Ashley Bolser, managing director of Leeds digital agency Bolser, writes for Digital City.
I’m the son of an inventor, my dad came up with the idea of night storage heaters as a cheap way to heat houses with excess off-peak electricity, so you might say innovation is in my bones, but it’s also in the bones of this city.
The fortunes of Leeds and Yorkshire have always depended on innovation, whether that was the new textile machines and the foundries that built them in the 18th and 19th centuries or in this century the application of Artificial Intelligence to many of the world’s biggest challenges.
We thrive on our innovation, but equally we have always had fierce global competition, ready to take away our livelihood.
Without innovation all industries will fall to lower-cost global competition, however mighty they may be.
Leeds was once the world leader in textiles, we are now a leader in digital tech and I believe constant innovation is required to keep us at the forefront.
There seems to be a paradox with the digital industries – location would seem to be less and less important with the uptake of almost instantaneous global communication, but there seems to be a massive benefit when companies cluster together, for example with Internet Infrastructure providers, clients, users, support services and creative industries located next to each other.
In the same way that Matthew Murray built his Round Foundry next to John Marshall’s Mill in Holbeck, practical application feeds off innovation and that feeds back to practical uses of the innovation.
Leeds Digital Festival is a testament to the digital sector here in Yorkshire, and a glowing advert for the community, bringing together support industries like legal, research, accountancy and consulting and the creative industries like Bolser with amazing digital ‘unicorn’ businesses like Callcredit and Sky Bet, helped by places like aql, cap hpi and the University of Leeds.
But we need to capitalise on this innovation. Thirty years ago, I helped build a company that eventually employed over 100 people in north Leeds, it was an institution, a beacon for the best talent, a place in the North where companies from all over the world could create serious marketing and advertising.
It didn’t innovate, didn’t take the internet seriously, and it no longer exists.
That means more than 100 jobs lost, thousands of suppliers and families looking elsewhere for income.
It had clients too that did not innovate, national institutions that now have fallen to nothing – building societies, mail order companies, holiday and coach companies.
I remember walking around a half empty warehouse in Bradford and feeling ashamed and a little angry.
Leeds just may have the spark that can carry it forward, with individuals that make things happen like digital festival organiser Stuart Clarke.
With supportive government and local authorities. With the forward thinking of bright young tech companies like Synap and White Label Loyalty supported by development programmes like PwC Scale.
It’s a lesson from history we can’t afford to ignore, if we don’t innovate we will fall to nothing. Innovate or die.