Leeds International Festival, which was staged for the first time last week, has global ambitions. Composed of three strands – tech, music and film – the week-long festival aimed at putting the city on the map by attracting a host of well-known names from home and abroad.
On the tech side, it covered topics such as biohacking and cyber culture, while playing host to reimagined versions of classic video game soundtracks and the largest digital jobs fair in the North.
According to Natasha Sayce-Zelem (pictured above, second left), director of the festival’s tech strand and head of Technology at Sky, the first Leeds International Festival’s qualities were reflected in its ubiquitous pink and black branding: bold, edgy and difficult to ignore. I spoke to Sayce-Zelem to find out more.
The dust is settling on the first Leeds International Festival. How did it go?
I think it’s been incredible – the wider community really embraced it. We’re the new kid on the block, and we’ve worked really hard to collaborate with different organisations around the city and beyond.
Having Leeds Digital Festival and the International Festival on in the same week brought the city alive. It was really cool that we did bold and odd things – like asking anyone brave enough to have an NFC microchip pierced into them at the biohacking event. It sounds like the stuff of cyberpunk fiction – you can put your office fob, Tesco card or gym pass on it. We had nine volunteers from the region who had it done, including one of Tech North’s Northern Voices, Tanja Litchensteiger.
How did you push the international aspect of the festival?
The key thing was looking at themes happening globally not just in tech, but music and film too. We had a wonderful World Music Stage with artists like Jazz Jamaica. On the tech side we had international speakers and were fortunate to fly some amazing speakers to the region. Keren Elazari, whose TED talk has been viewed just under 2 million times, spoke on hacker culture. Biohacking human augmentation activist Hannes Sjoblad flew in from Sweden.
On the film side, we had the visual effects event and the Oscar winner Andrew Whitehurst from Double Negative come and talk about the film Ex Machina. It was a true underdog story, where he beat films like Star Wars and The Revenant to the Oscar. To have him come to the region and talk about how he did the special effects was amazing. Yes, it’s technical and we obviously need more people in the VFX industry, but we also need them in film.
Also, none of our speakers had visited Leeds before, and even national speakers like TechCrunch’s Editor-at-Large, Mike Butcher had never visited the city.
How did the tech strand shine a light on the city’s digital talent?
We brought international speakers to effectively talk about amazing tech themes, using Leeds as the stage. We also tried to place the focus on emerging trends happening in the region right now. Cyber security and culture was a strong theme for us, as was empowering women and championing diversity in tech.
I think it’s a brilliant statement that 67 percent of our speakers in the International Festival were female – we’re the first international festival in the world to take that stance.
One particular event, Glug vs The Tech Off, seemed to go down very well
That was organised by my ‘festival wife’ Hannah [O’Sullivan, organiser of Glug Leeds] – I couldn’t have survived the festival without her! The Tech Off Glug was the most bonkers, funny and random event I’ve ever been at. If you imagine TED talks with people trying to smack other people down verbally, it was that – only with coders and creatives trying to put down each other. It was a lot of fun.
Joking aside, The Tech Off has been to SXSW, Dublin and all over the world, so to actually bring it to Leeds as part of the International Festival has been incredible. Looking at some of the photos online, it’s fair to say that the people who went won’t forget it for a while.
The Digital Job Fair 3.0 is now part of the International Festival. What does it do for Leeds?
With the tech strand, a key thing was looking at emerging trends and some of the exciting things happening in technology. One of the biggest things we have to face as a tech industry, however, is the digital skills pipeline. We’re facing a digital skills crisis, so we can bang on about how amazing tech is right now but if we don’t have people coming into the industry then we’re in serious trouble.
The festival wants to support the next generation of talent so it’s absolutely brilliant to be able to support the job fair, which is the largest of its kind in the North. We have huge employers here in addition to startups, and it’s lovely that there’s a mix of different businesses, universities and groups championing how awesome the region is for digital.
The festival had eye-catching branding. What was the thinking behind that?
You couldn’t really miss it. It was pink and black, bold, edgy and risky, in a weird way. I think it showed our intent. We weren’t going to be just another festival – we wanted to make a mark and make people pay attention.
What were some of the main challenges in staging the festival?
I think the biggest thing was lead time. We had about eight to 12 weeks to put it on, and tech had the most events in any of the strands with well over 15 events. That was quite difficult. We had to work collaboratively with the festival directors of other strands too.
The other thing is that Leeds is a big city and we didn’t want it to be just about Leeds. We wanted people to come there, so we advertised in tube stations in London, in airports, and in the Guardian.
How do you make next year’s festival better?
We have a year to plan it, and I’m really excited about it. We found that all of the speakers who’ve spoken this year are so passionate about supporting the festival because they’ve popped their cherry at the inaugural one.
A key thing for us will be tapping up our network of awesome speakers and businesses that we’ve brought here so that we get some expected and exciting speakers to wow your socks next time.