Barnsley at the URBACT City Festival in Lisbon – post by Tracey Johnson

It was a privilege to represent Barnsley and the Digital Media Centre at the URBACT event in Lisbon last week. URBACT brought together over 500 people from cities in over 30 countries to share the findings of Action Planning Networks that have explored a range of challenges our cities face through transnational exchange and learning, capacity building in the local teams and local groups, as well as trialing new approaches and ideas. I was involved in developing and delivering two workshops as well as being invited to share our Barnsley story with the whole conference.

So what does this mean for Barnsley? Why were we there? Well, we’ve led one of these networks!

TechTown is a partnership of 11 cities from across Europe all of whom acknowledged the challenge of ensuring there was the right environment for more digital jobs and businesses in their city. You can see a map of our partnership below:


It’s been a busy three years since we started on the URBACT TechTown journey. The project kicked off at the same time as we took on the Digital Media Centre and the two things have worked in parallel with plenty of crossover thanks to an enthusiastic and committed group of local and regional stakeholders from the public, private and education sectors. It’s been a sharp learning curve for me and everyone else I think it’s safe to say! We’ve had expert support along the way from our URBACT Lead Expert Alison Partridge who is also responsible for some amazing tech sector projects at Capital Enterprise in London. The whole URBACT team (based in Paris and beyond) has also been a massive support network of expertise and advice. This invisible layer of support that Barnsley has had is an important component of the work we do in the Digital Media Centre. I’m not going to suggest we are quite a gliding swan in Barnsley – perhaps more a particularly splashy Yorkshire Terrier doing the doggy paddle –  but the folks from URBACT are definitely some of the many legs frantically flapping underneath the water to keep us moving forward.

For Barnsley, TechTown has helped us hugely with our ‘learn by doing’ approach to supporting the growth of a more digital community within the Digital Media Centre and beyond. We’ve been able to get a range of our people involved in international meetings and study visits, as well as engaged at a local level. As anyone who has been involved in one of these experiences will tell you, this is definitely not an easy or straightforward experience! Our transnational work can be really intense and, as we’ve been operating in an environment that’s right at the forefront of economic development policy, there’s a huge amount to learn and a need to constantly adapt to changing trends. You find out more about all of this through our TechTown Digital Toolkit.

What’s kept everything together is very much the local group who’ve committed their time, energy and knowledge into meetings, particularly over the last 15 months when we’ve taken a very open and dynamic approach to share our knowledge and applying it to the challenge of how we keep growing our digital and creative jobs and businesses in Barnsley. Our ‘cat herder in chief’ Ceri Batchelder has facilitated a process that’s resulted in a brave move towards a collaborative, co-created Digital Campus that is at the core of our TechTown Action Plan.

We’re moving into a new URBACT programme now; a Transfer Network called TechRevolution that will see some of our Barnsley experiences shared with new partners from a range of cities all trying to develop and support tech sector growth. For us it’s an opportunity to continue to check and challenge what we do locally with a strong peer group and keep developing and evolving our collaborative approach as we deliver our Digital Campus.

Locally we’ve also led the development of a new platform, with our Lead Expert Alison Partridge, for anyone who is trying to enable tech sector growth anywhere in Europe. www.techplace.online shares a range of case studies, stories and best practices from across Europe and connects to a slack.com based network of people in this space that we hope will be a real open source approach to ecosystem development. The website has been developed locally by Genius Division with contributions from a range of URBACT experts including Ceri Batchelder, Bela Kezy, Ian Graham, Daniela Patti and Jim Sims with support from Laura Bennett.

I’m excited about what happens next for Barnsley. It’s definitely going to be more hard work, it’s going to be messy and possibly imperfect, but it will be collaborative and open. The Digital Media Centre sits at the heart of this – not as a building, but as a growing community. There’s a real coming together of Council and sector-led activity, and true collaboration with education partners. We will probably all argue and fight, and moan about each other, but we will also work together across all these different moving parts to try and deliver the best Digital Campus we can. That’s collaboration – it’s messy, it’s frustrating but it’s also exciting, energising and the only way to make a difference.

That’s what URBACT is helping us to do, and it was great to share with all those people in Lisbon how it’s making a real impact on the ground through investment in programmes like IoT Tribe and the creation of a DMC#2. Stay tuned to find out more over the next few weeks!