Stuart Clarke: The case for a fund to promote Leeds as a technology powerhouse

Leeds Digital Festival director Stuart ClarkeLeeds Digital Festival director Stuart Clarke
Leeds Digital Festival director Stuart Clarke
The city's digital and tech sector is still recovering from a busy two weeks of the Leeds Digital Festival. We saw 170 events covering every aspect of digital, with 20,000 attendees listening to over 650 speakers.

Tom Forth, associate of ODI Leeds, discovered that there were more tech events in Leeds last week than in San Francisco. That gave an even bigger buzz to the Festival,as well as the news that we now have our first tech ‘unicorns’ in Sky Betting & Gaming and Callcredit. I’m determined to get the hashtag #UnicornCity trending.

Because it’s an open platform festival, where any person or company can take part, it belongs to the sector and the city. This is one of the reasons why it’s grown from 56 events in 2016 to 170 this year: people feel they are part of it, and want to celebrate and collaborate with others.

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But, what happens now? Do we just go back to our workplaces and wait until next April to make noise about the city and the sector? The festival trended on Twitter last week; are we happy to drop off the radar for the next twelve months?

A few years ago, we had Marketing Leeds, then Leeds & Partners to bang the drum for the city. Whatever your views on the success of those two organisations, they had a long-term guaranteed budget, and they were clearly focused on promoting Leeds.

Long-term funding is key: we were only confident that we had the funds to put on this year’s festival about three weeks before it was due to take place. If we knew we had money in the pot for next year, we could spend the next twelve months planning an ever better event, instead of spending much of our time trying to bring in sponsorship.

Imagine if the city had a fund for marketing its tech sector all year round. Whilst the multi-million pound budgets of previous years may not be achievable, a few hundred thousand pounds per year would help to promote Leeds as the best place in the country to start or scale-up your tech business, to move it (or some of it) here, or to relocate to take one of the many jobs we have available.

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And that’s key. We’ve seen incredible growth in the sector in recent years, but every company I’ve spoken to over the last twelve months has vacancies and many have had to send work overseas to fulfil contracts (in one case, it was worse: they moved to Manchester!).

I’m putting out a call to the city’s tech, property and professional services companies, all of which would benefit from continued growth in the tech sector: contribute to a fund that promotes Leeds and help to increase the flow of talent into the city

As well as running clear promotional messages, the fund could help to coordinate key stats about the sector. Depending on whether you use figures available from the LEP, the council or TechNation, you can end up with three different views on the number of businesses and jobs within Leeds. Let’s work with all the relevant bodies to agree one view about the city and the sector.

And who’s up for having a ‘Leeds Embassy’ pop-up in the heart of Shoreditch, to show London tech firms that they can grow their businesses faster in Leeds?

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Other cities around the UK have bodies that bring together tech firms that promote (I’m particularly thinking of Manchester Digital and Digital Union in the North East); it’s about time we had one in Leeds.

Together, we have created a remarkable event that celebrates the talents, skills and collaborative spirit of the city. Now we have the opportunity to harness the momentum and energy created during the festival to build on its success, to ensure that we continue to promote the city all year round.

By bringing together the Leeds Digital Festival, the Leeds Digital Board, the Leeds Ecosystem meetings, Invest North and a number of other initiatives, together with raising funding to promote the city all year round, we can consolidate Leeds as the Digital Capital of the North.

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