Brighton, the UK’s digital hub?

Not too many people recognise it as one of the nation’s most important digital hubs. New research has shown that 1 in 4 businesses in Brighton are part of the creative and digital cluster, and its creative industry economy is now estimated to be worth £1 billion, up from £713 million in 2013. Brighton Digital Festival (BDF) is an annual creative industry and arts festival, which plays a key role in incorporating the local social and community elements with the business side of things. Jon Pratty, Chair of BDF shares his insights with Your Ready Business on why Brighton might be the UK’s San Francisco.

What makes Brighton a great place to be a digital business?

Don’t take it just from me: the Brighton Fuse Report (2013) looked into the digital sector and asked hundreds of different companies why they chose to come to Brighton. One of the major findings of the report was that it was because of the place. It’s kind of a UK version of San Francisco. It’s hip, it’s a beautiful environment and it’s also got two very good and well established universities. Brighton’s got a very well established digital sector; back in the early 00’s Britain’s first multi-media museum interactive called My Brighton was built here. Even further back, in the 80’s, the early tech (CD-ROM) companies, also came and established themselves here. So the reason why companies come here is because of the place, the culture, the environment and the digital history behind it.

What are the challenges a business would face when setting up in Brighton compared to other cities?

Brighton does have its challenges, but it has advantages over places like London as well. What’s great about the region is access to young people, access to working space and the environment. The disadvantages are the difficulty in recruiting and retaining talent, which the FUSE Report acknowkedges. A lot of companies in city are start-ups, (Brighton has the fourth largest community of start-ups in the country) and they can’t recruit fast enough to keep themselves growing and competing. There’s just not enough access to talent and new blood.

What do you think businesses in Brighton could do to get around this challenge?

What we, as Brighton Digital Festival, hope to do is work out how we can increase the number of young people who are trained to work in the digital and tech sectors. We need to be able to spot the potential young talent and create a progression path for their careers, through universities and schools, as well as create apprenticeship schemes. It is vital that someone takes the initiative to make sure the talent programmes are in place, because it certainly isn’t present at the moment.

How do you think Brighton performs in terms of critical enablers of business, like infrastructure, access to investment, access to the right skills?

Brighton is doing quite well in encouraging companies to come down and set up here. If we’re talking about infrastructure, the city has one of three Digital Catapults outside London, partnered with the University of Brighton, so there’s a lot of thinking and expertise going into broadband and IT connectivity. Another great Digital Catapult project is called the Brighton Digital Exchange, which is about bringing together a group of people who are looking for ways to combine connectivity across the city.

What’s the local tech business community like in Brighton?

There’s a very long established network within the city, Wired Sussex, which goes back many years. There are people who have been involved with the tech community for all of that time and it’s amazing how long they’ve been a part of it. And also there’s a long established socially-centred digital community which started in the early 1990s when Sussex Community Internet Programme was founded. The grass roots tech communities form a very important part of Brighton Digital Festival every year. Part of the funding for Brighton Digital Festival comes from Arts Council of England, but this year we’ve generated over £115,000 in sponsorship, including monies from EDF energy and of course, Vodafone. This means that a large part of the BDF is developed by the community themselves. The Festival could not happen every year without the digital community of Brighton supporting us.

What kind of local digital specialisation does Brighton have?

Five years ago we saw loads of businesses in the city in game design. Two or three years later we had quite a lot of digital companies starting up in the FinTech sector. And of course, now we see a rise of companies working with Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies. VR is obviously everywhere now but it’s particularly big in Brighton. It’s not just about games, it’s about how businesses can use the technology to showcase their products and services in new and innovative ways.

What is your aspiration for Brighton’s digital business community in the future (next 5-10 years)?

I’d like to see it diversifying much more away from just business focused to be a much more socially focused digital community. We talk a lot about smart cities but we don’t really talk about smart communities. I hope BDF will one day become a festival that everyone in the city, including  all the creative communities, can really feel a part of.

Tell us more about Brighton Digital Festival.

Brighton Digital Festival is a celebration of digital culture that takes place across Brighton and Hove. Every year we’ve had tremendous turnout but last year was massive, as we had 192 events during the month of September, at 110 venues across the city with an audience of about 150,000.  The Waiting Wall, was  a fantastic digital art commission showing at Brighton Station, where people texted in personal questions and statements which went up on the giant advertising display board, and got exposure to tens of thousands of people. We also commissioned very high-end international digital works of art and activities that attracted the attention of businesses and people within the creative, technology and digital sectors.

We developed a Masterclass programme working with The Royal Institution of Great Britain, bringing together the brightest young people from schools across the city who have the potential to be the next generation of digital entrepreneurs. These young people were nominated by teachers and the programme aimed to encourage them to pursue and develop a career in the digital sector.

Find out more about the Brighton Digital Festival here.