Running DMC: How Barnsley expanded its digital tech hub during Covid-19

Kane Fulton, November 16, 2020 4 min read

Covid-19 has seen flexible workspace dialled back across the UK. Bucking the trend is Barnsley’s Digital Media Centre (or DMC), which recently opened a new £2m extension building called DMC 02 to provide more space for its fast-growing digital and tech businesses.

It was much needed. The Barnsley Council-funded DMC, which has forged a reputation nationally for innovation through projects like IoT Tribe North and TechTown in recent years, was at full capacity. With no physical space to expand to, its scaling companies sometimes chose to move to neighbouring cities such as Sheffield as they added headcount, says DMC manager Tracey Johnson.

“The problem was that companies didn’t have the space to expand without working from offices that were physically apart,” she says. “For modern companies, working in a distinctly traditional manner isn’t the best way. We don’t want to force people to stay local, but we needed some facility.”

In addition to adding more office and co-working space for growing companies – just short of two tennis courts’ worth – DMC 02 has launched as part of Barnsley’s new digital business campus called The Seam. In addition to both DMCs, the new business district includes Barnsley College’s SciTech building, and plans to add houses, shops and travel facilities are underway.

The concept of a bustling and thriving tech community in a quiet former South Yorkshire mining town is intentional. Tracey, who has previously described Barnsley as a “yappy Yorkshire Terrier that has to disrupt and is scaling up”, is hopeful that turning both DMC buildings into a campus that facilitates creative, tech, digital and education will forge the connections needed to cement Barnsley’s place on the map.

“We asked stakeholders in our tech and creative community what Barnsley needs to do to become successful at building a knowledge-based economy, and the key thing that came out of it was the connectivity between business and education, and education and people,” she says. “DMC 02 becomes a real opportunity to manifest that.”

DMC manager Tracey Johnson

Moving in

A decade old, the DMC has been a hive of collaboration as a business tech hub in the last five years. It has aimed to engineer serendipity between its members – everyone from solopreneurs to scaling companies and individuals working remotely for large enterprises – all powered by a coffee from its popular independent barista. Tracey is keen to extend that collaborative spirit to the new building, and it’s here that she says Covid-19 may have inadvertently helped matters.

“Ordinarily we would have gone to market with a full building, but this has worked out better for us. Everything is more staged, allowing us to build in that community feel to DMC 02 to make sure the coffee flows between both buildings. The idea is for both to share the same ‘feel’ while offering different services,” she says.

A handful of companies have already moved into DMC 02’s offices, with coworking space opening in November. Its maker space and Internet of Things Lab – which will help companies, students and startups develop and implement their ideas – will follow.

Just as Covid has accelerated digital transformation efforts, Tracey says that it could have a similar impact on how DMC 01 and 02 deliver services and programmes to its members. Each of its members already benefit from a digital account manager who understands what their ambitions are and what help exists for them. Expanding on that, Tracey now sees an opportunity to provide further support online.

“In response to Covid, we shifted very quickly to deliver a chat-based business support function to help companies get access to the grants that were available as quickly as possible, while linking them to programmes like furlough,” she says. “That’s provided a huge advantage for companies locally because the speed at which you get support in a crisis is absolutely fundamental.”

As headline sponsor of Sheffield Digital Festival, which takes place from November 16 to 22, the DMC (as part of The Seam) is running an event with Marta Krupisnka from Google for Startups UK, which Tracey says will kickstart further online activity.

Staying resilient

Inevitably, it has at times proved a tough year for Tracey and her team, who spent time talking to other building providers on WhatsApp to better understand the challenges that lay ahead.

“There’s been a wonderful spirit of being in this together across places that deliver things like DMC does, which has reassured us at times that this is still worth doing,” she says. “When the entire country goes into lockdown, suddenly buildings aren’t quite so important.”

One particular challenge lied in keeping DMC members safe in light of changing guidance from the government. Social distancing measures are in place for members across both buildings, and DMC-branded masks are available on request.

“It’s been really difficult to keep delivering the DMC that people know and love while respecting the rules that have come from government around trying to keep the community safe,” says Tracey. “At the same time, we’ve seen that our community of customers are really invested in what we do. They want us to be successful and have an appetite for wanting to come and spend time here, look around and think about themselves in the space, which is really exciting.”

For now, Barnsley is still a yappy Terrier. Through the drive and determination of Tracey and her team, the addition of DMC 02 and The Seam means that it stands every chance of becoming top dog.

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