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Building bridges: Understanding the organisations behind the UK's creative tech clusters

What organisations underpin UK creative tech clusters? How do companies in creative tech clusters interact with other organisations, and how does this shape the cluster? What can government do to better support networks of organisations in UK creative clusters?

These are some of the questions that we looked to explore in this short study. Getting to grips with connections that are embodied in people's interactions, rather than codified in open online connections, or formal collaborations, is difficult. But, by adapting qualitative methods used in social and cultural geography, we start to get a handle on the shape and size of these connections. 

Why creative tech clusters?

We present a summary of our results from the study of three creative tech clusters - Cardiff, Bristol and Media City, Salford. These case studies were initially identified using our research mapping creative clusters. We conceptually map the ways in which bodies, like local government for instance, promote connections with other organisations to drive local growth and incentivise innovation.

This exploratory research may have significant implications for policy makers, particularly in light of government interest in promoting creative cluster development through Industrial Strategy.

By developing an empirical understanding of inter-organisational connections in creative tech clusters, we argue that policy makers can learn lessons from practice in specific places, and experiment with their application in others.

Clearly there should not be a cookie cutter approach to thinking about cluster development. But, building on the strengths and challanges that make a place unique, we can apply good practice to promote inclusive growth. 

A renewed focus on clusters creates important new agendas for local organisations

Cluster thinking suggests that companies have a tangible and important stake in the business environments where they are located. Performance of the business, and indeed the cluster as a whole, is intricately tied into the relationships companies have with one another alongside their links with non-commercial stakeholders.

This shift in focus from national to local ecosystems has been reflected in an emphasis on local policy making, highlighted most noticably with the powers being transferred to cities and regions through Devolution Deals.

Alongside the shift from national to local, we have seen a move in thinking about companies. Historically, companies thinking about competition and strategy have focused on what goes on inside their organisation. But much of the research on clusters suggests that a good deal of competitive advantage lies outside companies. As such, some (like Michael Porter) have suggested that the unit of analysis has changed, from the company to the locations at which they are based.

As such, the health of the cluster is important to the health of the company. This makes sense - in its simplest sense, the more vibrant (economically, socially and culturally) a local area is, the more the area attracts new companies, investment and consumers. Therefore, other organisations, alongside companies, are increasingly important in providing an ecosystem of support to ensure sustainable and resilient economic growth.

A large - and growing - number of organisations representing the needs of companies and individuals are offering access to services like information and funding. Collectively, they form a powerful political and cultural force, and their activity is having an influence on the places they are based.

But to date there has been little work to understand how they interact with each other, government and companies at a local scale. In part, this is due to the difficulty in capturing what these organisations do - so for this research we focus on one aspect - the networks they create.

What did we do to explore this?

We attempted to answer our research questions using semi-structured interview data and secondary data, such as qualitative information, from organisation websites and platforms like Meetup. In contrast to how this web data has been used in other projects, we used it as a tool to identify organisations, and the domain areas that they work in - rather than employing it as quantitative network mapping data.

Sixteen semi structured interviews were used to elicit detailed responses from participants on themes that were relevant to their area of expertise and their role in the cluster. This project used snowball sampling techniques and participants were based in one of three case study clusters.

Case studies

To explore what connections look like in places across the UK, we present a summary of our findings as a series of case studies. These case studies focus on insight from participants on connections and networks that they were aware of. We view these networks as structures that enable the flow of resources (such as knowledge, or capital) through organisations.

The diagrams that we use to illustrate how organisations fit together in these clusters are conceptual, and they're intended to represent the shape and type of connections within networks, rather than the importance of connections, or the scale of the resources that flow from one body to another.

These network diagrams should be useful to 1) cluster stakeholders looking to understand potential for making connections with nearby organisations and also to highlight unknown types of activity within their cluster; and 2) policymakers, both in the case study clusters and in other clusters, seeking to understand mechanisms used in other places to promote (or enable) networking and grow organisational connections.

Participants identified four main groups that organisations tend to be defined by: Government, industry, universities and higher education institutions (HEIs), and third sector.

Figure 1 Diagram showing types of connections between government, industry, third sector and univerisities (and HEIs)

Participants also acknowledged that in their clusters, there is an interface between national and local policymaking. 

The diagram below aims to capture the mechanisms by which policy feeds into programmatic activity in creative tech clusters.

Participants identified the crucial role of third sector organisations in providing local expertise and as a dissemination mechanism for information and/ or funding.

Figure 2 Diagram showing connections between government at different scales, and other types of organisation

 

Bristol

1. Organisations at different scales are pooling their resources to lead urban cluster development, a good example of this is collaboration through Watershed

Watershed is recognised for its internationally distinctive programme of invention and talent development; as a centre for film culture and a cultural meeting and debating place. It delivers a programme of films, events, festivals, artists’ commissions, workshops and conferences placing audiences and participation at the heart of the organisation while responding to changing cultures, audience expectations and operating environments. It covers three areas:

  • Art and Technology - the Pervasive Media Studio at Watershed is developing talent and emergent practice in the cultural and creative economy. It is a partnership with UWE Bristol and University of Bristol.

  • Young People - the next generation of creative talent is developing its voice through Watershed's engagement programmes, such as Rife Magazine, Bristol's youth-led online platform.

  • Moving Image - an international cultural cinema and the home of BFI Film Audience Network Hub for the South West, developing film culture across the region.

2. Informal meetups occur between stakeholders in Bristol as a result of formal organisational structures

3. Inter-cluster connections, particularly with Cardiff, are leading to new relationships between universities and creative/ tech businesses. The role of third sector organisations are critical in brokering these connections.

Figure 3 Diagram showing the role of third sector organisations in brokering connections between funders and businesses in Bristol


Cardiff

1. Universities in the cluster are acting as knowledge hubs and convenors of peer based networks ...

As in other places across the world, universities in Cardiff act as knowledge hubs - bringing academics and businesses together under one roof. The research intensity of Cardiff University, and a focus on practical use of research for the business and broader community of the city, recurred as a theme through interviews.

"..there are people researching a number of different themes related to the creative economy, and we are trying to curate that group - in particular to encourage more research on areas and themes that are particularly relevant to this whole bigger picture city development, and creative city identity." (University representative)

... however, some activity in Cardiff still occurs in silos

"We have mapped some 40 to 50 networks that exist for the creative economy in the city, but they are very siloed and separate, and we are looking for something that can bridge that wider creative economy and we hope that  will encourage more innovation, more cross sector working and more collaborative engagement." University representative)

2. Cardiff’s peer based networks are international, but rooted in informal networking activities that happen in the city-region

Many of these informal international connections are credited to the rapid growth of Cardiff's creative and tech sectors, presence of anchor organisations, like the BBC, and the city's unique position as Welsh capital.

Figure 4 Diagram showing informal networking activities in Cardiff

3. Welsh Government is acting as an incubator and experimenter, bringing together organisations for innovation in the creative and tech industries

"Finance Wales is an arm's length organisation which, kind of, does all the venture capital stuff on behalf of Welsh government. So they’ve got this fund called the Tech Seed Fund, which is designed to invest in early stage businesses, so people who are, kind of, MDB stage and they want to grow beyond that, to accelerate that growth. Actually, they accelerate the growth program and actually, one of the things with Finance Wales is they like the businesses to remain in Wales, or a lot of the money to remain in Wales so that's, you know, that's one thing." (Tech Entrepreneur)

4. Local government is taking the role of a seed funder in place of developed startup funding for commercial and noncommercial projects

Figure 5 Diagram showing connections between government at different scales in Cardiff

5. New institutions are being formed through government/ university/ industry collaboration An example of this is the National Software Academy, a collaboration which looks to address national skills shortages.

It was set up to train and educate the next generation of software engineers, and is run in partnership with  Cardiff University, Welsh Government and the Alacrity Foundation in Newport. Their three-year degree programme (BSc Applied Software Engineering) has been set up by the School of Computer Science & Informatics to address unmet demand for skilled software engineers in Wales.

"They've just launched something called the National Software Academy. So Cardiff University in partnership with Welsh government have launched it, because I think you identified in the last reports, actually, the one thing that's a concern to business in south Wales was the skills shortage, and so there's a bit of drain that people, the instant they graduate, and if they’ve got any skills at all, tend to either go to London or Bristol, or one of the larger, sort of, cities, the larger clusters. I think we're doing much better now at retaining people here. But they'll still be leaving university, so the real skills to actually enter employment." (Tech Entrepreneur)

The degree, which will be delivered at ‘Platfform’, home of the Welsh Government’s new digital innovation company in Newport, will also form a key part of the Welsh Government’s initiative to regenerate Newport by providing strong links with industry and to the wider Cardiff region.

The Digital Technology Partnership between Alacrity and the ONS builds on the work that the foundation are doing, as a charity tech incubator - fostering talent development within public organisations, as well as private companies. The role of Alacrity in Newport, is one that catalyses connections between organisations through the shared need for talent. The partnerships that have emerged from Alacrity are important not only for Newport and Cardiff, but for South Wales and Wales as a nation - illustrating the multi-scalar and fluid nature of cluster connections, and the organisations that support their development.

Media City, Salford

1. A small number of large broadcasting and education organisations are acting as anchors - they tend to have a digital tech focus, large and complex supply chains, and they connect the cluster with organisations across the North of England 

"I looked at what the BBC were here in media city, and the BBC were very much a tech centre, a technology centre. And they have got over 1000 technologists here now – dev ops people, programmers, people working on iPlayer platforms, logistics and back end development, animation – so they’ve got technical teams here. So this is very much a template for how a future BBC might run itself in a digital world…" (Media City business centre representative)​

Figure 6 Diagram showing how business connects to anchor institutions in Media City

2. Salford City Council is acting as a public sector ‘digital entrepreneur’ - experimenting and testing new technologies to embed the digital agenda into schools, public services and engagement with business

3. Informal meetups are ‘building’ cluster culture, they take a different form to Cardiff and Bristol - where these informal activities tended to mirror local organisational structures

Figure 7 Diagram showing cross sector and sector specific networking organisations in Media City

What next?

This is very much a first glance at the highly complex connections between organisations in three UK creative tech clusters. Although much activity has arguably not been captured, using qualitative methods - to complement quantitative mapping - to explore how organisations connect opens up opportunities for policymakers to better understand the key players in an ecosystem, as well as lesser known bodies. As such, these findings can be used to identify specific organisations to ensure, for instance, that they are engaged and included in conversations associated with creative cluster development. We suspect that these conversations will only increase in intensity over coming months given the highly place-based nature of Industrial Strategy.

We are keen to explore the organisations that underpin creative tech clusters in more places, and in greater depth. Please stay tuned for more and get in touch - we welcome your feedback.

Many thanks to those who gave their time to contribute to this study.

Author

George Windsor

George Windsor

George Windsor

Senior Policy Researcher

George was a Senior Policy Researcher in the Creative and Digital Economy team.

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