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Breaking the Rules: The Hows and the Whys of Brighton’s £1bn Creative and Digital Sector

This is an article that i wrote For The Latest 7 magazine in Brighton. It was published on 8th December 2015.

2 pieces of research were released recently, both of which painted a pretty positive picture of Brighton’s economy, and of its creative and digital sector in particular. The updated Brighton Fuse report from the universities of Brighton and Sussex demonstrated that this sector is bigger and more successful than ever, with a total impact on the city’s economy of around £1bn per year. The second report, from the University of Sheffield, compared the Sheffield city region economy with that of the Brighton city region (similar size, student population, etc) and on nearly every metric, Brighton was way ahead.

Not that we aren’t without our problems of course. In an article in this very periodical recently, Phil Green of MD Hub suggested one issue was that our local businesses aren’t attractive enough to investors. He said businesses in the city should be ‘serious’ and ‘focussed’ about changing what they do to convince large investment funds to risk Southern Rail and head here for the pickings. This strikes me as a bit of a bizarre argument. It shouldn’t be the purpose of businesses to make themselves ripe fruit for roaming bands of venture capitalists, it’s to make and do things that are useful, needed and wanted.

A linked argument to Phil’s is that creative and digital businesses in Brighton lack ambition. By this is meant that not enough of our businesses are aiming to be household names, trying to be the next Google or Amazon. Of course there are local digital businesses that are incentivised by growth and they should be supported in that. My organisation spends a lot of its time helping them access the skills, workspace and investment they need. And it’s certainly not clear that we have any fewer digital businesses of that type than most other places outside the artificial and state-supported caldron of Silicon Valley.

But there are other definitions of ambition that to me are just as legitimate. Surely the ambition to create a business that provides you with a decent lifestyle and gives you the time and energy to spend with your family, to give to the community or to have fun are just as valid as definitions of ambition? Those running these types of businesses (disparagingly called ‘lifestyle’) are surely just as deserving of recognition and support? After all, they still employ and their staff still spend.

What seems to annoy some people is that the digital sector in Brighton has grown by not following the rules. And that apparently makes our success illegitimate or suspect.  It didn’t grow to be worth £1bn because of a local or national dictate (there was none), nor through massive investment of the type the BBC and others have poured into Manchester.

So why is it so successful? Some people say it’s about proximity to London. Sure that plays a part, but if that were it, then Luton would be a Brighton too. The Brighton Fuse research I mentioned earlier clearly showed that it’s this complicated thing called ‘place’ that’s the key. Creative and digital businesses are built on talent and, because of the kind of place Brighton is, talented people want to live in this city, both to create businesses and to work for them.

Place is in part about the physical geography – the beach, the downs, the Georgian buildings, the North Laine – but mostly it’s what we as people do with them. What kind of culture we all create with those physical assets is what makes a place.

A place that is fun, supportive and challenging of conventional wisdoms, which does stuff that makes people say ‘only in Brighton’, that is the keystone to our creative and digital sector.

In that respect, for our current digital success we shouldn’t forget to thank the community campaign that stopped the North Laine being bulldozed for a motorway in the 1970s, the Sussex Gay Liberation Front who started Pride in the city, and of course the Prince Regent who created that perfect barmy, barking symbol of Brighton, the Pavilion.

In business terms, our digital cluster is as much the legacy of people with vision like Stomp and the Body Shop as it is of digital pioneers Victoria Real (the Brighton-based creators of the original Big Brother website). And when you look at current digital successes like Propellernet, MakerClub and The Skiff you can see the parallels with other local challenger businesses like supermarket HiSBe.

Yes of course we have challenges - giving people the right skills for the jobs and protecting the city’s workspaces, to name but two. But we should build on what we are doing right, not genuflect to some ideologically driven notion of what the one true route to business heaven is.

From the person you meet in a pub with a wild and wonderful back-story (everyone in Brighton has a back-story), to that new stone circle in the New England Quarter to the annual digital festival, this is a city that inspires. May it always remain so.

About the author

Phil Jones

Hi, I'm the Managing Director of Wired Sussex, overseeing our strategy as an organisation and work to promote our membership and its needs to local, national and international stakeholders, including government.

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