Creative cities: How Bournemouth's booming creative industry is washing out the blue rinse stereotype

Bournemouth’s booming creative scene is helping the town ditch its image as a retirement home by the sea, as Lewis Blackwell discovers as part of his review of the creative industries in the area.

How you see Bournemouth says as much about you as it says about this south-coast location.

Beyond the basic etymology and geography, there certainly are prejudices. A recent survey of MPs suggested they didn’t have much faith in Bournemouth as a creative hotspot: they placed it 12th out of 12 regional creative centres. However, it was neck-and-neck with Birmingham, Britain’s second city and one with its own vibrant digital and media story. What a bunch of generalists in Westminster know about the health of the creative industry may easily be overstated.

Against this, the Tech Nation report published in March had Bournemouth as the fastest growing creative hub in the whole of the UK, with a 212 per cent increase in size from 2010 to 2013 (twice the growth rate of London). That’s more like it.

On the ground, industry participants from the area themselves nod wryly to the old associations of ‘the blue rinse brigade’ (the decades of building a retirement home zone along the Dorset coast) and the revived tourism profile with a cool surf and club culture.

Rarely does an interview go by without references to the town’s beach lifestyle. But this is done by people confident in the vibrant image they are forging of a place from which they can win work on world-recognised brands and projects – and with plans unfettered by any sense of limitation.

For a reference profile, you might nod to the recently promoted football team, whose presence in the Premier League is now introducing the location to an audience of billions. Bournemouth is arriving on the global stage.

After a decade or so of promising creative sparks being seen from the region, two years ago a manifesto drawn up by Dorset-based business angels, creatives and academics laid the base for an umbrella organisation with the remit to bring the plan to life. It was called Silicon South.

David Ford, founder of the agency Bright Blue Day, was given the job of chairing it and delivering the group’s ambitious vision. “We believe we take the blueprint of Silicon Valley in California,” he says. “What we have in common is that we are coastal, near a big city – London rather than San Francisco – and we have strong universities. We also have the public authorities behind us, with Bournemouth, Poole and Dorset councils all driving supportive agendas.”

Ford sees it as a broad regional initiative: “We want to create a centre of excellence that is bigger than any of the parts. We don’t mind if the people who benefit are in Bournemouth, Poole or Christchurch. We intend to have a compelling proposition that can be more than a match for the story put out by, say, Bristol or Manchester.”

Silicon South has secured funding to establish “a significant incubator, a digital landmark building” that can house a cluster of new creative and digital companies. Ford is working with a developer to bring this about within 18 months.

“Our strength is where the digital industry crosses over with more traditional industry,” says Ford. That will be reflected in what we support. We can see that we are where digital meets, for example, financial services or the health and safety industry, are both strong here.

When you scratch beneath the surface of a successful hub you find that it tends to be built with a clear focus. We will build on what we have: universities with specialist skills in animation and VFX, for example, and a strong financial sector, a strong ageing population and at the same time a significant concentration of younger people.”

Many lines of inquiry lead to Matt Desmier, the man behind the annual Silicon Beach conference in Bournemouth and the popular Meetdraw networking events for digital agencies. He is also about to launch his own new agency.

His enthusiasm for the potential of the region’s creative and digital industry knows few bounds but he admits that “what is being talked up as an overnight success story has been building for a long time”.

He says that the 400 or so creative agencies in the area are able to thrive in part because they are not pitching for work against each other – they know they have to look elsewhere for clients. “This means there is work to go round, and there is not vicious competition within the community. It means people are happier to network and share.”

A practical example of that would be the facility opened by developer Base: an ‘open device lab’ open to other developers to test out their apps on all kinds of smartphones and related tech. It seems almost preposterously generous, giving the benefit of hard won efforts to potential future competitors. Base also ran the Re:develop conference. It’s “a great example of grass-roots networking,” says Desmier.

The challenge for a regional business wanting to work more widely is to prove that location is largely irrelevant. Adam Greenwood, managing director at IADigital, says: “Geography has never been a problem for getting clients. We had a great network of clients from the start, from our previous experience in a software company. We were able to pick up from that.”

With this quickly giving it Dixons as a client for its services, it had major kudos from the get-go. An agency that tended to specialise in back-end site building and support, it partnered with front-end agencies and that drew in more business.

Working with The Union in Edinburgh brought VisitScotland on to its roster, rather than any local tourism activity. But Greenwood admits the attractions of Bournemouth are a key part of digital culture.

“I guess being here is in some ways all about the beach. It’s about as close as you can get to the Australian lifestyle. There’s a good climate, you can bike to work, go surfing afterwards, if that’s your thing. People live close to where they work; you don’t have to face long commutes. We have had less than 10 per cent attrition of staff in 10 years.”

For Bournemouth council chief executive Tony Williams, the creative and digital industries are “vital industries for the Bournemouth economy, leading the way in enabling the town to stay ahead technologically, while allowing Bournemouth to keep an individual identity through the creativity of our businesses and residents.”

He sees it as also fuelling the cultural evolution of the area, which he shamelessly plugs as “the best place to live in the UK”.

He believes it now but, as creative and digital growth matures, how good can it get? Well, they are a fair way from incubating the next Apple, but don’t count against that being one of their ambitions.

LB

Lewis Blackwell

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