Stuart Clarke, Leeds Digital, on cross-city collaboration: “Let's talk about making pies bigger rather than just our individual slices”

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Northern Cities are growing in confidence and what we need now is a concerted effort to collaborate effectively, says Stuart Clarke, Director of Leeds Digital. He talks about the beauty of community events, the need for improved connectivity, and why ‘Northern exiles’ living in London should consider moving back. 

Stuart is on the steering panel for Manchester's first ever Digital City Festival (9-13 March 2020). Find out more here.

Last time Stuart and I spoke, he was eagerly anticipating his fourth major Leeds Digital event. He’s been involved in the annual festival since it began and is a firm believer that professionals need to get out of the office to engage with others in their industry. The first Leeds Digital had six events. The 2019 festival had 240 events and over 25,000 attendees. 

Of the growing digital presence in Leeds and more widely in the North, he proudly tells me, “There is a sheer excitement that people are feeling about what's going on up here.” The 2019 Tech Nation report shows that there are 53,000 employed in digital tech in Yorkshire, with 88,000 in the North West in total, and a further 30,000 in the North East. 

Stuart believes a behavioural shift has happened in the last decade. He says companies are growing in confidence, which has, in turn, encouraged collaboration and brought in more business for the North. “Five years ago, we wouldn’t see companies collaborating for work or to put on an event. Whereas now, that confidence within the individual cities enables them to do that without fear that someone’s going to steal staff or clients.”

An example he draws upon is the collective effort by Leeds agencies to make the city a favourable choice for the Channel 4 headquarters move - a resounding success. He says the driving force was a shared belief benefitting the city or region, something also shown by the agencies behind Leeds Search with their ambition of making Leeds the SEO capital of the UK. 

What's best for the region?

“When you've grown as a company, and as a city, it really does give you that ability to think about what's good in the long term for the region. You grow less fearful that you'll lose staff to competition and move more towards collaborating and being honest and open about things you're not doing as well yourself.”

He strongly considers attending industry events an integral part of growing businesses. “In today's climate, people are more aware that they've got to put the effort in to come together in a physical sense, through either attending things like Digital City Expo or putting on their own events. Go listen to the speakers or speak at an event. Someone sat in the audience of a talk could be your next supplier, your next employer, your next partner.”

One of the events at Leeds Digital Festival

At the beginning of this year, Thinking Digital, Tech Talent and Newcastle Startup Week all collectively came together to form the first-ever North East Digital Festival. Elsewhere, Stuart advised organisers of Halifax Digital Festival on how to get them up and running. “Within cities and in the North, let's talk about making pies bigger rather just our individual slices of the pie bigger.”

His support as a steering panel member for Manchester’s Digital City Festival in 2020 is another example of his ambition for the whole the North to prosper and supports his belief that collaboration is the way to do it. 

"Obscene" transport services connecting Northern Cities

But our conversation on the topic leads us on to talking about what’s holding the North back. He describes the journey time from Newcastle to Liverpool as “obscene,” saying that improved rail services in the North could help benefit towns and cities that want their young population to have access to the sectors prevalent in Manchester and Leeds, adding: “Bradford has been underserved by decent trail services for about 50 years.”

When the Northern Powerhouse Rail (previously referred to as HS3) line - a fast line between Bradford, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool - was proposed, Transport for the North said that it would allow 1.3 million people in the North to reach those four cities in less than an hour. Bradford particularly, the city with the youngest population of any in the UK, and whose train services do little to encourage job prospects, is clearly a city that could benefit from improved connectivity.

Stuart points out: “If we could bring that young population from Bradford into Leeds and into Manchester on a daily basis, that sheer talent would not only transform employment in the tech sector in Leeds and Manchester, but also benefit the economic fortunes of Bradford.” 

Bradford has the youngest population of any UK city - almost a quarter of the 528,000 population aged under 16

Despite the disparity in transport investment between London and the North, Stuart echoes many others by emphasising the better quality of life and cheaper running costs of living and working in the North. 

He says: “There are so many people in London, such as northern exiles, that would love to come back. They just need to be told about the amazing opportunities here now compared to 10 years ago.”

For Northern tech entrepreneurs, whether they’ve come to the North for university or more locally on apprenticeships, there are now more incubators, venture capital firms and investors active here, says Stuart. “Five years ago, a lot of startups would naturally drift to London to try and find funding. Sometimes funders would insist on them moving to London but we're seeing less of that. There are probably a few more bargains to be had in the tech sector in the North compared to London.”

He highlights the case study of a startup he’s worked closely with called Synap. The Leeds University Medical school graduates who set it up opted for office accommodation in the North that was half the price of the equivalent in London. 

“Because it’s less crowded, they could collaborate easier and found people more easily to help them, through mentoring or on a partnership basis. There was only ever one place where they were going to set the company up and that was Leeds.”

Northern cities supporting each other

As we looked to the future, Stuart expressed a similar sort of excitement about Digital City Festival as I recall him showing ahead of this year’s Leeds Digital. “We have the chance to create a really successful Digital City Festival. 

“If we could have a rolling calendar of fantastic events across the North so that companies and individuals in Leeds could go to something in Manchester, then the next month in Liverpool, then later in the year, go to Newcastle, that would be fantastic for networking and collaboration.” 

He finished by saying that the more we help each other out by support other towns and cities, “the more we can make that brand of the North so much stronger.”

Find out more at the launch event

You can find out more about Digital City Festival at the launch event on September 26th.