Loading

Tech Revolution: Barnsley THE YORKSHIRE tERRIER OF TECH

"URBACT helped us to co-create our action plan through a previous network, TechTown, and TechRevolution has enabled us to constantly check and challenge what we do so that we continue to learn and adapt as we grow"- Tracey Johnson-Murphy, Business Incubation Centres Manager, Enterprising Barnsley

There’s a good reason that people in and around the Digital Media Centre and Enterprising Barnsley refer to the place as the Yorkshire terrier of tech. By all normal standards, a place where the economy was totally dominated by coal mining and manufacturing until 30 years ago, would not be seen as a front runner when it comes to the digital and tech world. However, this is a small place with a big character. The Yorkshire terrier of tech.

Perhaps the terrier instinct is best personified in Barnsley’s Business Incubation Centres Manager, Tracey Johnson and the wider team behind the Digital Media Centre and Enterprising Barnsley. Only a team like this could develop and initiate a whole new Digital Campus, build and open a new tech and innovation hub and launch a wealth of new business support and tech entrepreneurship programmes from the depths of the global COVID pandemic. Their leadership of, and participation in, the URBACT TechRevolution Network has provided a stable constant throughout this period.

URBACT and Barnsley: Our History

Barnsley’s URBACT journey started in 2017 through their involvement in the Creative Clusters network. From there they went on to lead the TechTown Action Planning Network and, more recently, the TechRevolution Network. When URBACT launched a call for EU level good practices in 2018, Barnsley decided to pitch in with their award-winning combination of the Digital Media Centre (DMC) and Enterprising Barnsley. When this was validated as an URBACT good practice they carefully selected a group of like-minded medium sized towns and cities from 6 other EU countries to work with: Bacau (Romania), Piraeus (Greece), Schiedam (the Netherlands), Nyiregyhaza (Hungary), Pardubice (Czech Republic) and Villanova i la Geltru (Spain). The goal was to both support these towns to learn from and adapt the Barnsley Good Practice for local impact and to enable Barnsley to improve their own local work by continuing to learn from others. The Barnsley team also recognised the importance of positioning the town on an international stage, particularly against the backdrop of the UK’s departure from the EU.

As explained above, the central facets of Barnsley’s good practice were the DMC and Enterprising Barnsley. This is the starting point for Barnsley’s transfer journey.

Enterprising Barnsley is a programme which, initially funded through ERDF and subsequently by the Council, has run in one shape or form since 2007. It provides an intensive and integrated package of intensive support focused on local (start up and established) business needs in order to create and accelerate economic growth. The portfolio of projects focuses upon business start-up support, business incubation, enterprise coaching, inward investment, networks and workshops and enterprise hubs.

It now creates around 1500 jobs per year and every £1 invested by Enterprising Barnsley helps to secure an additional £5.33 in private sector investment into the local economy; and, every £1 of investment secures an extra £0.96 in business rates for the Council.

“The support we receive from Enterprising Barnsley is fantastic. We have had assistance with recruitment, training and various council services which has had a positive impact on our business. As the largest private sector employer in Barnsley, with over 4,000 employees, we continue to look forward to enhancing site operations in the future and look forward to continuing our positive relationship with Enterprising Barnsley”. Ken Perritt, Account Director, XPO Logistics

Digital Media Centre

The Digital Media Centre (DMC) is a town centre hub of creative and digital businesses with Grade A office accommodation in a unique environment designed by Bauman Lyons architects. The Centre combines a range of meeting and conference spaces with flexible coworking and hot desk accommodation. Adjacent to the main transport interchange, it is easily accessible from Sheffield, Leeds and Huddersfield. The DMC itself is a BREEAM Excellent building, which was sensitively designed by architects as a landmark hub with environmental credentials.

The investment made into the DMC which opened in 2007 was significant (£12m), however, it has only been by carefully combining the physical infrastructure with fit for purpose support that it has seen genuine impact. Initially a decision was made to use external innovation experts to manage the building and deliver the community offer. However, when after 7 years of variable performance, the centre was still only at 54% occupancy, a decision was made to bring the management back into the control of the council. Three years later, the DMC was at, on average, 95% occupancy, generated surplus income for the council, and is a recognised hub for incubation, acceleration and wider support activities that focus both on developing the sector, and also supporting the digitalisation of traditional industry. It has not always been easy of course and there are ongoing challenges in combining the need to operate quickly and be responsive to immediate customer needs with the speed at which ‘normal’ council business takes place.

One of the key success factors is that the main physical asset of the DMC is connected with support programmes and activities, including the start-up support service which is co-located there. The DMC hosts regular network meetings and events and works hard to grow the digital and creative economy through clustering and community building, and also to drive demand for digital products, skills and services. It collides traditional and digital industry expertise. This wider community offer includes:

- Adopting an ‘open door’ policy: availability for any growing business, putting customers at the heart of the work;

- Making space available at no or low cost to those who want to deliver activities for other businesses, or digital sector events (e.g. hack days);

- Delivering a constantly evolving and varied programme of events, from casual meetups to networking and ‘dives’ into new tech, a monthly breakfast club and workshops for startups based on Lean Business Model Canvas;

- Using Slack as a digital platform to collaborate with the digital community, generate feedback and ideas, as well as informal conversation;

- Free-to-access bespoke business support for growing companies

Perhaps not surprisingly, there were lots of impressive spin offs from this good practice – notably Connected Healthcare and Connected Manufacturing which aimed to support the digitalisation of existing sectors – and IoT Tribe – an international internet of things accelerator which set up shop in Barnsley in 2018 following some plotting and planning between the TechTown Lead Partner and Lead Expert over a meal during a transnational study visit to Tallinn.

The TechRev Programme

One of the first benefits of the transfer network to Barnsley came in the form of a 3 day ‘Immersive Bootcamp’ in January 2019. All 7 partners came together to really get under the skin of the good practice. The entire Barnsley team shared their experiences of bringing the whole thing to life and then working within it for 10 years, warts and all. The 6 transfer partners quizzed them tirelessly on successes and failures, hungry to take knowledge back to their own towns and cities. The sense of pride amongst the Barnsley team was tangible. It was as if they hadn’t really realised how impressive their work was until this point. It felt like they were seeing their work through an entirely different lens for the first time. The session served as more than a peer review of their work. It enabled them to think about what they do in a different context and to reflect together upon success factors and areas of improvement.

Over the next 12 months, through a series of transnational meetings and intense local activity the knowledge and information started to disperse across a wide range of economic development stakeholders in these 6 towns. Back in Barnsley, there was no way the team were going to rest on their laurels. Terriers are persistent and tenacious.

This was a time to build upon their successes; to think strategically about what the future might hold and what business needs would be moving forward; to use their growing profile and influence in the region to secure additional funding for new programmes and activities.

"TechTown and TechRevolution helped us to have a seat at the table in terms of business support and tech ecosystem support. Now was the time to translate into more cash, activity and impact" Martin Beasley, Group Leader, Enterprising Barnsley

The Outcome: DMC02

So, by the end of 2019, the team had secured an additional £2m to develop follow up space and expand the provision of the DMC through a new sister building, to be known as DMC02. One of their key partners, Barnsley College had attracted £5m for a new digital hub which would enable them to build an incubation space and demo lab. Relations with the region’s two main universities were growing stronger and stronger and plans were afoot to develop a whole Digital Campus on the back of the work completed so far.

And then COVID hit.

Like every local authority in the UK and probably the world, no one in Barnsley had anticipated a global pandemic and the economic catastrophe which has followed in its wake. Strategic thinking went out of the window for a few months while the team set to doing everything they could to support the town’s local businesses to survive. All business support provision was moved online and the council administered no less than £xxxm worth of government grants for local businesses, getting the first emergency cash out of the door in record time.

But what would happen to the grand plans for a Digital Campus and DMC02? Surely that would have to be cancelled, or at least put on hold until the country came out of lockdown?

No, in true terrier style, the leadership team at Barnsley decided to try and ride the storm of COVID and plough forward with the Digital Campus, which was subsequently branded The SEAM, echoing the coal mining and textile seams of Barnsley’s industrial heritage and its new role in bringing people together to collaborate and innovate. A masterplan has been created to redevelop the whole area behind the DMC to provide co working, move-on space, a maker space and more, all underpinned by a new Inclusive Knowledge Plan to ensure that the campus will connect with everything the council does. DMC02 opened its doors in October 2020 and despite the ongoing challenges of working within a COVID context, has already attracted a wide range of local businesses.

Alongside this the council partnered with London-based start-up experts Capital Enterprise to secure £6m of ERDF to launch the new Tech Ecosystem Acceleration and Market-making South Yorkshire (TEAM SY) programme. Again, this began its early life as a conversation between the TechRevolution Lead Partner and Lead Expert. The concept was first explored in 2018 and went on to become a failed Urban Innovative Actions bid. In 2020 this was revisited and developed into an application for support from the Sheffield City Region’s European Structural and Investment Fund Programme. This was approved and in 2020 the programme started to come to life. The plan is to transform the whole city region economy, to increase the number and viability of tech start-ups and to grow more and better jobs which contribute to the region’s ability to recover from the COVID-induced recession.

As an additional twist, the coordinator of Barnsley’s first URBACT Local Support Group, was one of the first hires – joining Capital Enterprise as the aptly named TEAM SY super-connector.

Concluding Thoughts

As the network draws to a close during 2021, Barnsley is gearing up for the 3rd cohort of IoT Tribe and grappling with the challenge of how to instil a sense of space in virtual delivery. It is launching two new business support programmes, both informed by TechRevolution work. The team is looking to work smarter and considering their own internal working practices, building on some agile city leadership training delivered as part of the TechRevolution transnational programme.

And all of this is happening against a Brexit-coloured backdrop. The UK might have left the European Union but it is clear that Barnsley for one is still firmly European in its thinking and vision. URBACT has had a huge impact on its ability to grow and maintain productive relationships with stakeholders regionally, nationally and internationally. It has provided the soft infrastructure necessary to facilitate learning and knowledge exchange. It has helped the wider Barnsley to experience and better understand the benefits of collaboration and co-creation. Ultimately it has been pivotal in enabling the municipality to raise over £10m of investment for digital economy actions from which, if the past 10 years are anything to go by, great things will come.

So why the Yorkshire terrier analogy? Take a look at the breed characteristics online:

“The Yorkshire terrier is energetic, feisty and domineering, but also affectionate”.

Barnsley has all of these characteristics in spades and much much more. It truly is the Yorkshire terrier of tech.

Alison Partridge

Lead Expert, URBACT TechRevolution Network