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Shiny happy Bristol: productive and positive, but not perfect

Data & research, Bath, Bristol, Tech Nation Report 2018, Tech Nation Tour

Kane FultonKane Fulton, September 14, 2018

Just 24 hours after the Duke of Cambridge visited to launch a mental health app, Bristol’s dynamic Engine Shed tech hub and incubator hosted a lively panel debate that shone a light on the region’s challenges and opportunities.

Following a rapid-fire round of presentations given by members of community group Tech South West, the latest leg of Tech Nation on Tour welcomed key stakeholders and leaders from the Bristol and Bath tech community.

The event also saw the launch of Founders’ Network, Tech Nation’s peer-to-peer support programme for entrepreneurs. It has rolled out across the UK for the first time, and you can apply today.

The Bristol and Bath tech sector can boast a number of attractive traits – including high quality of life and envy-inducing productivity levels.

As is the case with other tech clusters visited on the tour, however, the region faces its own set of challenges – from access to skilled workers and investment to high property prices (particularly in Bath).

Productivity powerhouse

According to Tech Nation Report 2018, Bristol has the highest digital tech turnover per person in the UK at £320,000. But what is fueling it?

We heard from one panelist that Bristol has a “positive attitude, culture and happy people”. They suggested that one reason for this is its ability to strike a balance between work and play. “It’s either that,” they quipped, “or cider!”

Another panelist, who praised Bristol’s eclectic mixture of early-stage startups and scaleups, said that the city has “somewhat controversially benefited from a surge of people relocating from the capital”.

Having four local universities was held up as a clear strength. Two of the companies on the panel – Ultrahaptics and Graphcore – are spinouts from Bristol University.

Thanh Quan-Nicholls, co-founder at Desk Lodge and Women’s Tech Hub, said:

At Desk Lodge people are brimming with ideas. There’s a mix of lifestyle businesses and highly profitable ones. People do all of those things at the same time somehow, and this creates vast amounts of energy.

Lucy Yu, director of public policy at Five AI, said:

We have four universities in Bristol which is a huge positive. Also, there’s lots of ambition and success in the region – that breeds more of the same and it spurs you on. The ecosystem is very encouraging, with positive and progressive behaviours.

Solving the skills puzzle

The panel agreed that changes must be made to the education system to ensure that workers are equipped with the skills needed to succeed in tech. One panelist called for the need to teach core skills such as maths, which allows people to become “great engineers”.

It was suggested that moving tech specialists around the country, attracting them to hubs like Bristol, would lead to the emergence of clusters with talents in specific areas – such as deep tech or AI.

One panelist argued that real progress in this area won’t be made until university courses switch from teaching specific aspects of tech to helping young people ‘learn how to learn’.

The panel also had one voice in calling for more to be done in terms of using Visas to attract talent from overseas. They also agreed that there needs to be more awareness of the Tech Nation Visa Scheme in order to build ‘world class’ companies.

Tom Carter, CTO and co-founder of Ultrahaptics, said:

I don’t think the idea of universities is to deliver employees to companies. As soon as you’ve done a course, what you’ve learnt becomes out of date. People have to learn skills forever. University is about learning core skills, and learning how to learn. At our company, we have what they need to hone in and deliver work.

Nigel Toon, co-founder and CEO of Graphcore, said:

We’ve had 25 people join the company in the last two months, and close to half have moved into the area. We can’t just look in the pool around us in that specific cluster for talent – we must attract people to the area too. Some will be on our doorstep, while others will come from further afield. We need to get our marketing message right and ensure we have this great cluster with the right policies in place that we can use to attract the right people.

Diversity drive

As echoed by other clusters across the UK, diversity is a pressing issue for Bristol’s tech sector. One panelist said that it was critical to widen the talent pool when it came to attracting more women.

It was suggested that more would come be done in bringing people into different learning environments by running tests (with a coding language such as Python), or making them solve a puzzle, as an alternative to having a degree.

Thanh Quan-Nicholls said:

We know that women leave environments as they’re too male-dominated or not adapted for people’s lifestyles. We must do more work with big companies to make them more women-friendly. More broadly it’s all kinds of people who don’t fit this narrow image of ‘the norm’, whatever that is.

Another panelist wondered whether the tech sector is receiving too much hype full stop, pointing out that Bristol has had a tech sector, ‘for more than 100 years’.

Nigel Toon said:

Tech is now all about twenty-somethings, and perhaps we put a bit too much hype around it when we were making progress; maybe this is the wrong tangent. We have an industry that has been developing and then we go and get over-excited about something. It’s now distorting and being counter-productive – we have to be genuine about our programmes and ensure that our perspectives allow us to have a proper, sustainable industry.