Educating Yorkshire: Leeds calls for unity and collaboration to transform local tech

Jamie Hardesty, October 1, 2018 4 min read

Home to the largest digital festival in the North, Leeds clearly remains unrelenting in its pursuit of tech excellence.

Building on an already-renowned reputation for innovation, the Yorkshire region as a whole is today carving exciting new niches in healthtech and advanced manufacturing, set against a backdrop of collaboration and notable drive to promote diversity.

Yet, as evident in any UK tech cluster, the Yorkshire ecosystem is not without its challenges. In the latest leg of Tech Nation on Tour, held at the gloriously effervescent Open Data Institute Leeds, we assembled a panel of region-wide experts to find out how Yorkshire can further thrive as a powerful tech force.

Following an introduction from Tech Nation’s Yorkshire-born Director of Entrepreneur Success, Mike Jackson, Hull-hailing technophile and Tech Nation’s Yorkshire-based Entrepreneur Engagement Manager Kane Fulton wasted no time in quizzing a passionate panel.

Fight to unite

The evening’s first topic of discussion explored whether the region as a whole must develop a more unified voice to realise its full potential. Leeds alone has a multitude of bodies and institutions promoting an array of messages, events and meetups. While activity should not be discouraged, duplication of effort must not take precedence over a focused strategy.

‘It’s tricky’, commented one panellist, ‘In London or Manchester there are mayors in place with one office. Whereas in the Leeds city region, you have councils and LEPs [doing activity], while there are membership organisations working too.’

Adding to this, another panellist spoke of the necessity to recognise where specialisms exist across the region. Yet one founder on the panel indicated that before this can be achieved, events themselves are in need of greater collation, as a lot of activity can be missed.

Sheffield was cited as a good example of having a ‘central depository of events’. The city, according to one of our panel members, ‘does a good job at collaborating over meetups and events; it’s become very collaborative and is well-organised in terms of finding events’. Yet, even with the right intentions regarding unification, factors such as accessing space and funding can hamper even the best intentions for activity.

Stuart Clarke, Director at Leeds Digital Festival, said:

We need to do something across the year to create a unified tech voice, one of the problems with Leeds Digital Festival is funding. The city hasn’t had a high visibility of tech for some time, its been more manufacturing. We are trying to change that at the moment.

Co-working conundrum

While Yorkshire may still be searching for one, unified voice ‘at the top’, activity at grassroots level arguably acts as the lynchpin for the region’s tech success.

Using Leeds as an example, which boasts a digital tech sector now worth £1bn, the city’s ‘helpful tech community’ was cited as its greatest asset in the latest Tech Nation report. With the majority of positive community contributions hailing from co-working spaces, many of our panel were quick to pay tribute to the human contribution to tech success.

‘Everything comes down to people, trust and community’, remarked one panellist. ‘The most powerful resource we have is the human connections.’ However, a couple of our commenters did voice concern over the closure of non-profit Futurelabs – a popular community co-working space in Leeds that offered mentorship and skills support, in addition to free venue usage – especially for brand-new startups without the luxury of financial backing.

While admirable co-working spaces exist – such as Bruntwood’s Platform in Leeds and Kollider in Sheffield, which received £2m and £3m of public money respectively to improve their offerings – there is the opinion that there may still be a gap in the market.

Sarah Tulip, Director of Operations at Software Cloud, said:

Futurelabs was everything that was great about the Leeds tech scene – everyone went there to find out how to get into tech. The work there was phenomenal. It’s an absolute tragedy that we don’t have a space like that anymore.

Shouting loud enough?

The panel ended the discussion by considering how the region can further promote its tech prowess. All commenters were in unison that efforts and momentum gathered must not slow down.

Barnsley was cited as a tremendous example where a positive media centre has given the area a real focal point. One commenter revealed: ‘The IoT Tribe accelerator’s commitment to Barnsley has proved the potential of the town, improving relationships locally, nationally and beyond. It’s also helped to secure council funding and given us the chance to enhance our reputation. We have to continue to invest ad shout about what we’re doing for our digital community to thrive.’

One panellist commented on the positive role played by Tech North’s Northern Stars in promoting Yorkshire startups and expressed hope that Tech Nation’s newest competition, Rising Stars, will continue to help empower tech in the north of England.

In addition, another panellist remarked that individuals play an integral role in being key to promoting Yorkshire tech as a whole. Continuing to promote such people would indeed be paramount to future success.

Sam Chapman, Co-Founder of The Floow, said:

Collaboration is key strength which helps momentum. Just a few years ago we didn’t shout enough about ourselves. Now we’re working with clients all over the world. I see a real confidence here now. We can match other cities in the UK, of course.

Data & research, Leeds, Yorkshire, Tech Nation Report 2018, Tech Nation Tour