Culture, creativity and building the skills to power the region’s digital economy

[This is a copy of an original article by John Meehan of Meehan Media & Comms www.meehanmedia.co.uk] The man who led the successful bid for Hull to be UK City of Culture in 2017 remembers fondly experiencing Glasgow when it was European City of Culture 24 years ago.

It’s only going back a couple of decades, but 1990 might as well have been another age. Glasgow’s year as a cultural magnet was just months before the inventor of the Internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, created the first web page, ushering in the digital revolution.

Other than televised events, Glasgow’s cultural extravaganza had to be experienced at first hand. The instant sharing and streaming that is commonplace today was unimaginable.

Now, as City of Culture Programme Director Andrew Dixon develops plans for Hull’s year in the spotlight, he envisages digital technology enabling the city to literally “tell the world”, as the slogan goes, about its culture and creativity.

“In Glasgow you had to be there to experience the City of Culture. In Hull we will have a global audience,” he told an event focused on the transformational impact of digital technology. “We have the ability to create wonderful cultural content digitally that can be seen across the world. That’s hugely exciting.”

Mr Dixon talked about plans to share Hull’s year in the spotlight with millions of people around the world to illustrate the impact technology can have, culturally and economically – and the vital importance of building the skills to ensure the opportunities it presents are realised fully within the region.

He was speaking at the launch by Hull College Group of a “digital manifesto” – a series of pledges to significantly increase provision and focus on digital skills to accelerate the growth of the region’s digital economy.

The manifesto commits Hull College Group to leading the way on developing skills in digital creativity; software design and development; and digital infrastructure. The pledges include creating a physical centre of excellence for digital skills on the Hull College campus, including an incubation facility for student digital start-ups.

Mr Dixon said the City of Culture opening ceremony would set the tone for a year in which digital creativity will be to the fore. Potentially directed by award-winning  film producer Tracey Seaward, herself a former Hull College student, it will feature four “rivers” of people converging in the city centre in a spectacular representation of Hull’s history and contribution to the world.

“It will be recorded on 100 mobile phones and live streamed into an edited version shown in Queen Victoria Square, but it will also be taken by the BBC and made available worldwide, with 100 different views of that event,” said Mr Dixon.

“That wasn’t possible in 1990 but it is now, because places like Hull College are investing in digital skills and students that will help us to deliver that sort of project and many others in the draft programme for City of Culture that will use digital technology.

“I’m really excited about Hull College’s contribution to City of Culture. It has a huge opportunity to promote Hull as a place to learn and already we are talking about a number of projects the college might deliver.

“This college is producing people who are going out into the creative industries and creating real employment and wealth.”

Mr Dixon is planning three years ahead but, according to a leading local digital pioneer, today a “perfect storm” is brewing – a combination of conditions that can make Hull and the wider Humber region a digital centre of excellence, driving new business start-ups, employment opportunities and wealth creation.

Jon Moss, founder of Hull’s Centre For Digital Innovation (C4DI) digital hub, told the digital manifesto launch the perfect storm was a combination of talent, connectivity, focus and opportunity.

He praised Hull College Group for recognising the potential of the digital sector. “The sector and, specifically, start-ups rely on talent – without the talent that Hull College produces, start-ups can’t exist,” he said.

Hull College Group Chief Executive Gary Warke with the digital manifesto.

Hull College Group Chief Executive Gary Warke with the digital manifesto.

Mr Moss said the region’s connectivity advantage came from the rollout of KC’s “blisteringly-fast” Lightstream fibre broadband network, which is delivering best-in-Britain speeds; the focus was provided by the City of Culture – a “world-class tourism event”; and the opportunity from the creation by developers at C4DI of a fully interactive, multi-faceted, data-driven website for Hull’s City Plan – “an operating system for the city”.

Major local employers recognise the region’s digital potential. Anita Pace, Director of Information Services and Content Centres for telecoms provider KC, said Hull and East Yorkshire was “uniquely placed” to develop the skills the region needs to thrive “as the digital economy continues to transform the UK economy”.

But she said businesses were hampered by a digital skills gap. Despite offering competitive salaries and benefits, a flexible working environment and opportunities for development, KC has struggled to recruit people with the right skills into the company’s creative digital and IT teams.

It’s a complex picture, with many people with digital skills opting to work as freelancers rather than employees, but an insufficient pool of skilled workers to meet the ever-growing demand is an issue for businesses of all sizes and types.

For that reason Ms Pace also welcomed Hull College Group’s commitment to boost digital skills provision. “The outcome of the digital manifesto will make it easier for workers to identify and access training, and for local businesses to ensure the educational infrastructure to meet their current and future needs is in place,” she said.

Principal Graham Towse said Hull College recognised how much was at stake for the region’s economy.

“If we, as a region, do not have the skills to meet the needs of the digital economy, we will miss out – on jobs, on growth, on opportunities,” he said.

“Through the manifesto, we will ensure opportunities are available for everyone – from school age students through to adults in employment – to equip themselves with the expertise to be at the forefront of digital growth. It is up to the region’s people and workforce to ensure they take those opportunities.”

Hull College Group Chief Executive Gary Warke said the digital manifesto had been developed with and for employers. Its success would be judged on how well it met the needs of companies for employable staff with advanced digital skills.

“This manifesto is about building on very strong partnerships with employers across the city and on a skills platform that is strong and rich, but needs to be taken to the next level. Our key objective is to make this happen over the next 12 months.

“Our commitment is to ensure the aims and ambitions we have set out in this manifesto will be delivered, will provide skills that are transformational to our local economy and absolutely prepare us for the perfect storm.”

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