Lighting the fuse on Brighton’s digital brand

The Brighton Fuse research project unveils interim findings on Brighton’s creative and digital industries

As a participant in the Brighton Fuse research, I attended their Brighton Digital Festival event with much anticipation of what had been discovered about Brighton’s growing industries. What is it about the local ecosystem that has attracted a wave of digital companies to set up here and how can we nurture the Brighton digital brand to build stronger, sustainable businesses and with it more vibrant communities?

Brighton may be a small City, but for me it offers everything for a perfectly balanced lifestyle, – it’s social, it’s switched–on and with the sea to one side of the city and the South Downs to the other, we’re surrounded by natural spaces to enjoy. Seems that quite a few people agree with me as they are migrating here in their droves, mainly from a super-pressurised London.

This is backed up by Fuse’s initial findings that the majority of entrepreneurs in the sector were not attracted here specifically for Brighton’s position as a digital hub but more for what Brighton has to offer as a place to live. But then something in the Brighton air is fueling an entrepreneurial spirit in these new settlers. The research findings point to proximity to London clients and access to skilled labour – with local talent on tap from the city’s two universities and a network of potential collaborators. Brighton has the key ingredients to inspire business start-ups.

It’s clear to see the strengths but are there weaknesses in the local economy?
There are certainly some barriers to overcome before we can refer to our city as the centre of all things digital in the same way as say “Silicon Valley”. Let’s put some perspective on the true scale of enterprise here. There are over 1000 creative/digital businesses in the city. The research indicated that the majority of these are either freelancers or micro-businesses (less than five staff). This points to either real challenges for growth or people are choosing to remain at this very small scale of operation. Whilst I am not a fan of the relentless obsession with growth – this does raise some questions over Brighton’s ambitions and ability to compete with existing and emerging digital hubs. Is the micro-business cluster model sustainable? And if so, can we promote and replicate it as an alternative to the ‘big is best’ vision? All questions that I hope will be answered in the next round of Fuse findings (No pressure guys!).

Before we can go down that road I believe we need to address some of the other barriers to sector development. Right up at the top of the list is Brighton’s incredibly slow internet speeds. How are digital companies able to compete with such poor connectivity and how can we call ourselves a world class digital city without a world class digital network? Why was Brighton prevented from bidding for the new government backed Ultrafast broadband networks and why was it not included in the recently announced 4G networked cities?

If Brighton is to be a serious player when competing with bigger cities for inclusion in digital initiatives, it needs to sharpen its brand and reinforce the message that Brighton is a centre of digital innovation. I believe the Fuse research is a great start in helping us to shape Brighton’s digital identity but I’d like to see the project engage with external stakeholders as well as local businesses – starting with client sectors and digital entrepreneurs from outside the region. Only by looking from the outside-in will we get the missing part of the picture and the path to digital utopia will reveal itself.