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.
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.
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.
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.
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.