Posted on 11/09/18 by Matthew Snowden in

Tech Town blog4 – Thinking Beyond the BuildingTransnational Meeting Barnsley March 2017 V1

When the Tech Town Cities come together, they always do so with ambitious aims for the event and the transnational meeting in Barnsley was no exception. The theme this time was, ‘what medium-sized cities can do to create and curate spaces and places for the digital community’. This theme definitely gave everyone the chance to think ‘beyond the building’, which led to some very productive discussions.

We already know that physical space is just one aspect of what digital entrepreneurs and businesses need, but this time, we examined what that means in more detail.

With eleven TechTown cities, there is obviously a huge variety in terms of what ‘spaces and places’ means.  That said, with only one or two exceptions, all TechTown cities are either considering or already providing spaces in which the digital community can congregate and do business. They range from incubators and accelerators to maker and co-worker spaces, or even just communities of people using available hot-desks.

The physical spaces are diverse; some are shiny and new with all mod-cons, others have come together more organically, created by the community for the community.

The majority have been developed using support and investment from the public sector and bring differing levels of ROI. While several of the specifically-created spaces cover their costs, only a few make a profit; these are mainly located in our medium-sized cities.

The Digital Media Centre

It seemed appropriate for everyone to be coming together in Barnsley, given that the Digital Media Centre (DMC), led by Tracey Johnson had recently been recognised with a national award for business transformation.

The DMC is the hub of creative and digital industries in Barnsley, but also of the start-up sector more generally. One aim Tracey has, is for an ‘open aspect’ to anywhere that houses, or incubates businesses in Barnsley. This would mean anyone who needs it, would have easy access to support and expertise in how to grow their business. It combines with a deeper ambition to make Barnsley a start-up environment in itself, rather than just in relation to the buildings that offer that service.

This aim was echoed by representatives from the other cities.

Whilst working within a common theme, multiple differences exist between the culture, heritage, and traditional industries of the TechTown cities. The commonality under which TechTown brings everyone together helps to develop strategies that promote digital entrepreneurship, but using the unique attributes of each town is vital to its individual success.

Towns should not mimic other towns. Building on the individual aspects of a locality helps to create something that truly belongs there and that local people will identify with more readily.

So, whilst cities differ, generally, entrepreneurs and start-ups are similar in terms of need. This is reflected in the offer from TechTown cities, where efforts are made to combine a mix of businesses, with a multidisciplinary approach to stimulate and encourage innovation.  This requires a keen focus on building a community that entrepreneurs can both contribute to and benefit from.

The offer is strengthened by extending it to incorporate business services and financial advice, but there’s also a good opportunity to expand the reach beyond just business, to the community and students, etc. The need for quality add-ons, such as good coffee, is now a recurring theme too!

With speakers bringing a wealth of expertise and valuable experience, additional concepts of what spaces should, or could, look like were introduced.

The use of abandoned spaces is something that cities can consider, as there are, many publicly owned abandoned spaces.

The concept of not defining a space, whether as digital, creative or anything else was put forward as potentially allowing greater opportunities for entrepreneurs. Spaces for an opportunity, rather than for defined activities.

Such spaces were also compared with historical coffee shops, where people would share ideas over a cup of coffee. It does seem strange that we have come full circle, with the same place needed now, but with more laptops than coffee cups.

There’s a distinct difference, between what medium-sized cities can provide, compared with larger cities – and it’s a positive one. The culture within smaller urban areas is more intertwined, with people being more willing to engage with one another. In larger cities, there’s the potential for larger spaces with little, or no, interaction.

Tracey Johnson spoke about her experience of this in London, where she found a lot of people in one room, all locked into laptops and not talking to one another.  A space like that provides the facilities, but the stimulus for collaboration and innovation is missing.

To be successful, the creation and curation of spaces and places for entrepreneurs need a truly holistic approach.  The meeting in Barnsley captured a deeper level of thought and pushed everyone to think ‘beyond the building’. They considered the concept of encouraging digital entrepreneurial activity and business start-up from a broader perspective. This line of examination logically led to the conclusion that spaces do not need to be shiny and new or expensive; they can be grown organically with and by the digital community.

One vital component is high-quality leadership and something the city can facilitate or even drive. They can listen to customers, collect, analyse and react to data and learn from all of this to improve service provision. Cities need to think about where top-down meets bottom-up and place themselves clearly in this area when thinking about spaces for the digital community.

Yes, ultimately, creating the spaces is about getting the right people into a room, but successfully curating them is about understanding the surrounding community and making a concerted effort to be an active part of it.