"How to pretend you've turned your city into the next Silicon Valley…" - my opening keynote at Wuthering Bytes 2014.
It’s kinda fitting that we’re here in Hebden Bridge today… the fourth funkiest town in Britain, our SUICIDE capital and surrounded by what Evan Davis recently described as its three suburbs – Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds!
By the way, that suicide capital thing? I think it’s likely that statistically some of you will not make it to the end of today…
Anyways, more seriously we are in the second city of the UK, not Hebden Bridge but a supercity of 15m people - stretching from Merseyside to Humberside.
A quarter of ALL Brits live within an hour of the M62.
This was the Silicon Valley of the industrial revolution and that’s partly what I want to talk about today… the compulsion many places have to be the NEXT Silicon Valley.
My favourite is the ridiculous Silicon Shore of Leeds, mostly because it was only invoked ONCE in a 2006 article on reviving Northern cities and of course Leeds has no shore.
Personally, I’d like to think Leeds’ old Roman name, LEODIS, could be remixed to invoke San Jose and San Francisco!
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about rebalancing Britain away from a London-centric economy and culture and that the great cities of the North acting together can create a platform for this.
Of course, WE know this already. We know our potential and remember our legacy.
As characters in Game Of Thrones keep reminding us… The North Remembers… or the North Will Never Forget – any coincidence that the Northerners in that show are loyal, honourable warriors and Southerners are Machiavellian scoundrels.
Anyway, back to Leeds’ role and identity as an innovation hub in the mix of these Northern cities.
Oddly, for our third largest city, Leeds lacks a narrative that resonates globally.
Manchester has its mills and industry, latterly its football, the Madchester music scene.
Sheffield is all about the steel and the forge (or was that stealing and forgery);
Liverpool’s music and football are known the world over.
Even my hometown is known for great curry and its Bradistan nickname
So what IS Leeds?
My business partner Linda and I have been working with the city council on a digital industries strategy, it’s been really clear that the best they can come up with is a secondary financial hub or a shopping mecca. Yeh, not quite as sexy as Liverpool FC or The Stone Roses right?
But to me, as a technologist, Leeds has a storied heritage as a city of innovation and invention that spans both the industrial and information ages, modestly contributing machines and minds to humanity.
William Gibson once wrote, “in cities, the past and the present and the future can all be adjacent”. I think Leeds really fulfils that notion.
It’s important that those stories of invention are known so we can follow and learn from the arc of the city's inventiveness and bend it to a future we want.
Maybe that notion of Leeds’ entangled past, present and future is its most profound creation and the source of its novelty. So who ARE those inventors and creators?
First up - the steampunks! The industrial revolution saw Leeds at the heart of a constellation of Northern ports, mills and mining towns that powered imperial Britain.
In 1767 Joseph Priestley invented carbonated water later adopted by the Schweppes company and later discovered oxygen, encouraged by a certain Benjamin Franklin…
John Smeaton, immortalised in the Kaiser Chief’s I Predict A Riot, became “the father of civil engineering” over the course of three decades.
Matthew Murray’s established the Round Foundry as one of the first engineering works in the world – exporting textile machinery, steam engines and locomotives across the planet.
French inventor Louis Le Prince, shot the world’s first moving pictures in Leeds, planting the seeds for the new medium of cinema.
Actually, Stephen Johnson’s Invention Of Air and Matt Edgar’s Good Engines give a great account of the innovation culture in Leeds during this period. There’s an interesting note about coffee houses being at the heart of it.
A century later, the rise of personal computing brought with it the nascent UK videogames scene, largely driven by solitary bedroom coders. Leeds was home to the some of the first studio structures that began to professionalise the games industry.
For a lot of my generation, our first experiences of videogames were Micro Power titles for the BBC Microcomputer.
More recently, the millennial period saw Leeds as an epicentre of the dotcom boom and the beginning of the internet era. By laying down the infrastructural backbone for another new medium, the internet began to disrupt everything before it and Leeds found itself directing 40% of the nation’s internet traffic.
Interestingly, many of the companies and innovations of this era were as much about business models as technology… its no surprise that Orange, France Telecom and others were snapping up Leeds startups.
Now a decade and a half into the new millennium a combination of a post-crash age of austerity, shrinking government, smartphones and digital disruption has thrown up a kind of post-digital creative class – pretty much like everywhere else. What urban theorist Richard Florida calls the Great Reset.
Activists, bloggers, citizens, makers are seeing the city itself as a remixable platform – and we’re seeing new distributed, networked institutions like coworking communities, hackspaces and a fluid freelance culture take root and start to infect monolithic institutions like local government and healthcare.
What this tells me is that the narrative for Leeds is that it is a city of invention
A city thriving on synthesising and assembling the future from pieces of its past.
Austerity and mobility have driven the city to collaboration — and that seems to be happening in a limited way across across music, tech, fashion, sport, publishing and healthcare in Leeds.
When Leeds City Council asked us to give them a narrative for their tech policy - THIS is what we sold them. Leeds will be a living lab where innovators come to experiment with a city big enough to be interesting and small enough to be human scale. And where invention happens.
About a year and a half ago, we got the chance to work with the owners of Leeds Dock, the area around the Royal Armouries, to turn a weird and sterile neighbourhood on the fringe of the city into a vibrant creative district.
We figured this was a chance to codify and embody Leeds’ culture and legacy of invention, in a neglected part of the city where galleries, colleges and HS2 would arrive in the coming years.
We looked to our friends in other industries and wondered if we could create a neutral space for them - a place for the city’s burgeoning sports technologists; people driving the leeds festivals and music scene, emerging street food culture startups, healthcare innovators, grassroots filmmakers, academics and open data activists.
Essentially we pitched the idea of a place that was a serendipity engine, enabling creative collisions between disciplines, but also providing seed or venture finance to nurture entrepreneurs and spark economic growth and opportunity.
Of course, this isn’t a new idea. I’ve been greatly influenced by my stints at MIT Medialab, where they’ve engineered these creative collisions for decades.
Indeed, Tony Hsieh’s Downtown project is attempting to do the same in Las Vegas, but across an entire city.
But this narrative felt like the one Leeds needed to coalesce an identity around. Not Silicon Shore, but a city of hackers and makers, of invention. We called it ENGINE Leeds and that of course suited Leeds history as a pioneer of steam engineering!
We planned to house coworking, an events space, studio facilities, a startup accelerator programme, games spaces, investor lounges and dedicated growth space for maturing companies.
Sadly, our relationship with the owners broke down - as did their relationship with our sister project called FACTORY in Manchester.
We’re now working with local government at an alternative location in Leeds…
I’ve learned a few things in the process of this project, notably about the nature of power and countercultures in the post-digital era.
Firstly, it’s easy to be sidetracked by physical infrastructure - buildings, pipes, copper and fibre seemed to dominate a lot of discussion. When the human infrastructure, the cultures and platforms we need to innovate is what needed more attention.
Secondly, why do we want our towns and cities to be silicon valleys or Tech City’s - when Silicon Valley is becoming a byword for hyper-gentification and the peddlers of a surveillance culture.
We have to form alternate narratives that honour the places we live in and I found that OK for some of that to be mythological and bend reality a little!
Those narratives and stories needs somewhere to live and be told and retold to build support. Leeds has weak mainstream media and almost no industry media we had to curate our positions.
Lastly, I’ve always seen the internet as a disrupting, democratising count cultural force that diffused power. I found our ideas being co-opted by property owners and government officials, sometimes unintentionally. it wasn’t enough for us to engage with power.
I think for some of us in this industry it’s time for us to assume power in order to get the change we want. We were accused of lacking coherence and leadership and I feel like there’s a reluctance to assume power in order to do that. Though people like Lee Stafford of Sheffield City Region and Tim Dobson of the Pirate Party are great local examples of tech people assuming political power.
I hope that tells the story of what I’ve jokingly called San Leodis and some of the work we’ve done to try and orchestrate and cohere a narrative of why Leeds is city of invention and why the North has a critical role to play in global innovation.
I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to say today until early this morning, so thank you all for listening and do grab myself or Linda if you’d like to talk more about what we’ve been doing.
Thank you so much :)