clarke. Joan Clarke was a pioneering cryptanalyst, a role reserved for men at the time, and was asked to apply for the role of linguist, then deemed to be the most suitable equivalent role and pay grade available for women. Turing went on to highlight the work of Marian Rejewski, who remarkably reverse-engineered one of the most complex machines of the day without ever having seen one. Rejewski had been studying permutation in group theory and dedicated himself to finding the wiring for the rotors of the Enigma machine, which once successful afforded the technique to manufacture a machine (Bomba) to discover the daily settings in use by Enigma. This information was passed to the Allies in July 1939, prior to the German invasion of Poland and war being declared in September 1939.

Alan Turing was able to combine the knowledge generated by Rejewski and his Polish colleagues with Knox’s cribbing methods to build the prototype bombe machine, which took around ten and a half minutes to run through all 17,000+ permutations of the Enigma set-up. While this was impressive, Sir John Dermot Turing suggested that the value of the intelligence resulting from Enigma decryptions was relatively low. Instead, it was the Lorenz cipher machine used by the Nazi German High Command that yielded the highest value intelligence – the decryption of which was developed by Tiltman, Tutte and Flowers (for more, see Colossus by Jack Copeland). Turing used the rest of his presentation to discuss and dispel some myths surrounding Bletchley Park, and he answered audience questions, including one from a gentleman who studied under Max Newman in Manchester.

At this point, I should admit that my personal journey in mathematics ended after a below-average grade in AS Level Decision Maths back in 2001. Thus, when Professor János Körner from Sapienza University of Rome delved into the history of Claude Shannon’s work on information theory, I feared the complexity would be beyond my grasp. It is testament to Körner’s delivery and the diagrammatical nature of Shannon’s work – criticised at the time in peer review – that the concepts were accessible to a layperson like myself (for more see Waldrop in MIT Technology Review, 2001). Körner hinted at the management of creativity at Bell Laboratories – Shannon was often found juggling and riding a unicycle in parallel – and the benefits of interdisciplinary research. As a communications professional, I also found the concept of noise in a channel rather interesting in relation to spoken interpersonal communication. However, for the stronger mathematicians in the audience, Körner embarked on a journey through the unsolved zero error capacity issue, work by Lóvasz, the Berge conjecture on perfect graphs and its eventual proof by Chudnovsky, Robertson, Seymour and Thomas in 2006.

The political nature of cryptography and its history was discussed further by Professor Keith Martin, also at Royal Holloway, University of London, as he wove through the 20th century to contemporary issues and beyond. Focusing on the development of standards, first the Data Encryption Standard (DES) then later the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), Martin provided a bold narrative of the conflict around regulation from trade controls of cryptographic hardware to the modern dilemmas faced as cryptography has become more fluid as software. Citing Snowden as an interesting example, Martin argued that the cryptography context has become so ubiquitous, large, and complex that it is now incredibly difficult for individuals to fully grasp the entirety of global information systems and their security. Therefore, today’s eavesdropper is just as likely to be looking for points of vulnerability within the entire system, rather than just decryption per se. Martin concluded that the ethics of cryptanalysis (who performs it and why) will continue to be relevant for years to come, as will cryptography in relation to the Cloud, the Internet of Things (including human-embedded technologies), and Quantum Computing. On this latter topic, Martin suggested that he was looking forward to discussing the cryptography community’s response at future history of mathematics conferences.

The speakers had provided rich context on the history of cryptography and codes, from the political to the technical, and discussion of secrecy in its many related forms; so when Clifford Cocks CB, FRS delivered the final presentation on his discovery of Public Key Cryptography in secret at GCHQ, later discovered in parallel by Diffie, Hellman, and Merkle, the audience was very well aware of just how important this breakthrough was (for more, see Levy in Wired).

The encryption methods by Cocks – and later Rivest, Shamir and Adleman (RSA) – are metaphorically similar to padlock-and-key security systems, although delivered through beautiful mathematics.

What I enjoy most when hearing directly from those responsible for major breakthroughs is the humble sense of human accomplishment and pride they have in their work. Cocks was no exception to this, clearly proud of his accomplishments and the successes of his colleagues, while considering them within the broader context of human knowledge discovery (see also films such as Particle Fever and AlphaGo). This prompts us to ask: who do we celebrate, how and why? Studying the history of mathematics, science and scholarship, in general, affords the opportunity to learn about the individuals and groups who achieved great things, whether or not they were acknowledged at the time. It allows us to look at the social constructs and infrastructures in place at the time – for example during times of war – helping us to question the kind of environment we make available to encourage further discoveries.

For this reason, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the British Society for the History of Mathematics (BSHM) and the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics at Birkbeck for organising this insightful and accessible conference. On behalf of the audience, I extend gratitude to the speakers and the organiser, Professor Sarah Hart.

To attend upcoming BSHM events, including ‘Mathematics in War and Peace’, Wednesday 24 October 2018, please visit the website for more information.

Birkbeck offers courses in mathematics and history.

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Global labour and the UK: On Brexit, migration, creativity, and talent

Matthew Jayes from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics discusses a recent event from the Department of Management looking at global labour and the effects of internationalism and immigration in the workplace.

L-R: Professor Michael Mainelli, James Sproule, Professor Jonathan Portes, Dr Paz Estrella Tolentino, Dr Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick, Douglas McWilliams, Derek Bates

Birkbeck’s Department of Management hosted the second annual International Business Seminar in partnership with the Worshipful Company of World Traders on Wednesday 16 May 2018. The seminar featured speakers from academia and industry, including Chair of the event, Michael Mainelli, Executive Chairman of Z/Yen Group and Master of the Worshipful Company of World Traders. The audience ranged from Birkbeck staff, students and alumni, World Traders, policy-makers, and business representatives.

The evening opened with presentations from two renowned academics who discussed their own research related to the themes of Brexit, migration, identity and talent. Jonathan Portes, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at King’s College, London, began by summarising the current policy context surrounding the UK’s imminent withdrawal from European Union (EU). Portes, whose father migrated to the UK from the United States to join Birkbeck’s then newly-established Economics department as joint-Chair, highlighted official statistics indicating the decline in numbers of EU citizens migrating to the UK since the referendum result. In advance of the latest quarterly official migration statistics, Portes suggested he did not expect to see a significant reversal of this trend. For those who might endorse the Conservative and Unionist Party manifesto pledge to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” and therefore see these statistics as ‘a move in the right direction’, Portes highlighted the concern amongst businesses of access to talent and skills. Indeed, reflecting on the Chair’s opening remarks about the number of non-British EU nationals currently employed in the UK working in the Financial Technology (FinTech) sector and drawing from examples of Higher Education and Healthcare, Portes suggested this trend should be a cause for concern.

The Migration Advisory Committee was commissioned to report on the economic impact of immigration and future implications for policy, with findings due in September 2018. This report is expected to provide the evidence base for policy and debate, although amid rumours of an immigration white paper possibly being brought forward to July 2018, Portes called for a commitment to evidence-based policymaking. In 2019 then, should the UK expect an Immigration Bill to confirm the system to be adopted once its membership of the EU has ended? For Portes, this system might be similar to the one for non-EEA nationals, although there are still open questions. For example, will there be a preferential system for EU nationals (or specific EU member states)? Will there be sector-specific or regional differences? Portes suggested that there is fundamentally a division between those who would like to see a liberal system and those who wish to see greater restrictions, noting that this division is not a ‘remainer-leaver’ issue. Ending his presentation with a hint of optimism, Portes concluded that the immigration policy area is ripe for renewal and improvement, saying “there is an opportunity here if we can take it.”

Dr Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick, Senior Lecturer in Management at Birkbeck, responded by providing a robust summary of the Trade Union response to global migration. Drawing from a selection of Portes’ published articles, her own research, and other leading voices in this field, Gumbrell-McCormick looked at broader global migration patterns and associated causes of tension. Global labour migration reacts to push and pull factors, notably the continued divergence between wages and working conditions. Focusing on the difference between Northwestern Europe and Central Eastern Europe, Gumbrell-McCormick asserted that businesses have created a demand for low wage labour deliberately through their business models. Such demand is serviceable only when there are limited or no alternatives for workers in their locale. According to Gumbrell-McCormick, the UK trade union response has demonstrated solidarity with global workers, highlighting the need for fair movement from an early stage in the debate. However, there are still concerns remaining, for example, trade unions are fighting the abuse of self-employment status by foreign workers – but also by British workers too.

The European trade union response to global migration has been more varied, with Gumbrell-McCormick highlighting the differing response to free movement from German and Austrian trade unions. One area felt to be consistent across trade unions in the UK and European counterparts was the willingness to work together with foreign worker communities, providing information, support and solidarity on matters of rights being upheld. Gumbrell-McCormick suggested that the UK trade union position on migration and free movement is largely similar to the business position, highlighting the need for trade unions to play a role of critical friend to prevent any reduction in the quality of worker rights.

First to respond to the presentations was Douglas McWilliams, Deputy Chairman, Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), stating “migration is an amazingly creative but disruptive force.” For McWilliams, the UK needs the boost to creativity and dynamism afforded by those who choose to relocate for better opportunities. Indeed, for him, the UK cannot afford to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands through restricting inward movement. McWilliams challenged the audience to ponder how the impact of migration can be measured in relation to dynamism rather than net tax contributions, since he expects the former would prove much more valuable. This theme ran throughout the discussion in various forms; for example, the audience was asked by James Sproule, Member, European Advisory at L.E.K Consulting, to consider how a state might reliably measure creativity, grit, ambition, dynamism and entrepreneurialism in individuals accurately through a visa application process. The panel’s industry representatives were clear these types of attributes are those required for the future success of productivity and the UK economy.

Other themes emerged throughout the panel discussion and audience questions, the first of which asked what new steps businesses should be taking to attract and retain talent. Gumbrell-McCormick cited Birkbeck as an example of good practice, liaising with the organisation’s trade union and providing ongoing information and support for EU nationals. McWilliams suggested that the focus for business should be on providing good work, ensuring jobs are interesting and rewarding. Significantly, a lowered voice from the back of the lecture theatre could be heard to muse “Berlin has interesting jobs too.”

Professor Michael Mainelli chairs the panel discussion

As an employee of Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics, as well as a 2016 alumnus of the MSc Creative Industries (Management), I could not help but reflect on my personal experiences. I am also a member of the Work and Employment Policy Advisory Committee at the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI). The LCCI published a report in November 2016, ‘Permits, Points and Visas’, prepared by McWilliams’ CEBR, which outlined a number of recommendations from the London business community following the outcome of the referendum. The panellists suggested that the context has shifted and relaxed since the report; however, the needs of the capital should not be underestimated. Portes indicated that it is highly likely controls on migrant labour will be focused not at national borders but at the workplace, with landlords and public service providers. Whilst the concept of a distributed system could be argued as more democratic than a highly centralised system, certainly concerns of small businesses around resource capacity should be considered.

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), produced ‘Good Work’, an independent review of modern working practices. The relationship between good work, good living standards, and talent requires further research, especially when considering business competition for global talent. Whilst the current immigration policy context may be focused on restrictions, the speakers sounded a word of warning that the UK may not receive the desired quantity of visa applications from those it wishes to attract if there are too many restrictions in place.

For me, this also raises questions about the nature of talent and skills development. Beyond the aforementioned concern of how an administrative process may accurately measure desirable individual qualities, there appears to be the issue of temporality and lived experiences. For example, how many successful businesses emerge from chance encounters or from identifying a niche in a market one has been working in for some time (perhaps in a low-skilled role)? My experience of working on the development of Enterprise Pathways at Birkbeck allowed me to interact with many wonderful, dynamic Birkbeck students, many of whom are aiming to change careers entirely. Thus, whilst government austerity was discussed on the evening, surely the current debate around talent and migration must focus on how the UK can better develop its capacity to support citizens and migrant communities, both of which are rich sources of innovation and creativity.

The final audience question of the evening was posed by a student of business, economics and computer information systems at Georgia State University, currently undertaking an internship in London. Questioning the relationship between creativity and migration, the panel responded with their thoughts and, for some, their own experiences as migrants. McWilliams was resolute in his assertion that “changes to one’s environment and increased exposure to, or integration with, greater diversity certainly leads to better creativity.”

Portes reinforced this belief, asserting that “diversity makes us collectively better.” Certainly, this is a belief strongly held at Birkbeck and is manifest in our widening access and outreach activities, and demonstrated by our pioneering Compass Project which enables asylum seekers to have access to higher education, recognised with a major prize at the Guardian University Awards 2018.

This International Business seminar series is an important addition to the ever-present polite public debate at Birkbeck, and on behalf of staff, students and alumni, I would like to extend my gratitude to the Worshipful Company of World Traders for their ongoing support. If you are interested in attending future events at Birkbeck, please visit the events calendar.

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Driving innovation in the UK through collaboration and the Industrial Strategy

Yossie Olaleye from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics reports on a recent conference at the Birkbeck Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR) on the UK’s Industrial Strategy.

Innovation and technological advancement lie at the heart of industrialisation. In November 2017, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) published the UK government’s Industrial Strategy White Paper, which presents a ‘modern’ long-term plan to boost productivity across the country through innovation, infrastructure development, and collaboration. The Industrial Strategy focuses on the 5 foundations of productivity – ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment, and places – and the government hopes to encourage collaboration with industry, academia, and civil society to create an economy that works for everyone.

Various questions emerged from the debate around the white paper, including how the government will support science and innovation research, and how to drive growth and local inclusion across the country. These questions formed the basis of the all-day workshop on Innovation and the UK’s Industrial Strategy hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR) on 23 March 2018. The event brought together a group of policymakers, including Paul Drabwell, Deputy Director of Science Research & Innovation and Dr Rosa Fernandez, Economic Adviser on Local Business Growth at BEIS, industry experts such as Professor Birgitte Andersen, CEO of Big Innovation Centre, and renowned UK academics who travelled from Kent, Oxford and Sheffield to share their latest research and comparative perspectives on the Industrial Strategy.

The objective of the workshop was to explore the trends that led to the formulation of the Industrial Strategy, and the possible outcomes of implementing the Grand Challenges outlined in the white paper, focusing on innovation, collaboration, and local partnerships. While the workshop dealt with several topics, including the impact of Brexit on achieving the strategy’s outcomes, presented by Birkbeck’s Professor Klaus Nielsen, two key themes stood out: local, regional and national engagement to deliver on economic opportunities, and driving innovation through digital skills development.

Paul Drabwell opened the workshop by emphasising the government’s commitment to increase R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. He said that the UK “has world-leading science research, excellent universities, and innovative companies,” and it is these strengths that will drive the implementation of the strategy. Increased R&D funding will enable UK universities to continue to excel in international league tables, collaborate more with industry partners, and encourage innovation across the country, a theme which runs throughout the Industrial Strategy. Despite the UK’s strengths, Paul Drabwell noted that there are issues around local engagement in the country, which means that there is a crucial need to drive productivity and maintain a high level of employment. This is a challenge the government hopes to resolve through the £1.7 billion Transforming Cities Fund to improve intra-city transport links and promote local growth within city regions. Dr Rosa Fernandez expanded on this point with a presentation on the role of place in the Industrial Strategy, highlighting that the UK government intends to build on local strengths to tackle the issue of poor distribution of economic activity across the country.

A key question at the workshop was the role of research and the UK’s academic institutions in delivering the possible outcomes of the Industrial Strategy. We heard from Dr Keith Smith at Imperial College London who discussed the need for multinational collaboration to deal with innovation challenges across different industries, and Birkbeck’s Professor Helen Lawton Smith who presented research on the importance of local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) in addressing the challenge of regional inequality in the country. Professor Jeremy Howells from the University of Kent and Professor Tim Vorley from the University of Sheffield focused their presentations on the potential for business schools to convene and work with other social science schools to create solutions for the challenges of productivity and job creation discussed in the white paper.

The takeaway from this workshop was that collaboration – from government, industry, universities, and local communities – is essential if we are to achieve the ambitious objectives of the Industrial Strategy, as well as greater investment in research and innovation to support skills development.

One notable example of such collaboration is the Institute of Coding (IoC), which was announced by Prime Minister Theresa May at the World Economic Forum 2018. Birkbeck is a partner in a consortium of over 60 universities, businesses such as IBM and Microsoft, and professional bodies, to tackle the digital skills gap in the UK through the IoC. By bringing together such diverse perspectives, the CIMR workshop stimulated debate and provided useful suggestions for how academics can work effectively with business leaders and the government to drive innovation in the UK through research collaboration and meaningful partnerships.

Many thanks to all who participated and attended the workshop.

Organisers: Professor Helen Lawton Smith, Professor Klaus Nielsen, Professor Jeremy Howells, and Dr Rupert Waters.

Further speakers:

  • Professor Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen, State University of New York
  • Professor Åsa Lindholm Dahlstrand, Lund University
  • Dr Alexander Grous, London School of Economics and Political Science
  • Dr Carl Hunter, CEO & Managing Director, Coltraco Ultrasonics Limited
  • Professor Ewart Keep, SKOPE, Oxford University Skills
  • Professor Slavo Radosevic, University College London
  • Professor Roy Sandbach, Northumbria University

Further information:


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Birkbeck’s day out with the London Venture Crawl

Jenna Davies leads the extracurricular Enterprise activities at Birkbeck and recently took a group of students on the London Venture Crawl, an event aimed at connecting them with businesses and experts.

Wednesday 14 March saw a group of entrepreneurial students from Birkbeck join an event that was unlike any other; six double-decker buses, nine London Universities and over 200 students made up the London Venture Crawl and celebrated everything the city offers to budding entrepreneurs.

Birkbeck teamed up with University of the Arts and the University of East London and transported students to a range of enterprising spaces around the capital to inspire them to pursue their start-up ventures, meet successful entrepreneurs along the way and ultimately check out a snapshot of what London offers on the start-up scene.

The day started bright and early with students ready for the first stop of the day at Campus London, a Google space in Shoreditch. Hearing from Creative Entrepreneurs, an innovative community of creative individuals, the group woke up and boarded the double decker bus that was to be their mode of transport for the day.

On board, they were greeted by serial social entrepreneur Benjamin Western, Co-Founder of Gaggle and indiGO Volunteers to pump them up for the rest of the journey.

The second stop was at Amazon Fashion, catering nicely for the group as they got an insight into the impressive warehouse where all of Amazon’s fashion items go for checking, photographing and packing. A panel discussion with the top operators gave a glimpse into life at the leading online retailer.

Third stop of the day took the group to Grant Thornton, after hearing from their Head of Growth Finance, Sarah Abrahams. Lunch was served and the students met Crate Brewery Founder Tom Seaton who shared his story starting up Hackney’s well-known venue.

The venture continued on to Hello Fresh, the extremely impressive and relatively new organisation that saw its revenues grow from €2.3m in 2012 to €304m in 2015 – here the students met some of the key players at their London hub and toured the quirky space.

The penultimate stop for the group was Innovation Warehouse, a co-working space and community for digital high-growth start-ups. The students were able to hear from the founder Ami Shpiro along with some of the entrepreneurs within the community.

The final stop brought all six buses together where students from across the nine universities to could network over a pizza and beverage while hearing from the inspiring Lawrence Kemball-Cook, founder and CEO of Pavegen, as well as take part in the cross-bus pitching competition. Birkbeck stormed through to the final, with Business Innovation student Bobette Kenge rounding off the day on a high and ending what was an extremely eventful, inspiring event for everyone involved.

Birkbeck Business & French student Jennifer said: “The Plexal building was fantastic, the talk at Grant Thornton with the Founder of Crate Brewery was great and gave an insight into the different types of investments, investors and how it all works, and Amazon Fashion was heaven to me! I would love to come to a similar event again and meet more people.”

This was an incredible opportunity for our students to network with a huge range of fellow London students, plus receive invaluable advice from the speakers throughout the day. The energetic atmosphere lasted right to the end of the day and was fantastic to see.

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