From a city once ‘in terminal decline’, Dundee has overhauled both its image and its industry, to become one of the world’s leading knowledge-based economies. No small statement, but a title that has been bestowed upon the city by some of America’s leading economic scientists.
In fact, the city is now used as a case study for ‘intelligent communities’ around the globe.
The city was recently bestowed with that honour by a prestigious New York think-tank, with the forum citing Dundee as a role model for best practice in creating competitive local economies and vibrant societies.
In its report on Dundee, published earlier this year, the Intelligent Communities Forum praised the city’s council, universities and digital media for the driving the area’s emergence as a global player in the new knowledge-based economy, ranking it the third most desirable place to work outside North America.
However, this development has not happened over night.
“In order to form a niche area, it takes a combination of factors,” says Lyall Bruce of Sooper Double D. “First you need to have people who like a city enough to stay around and try and build a business. That business’s chance of surviving can be aided by external support-based organisations. Then you need a supply of talented people... and, for that, you need education which, with Dundee College, Abertay and DOJ, Dundee has in abundance.
“However, the image of a city is often, unfortunately, a very important factor in people choosing companies to work for, or with. It’s a fickle industry and you need someone working hard to build a reputation for the city locally and internationally.”
Historically, it’s been noted that the - now lauded - computer gaming and interactive industry in Dundee was down to two companies – DMA Design and VIS. They recruited locally and brought people into the area. As people left, they started up their own companies. “This, in turn, brought more people in and created the hotspot,” says Brian Baglow of Indoctrimat PR, who represents a host of the city’s top digital operators. “The local universities saw this growing local presence and, combined with the global growth, started offering courses in these areas. This again soaked up some of the talent leaving the companies, as well as attracting more outside interest.
“Coming from a small source,” says Baglow, “the companies in Tayside all know each other and cooperate to some degree with each other, as well as working with SET to promote the area and keep Tayside as a recognised centre for videogames creation and interactive industry. Having multiple companies all recruiting heavily doesn’t hurt either,” he adds.
A great deal of praise has also been heaped on the local educational institutions: “Speaking as a visiting graphic design lecturer at Duncan of Jordanstone, the quality of the talent graduating from Dundee is some of the best in the UK,” says George Craigie, director at Crucial Visual Communications. “You just have to look at the awards lists and the number of D&AD winners over the years. The quality of life in the area is superb and, like myself, people are choosing to stay or return to the area to develop businesses. There’s a real entrepreneurial feel to the city, which makes it exciting and challenging. True talent will always find a way, but it can do with more financial support to get started or expand.”
However, Dundee has had to work extremely hard for what it now has, believes Jennifer Caswell of Locate Dundee. And there is still a great deal of work to be done, she claims: “Dundee is slightly different to other cities in Scotland. It’s an ‘Alter Ego’ city, in that it is not one of the main cities in the country, meaning that it has to constantly fight for recognition.
“The fact that Dundee is constantly competing means that it will often do things differently to other cities.
“We have worked hard to attract and retain talent, but we need to work even harder. To continue to do this we need to continue to provide the right opportunities, and create the right culture. The fact that individual business and people know each other – due to the close nature of the industry and the small geographical size – makes it easier to approach one another, in turn, encouraging collaboration. This also means that people can learn from each other. By engendering the community, businesses can learn from other’s mistakes and successes.”
Not only do both of Dundee’s universities offer excellent degree programmes in areas such as website development, games development and media production, they also support the graduates coming through, says Stuart Hamilton, creative executive at Man, ALIVE Studios. “Dundee University’s ‘Enterprise Gym’ and Abertay’s ‘Embreonix’ encourage the entrepreneurial fortitude that has become integral to the boom in Dundee’s digital community.
“Dundee’s high profile in the digital sector means that people are no longer looking to the larger cities for digital development and production. The growing success of digital businesses in Dundee is an encouragement for new businesses to stay in Dundee where, in the past, it may have made more sense to establish roots in a larger city.
“The city has been quick to recognise the potential of digital technology. And it is through businesses embracing the need for digital development and production that Dundee’s digital commerce will thrive.”
As already stated by Caswell, another key element to Dundee’s success is the spirit of co-operation.
“The critical element in Dundee’s success is communication between all agencies on the ground – local government, local enterprise body, academia and cultural organisations – this, combined with flexibility in their approach and an on going and sustained commitment to pro-activity, encourages the sectors interaction,” says Bob Last of InkDigital, who has recently finished a project with The Leith Agency for s1’s new ad campaign.
“Dundee is good at this. We are constantly exploring ways of working together – although I think we would all agree that more can be achieved in this respect. Our work with Add Knowledge [designing a 3D games character family in Maya for the New Start business] is a good example of how co-operation between local firms and academia can pay off.”
However, not everyone agrees that cooperation is always forthcoming in the city: “I tried several years ago to get involved with the videogames companies because they often lack visual design direction in the simplest areas like colour palettes, interface design, etc,” says Lyall Bruce. “The experience was more than a little disappointing. More collaboration happens when companies work side by side in buildings designated to the creative industry, something that Interactive Tayside has been good at developing.
“Its major problem, though, is that it doesn’t have a very cutting edge feel about it. It feels corporate and unapproachable at times.”
Yet, on the whole, Interactive Tayside continues to attract praise, much like those companies that it aims to represent. “Initiatives like Interactive Tayside have developed an effective portal and has galvanised the creative industry in the area,” says George Cragie, “but you shouldn’t overlook the hard work of the individual companies in developing reputations nationally and internationally.
“Collaboration between creatives is happening and should be encouraged. It’s not all about digital though – there are some great practitioners in advertising, graphic design, publishing, writing, film and music and the city also has some excellent law firms providing support in copyright and IP.”
The Intelligent Communities report concluded that, ‘the city still has far to go on a long road, but the collaborative leadership it has worked so hard to create seems fully capable of seeing the journey through to the end.’ As ever, the world’s top economic boffins seem to have hit the nail on the head.