There are 4,695 digital businesses in Birmingham

Now you know me, always interested in stats. Particularly creative/digital economy stats about Birmingham. Being interested in such stats isn’t as much part of my job as it used to be, but I think anyone teaching the media and preparing students for a life in ‘the industry’ should have a fair grasp of the size and scope of said ‘industry’.

Mapping the UK’s Digital Economy
A new report is out. It argues that the way the UK usually counts digital businesses (using SIC codes) may not give us the whole picture. Using a model called ‘Growth Intelligence’  it says there are 270,000 digital companies in the UK rather than the 167,000 previously thought. They are responsible for 11% of jobs in the UK. ‘Growth Intelligence’ is a ‘big data’ approach that uses Companies House info along with other sources to create a more nuanced set of classification for companies and thereby seems better able to identify which are or aren’t digital. It results in a list of 1.868m companies but that will still be an underestimate (20% of companies fail to put themselves against any SIC code).

What’s a Digital Company?
One whose outputs, the product or service they offer, are digital. So if you use a computer system to help you sell bananas, that doesn’t make you digital: “we restrict ‘digital content’ to sectors where the only or principal outputs are digital products or services. For example, we exclude large parts of the architecture sector, but include firms specialising in CAD and technical drawing. By the same token, we exclude supermarkets, but include retailers whose principle offering is digital (such as digital music stores)” (p: 9)

What about Birmingham?
I’ll cut to the chase. Via the SIC code system, Birmingham had 3,116 companies regarded as digital. This new method says there are 4,695 companies. These companies are actually located in the wider Birmingham TTWA (Travel to Work Area) which goes up to Tamworth and down to Redditch. In this area are about 600,000 people of employment age. By contrast, Manchester’s TTWA has about 700,000 in it and has more digital firms in it also (7,324).

Is this good news?
Yes. There’s a section in the report that says that other areas have more ‘clustering’ of digital firms but a city like Birmingham has too diverse an economy for digital to show up as a distinct cluster (though there are clearly significant local clusters in areas like Eastside and Jewellery Quarter).

What the report does and doesn’t tell us.
The report doesn’t tell us much at a local level other than the number of firms. However the information about a typical  UK digital firm is interesting.  Digital firms are slightly younger than other firms (about 9 years old rather than 10). There’s the same number of start-ups as in any other sector. They tend to employ more people on average. They tend to have lower revenues.

Will the number of digital companies grow?
Yes, says the report. Largely because of the number of firms ‘inflowing’. That is, more existing firms are becoming digital firms – moving from analogue to digital as such. However, data suggests that digital firms are as susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy as any other sector.

Not just London.
What’s really useful about the report is that it goes some way to correct the view that ‘digital’ is just something cool firms in East London do. It’s clearly not. Although there’s definitely a concentration in the South East,  Birmingham and other regional cities are very much playing their part.

Birmingham City of Culture 2017

Has the discussion about whether Birmingham is planning to bid for UK City of Culture 2017 started yet? We should bid; I think we’d win.

I was in Derry-Londonderry at the start of the year, the 2013 UK City of Culture. It was my first ever visit and I was immediately taken with the place. If you look at the words linked to Derry’s success then you’ll find nothing unexpected. They mention Creative Industries, ‘Digital’, they promised building/regeneration initiatives, they hinted at the potential for culture to “accelerate the pace of change and provide a new story for the city to tell to the world”.

That’s their way of saying “it’s complicated here but we’ll try.”

Naturally it’s the history I find particularly fascinating (I wrote my undergraduate dissertation about media representation of the peace process) and a visit to the Bogside and the Museum of Free Derry was therefore a highlight. The museum is very small and comprises a series of panels retelling Derry’s history from the perspective of its Catholic population, leading up to the events of Bloody Sunday. There’s a collection of items – posters, booklets, song books – relating to the civil rights movement as well as more macabre pieces such as clothing from Bloody Sunday victims complete with bullet holes marked for your attention. An audio soundtrack from the day of Bloody Sunday itself is playing on a loop.

The person on duty at the museum was a local man called John. It’s only after we’ve been round the place that we struck up a conversation. I played the ‘my folks are Irish’ card and he told me about Derry’s Birmingham connection. But he then reveled that his brother was one of the people shot dead (by ‘Lance Corporal F‘) on Bloody Sunday.

He’s probably told hundreds of people that fact but wow, that’s a big emotional punch right there. He expanded a little on what it was like to live in the Bogside then and now and hinted at his resistance to the idea that the City of Culture could somehow heal political and religious divides. For a start, he’d not been across the Peace Bridge because the regenerated barracks on the other side were where the Paratroopers that murdered his brother had been based.

A key criteria of winning the UK City of Culture competition is to ‘outline how you would use culture to bring about step-change.’ When asked what the City of Culture meant to him, John replied: “well Status Quo are playing a gig.” The gig is in the aforementioned Ebrington Barracks. He’ll have to make a step-change and cross that bridge if he wants to see them.

So what does this tell us about Birmingham’s potential to bid for City of Culture 2017. Well in a research report (PDF) which spoke to stakeholders in the Birmingham bid it becomes clear why we failed last time around:

“Birmingham felt that they “had to bid for it”, stating that it would have “said more about the city if we hadn’t” (p9)

And it seems that it’s not all that likely we’ll go for it again:

When asked if they would bid again for this or similar cultural titles, participants from Birmingham explained that the ‘appetite was lost’ […] Bidding raises aspirations; unfulfilled aspiration was described as a “sore on the city”, and another bid as “pure masochism” (p17)

I’ll admit to being slightly confused at the moment about Birmingham’s cultural and creative leadership. It seems to have gotten subsumed into the LEP. Is that right? Someone has to lead the discussion, I guess they might start it.

But I think a different approach might be needed this time. One that values a bottom up approach to understanding culture. “Culture is Ordinary: this is where we must start” said Raymond Williams writing in 1958 (PDF – read it ALL). That’s where the Birmingham bid has to start. Don’t lead with the grandness of what the City delivers as part of its cultural offer. Instead, find some people as articulate, considered and humble as John and listen to how they talk about their culture. For John, politics, religion, division and coming to terms with division, is culture as much as Art, learning and buildings.

Culture is his lived experience of the City. Start from there and we’ll win.

See also: Phil Redmond’s blog post for the DCMS.

Dear Mr Whitby – Raw Data Now

It’s been a bad day for Birmingham’s creative economy. The BBC is shunting a whole load of jobs (“over 100”) in networked factual programming from here to Bristol and Cardiff. So what now?

Since the early 2000s the regional strategy for the West Midlands creative economy (as developed by Advantage West Midlands and later Screen West Midlands) has largely emphasised ‘digital’ at the expense of a broader definition of media content creation. Earlier today I thought perhaps we’d backed the wrong horse for all those years, allowing Salford to come along with cheap land and shiny buildings and lure the BBC to their MediaCityUK.

But I’m not here to dwell on that. I actually think some conditions were created that allowed new web entrepreneurs to set up and flourish as well as ensuring more established firms stayed in their city and diversified their offer. I think we did back the right horse but we may have all been thinking of different horses as we tried to collectively articulate Birmingham and the West Midlands’ offer. That is, we never really knew what ‘digital’ meant.

But, as I say, I’m not here to dwell on that. What really got me irritated today is Councillor Mike Whitby, leader of Birmingham City Council, bleating on about Birmingham getting marginalised when he could actually do something to help Birmingham become a thriving centre of digital creativity.

It’s simple, and if he hadn’t side-lined the City’s digital agenda to the completely uninterested Deputy Leader Councillor Tilsley, I think we’d be a lot further down the road than we are. Here’s a message from Tim Berners-Lee to make it clear what I’m asking for:

Bright People do terrific things with Raw Open Data. Yesterday the council launched an Open Data project called Civic Dashboard. Mudlark, a company with bright people, made something useful by cajoling the council to give up their data to make it happen. Some good people within the council helped get that data out. I’m guessing it was a tortuous process to bring it to life; so tortuous that I bet none of them are in a hurry to do it again. But beyond this project there’s nothing. The City’s Open Data page is kind of embarrassing.

So that’s where we need Mr Whitby. While he’s still in office he needs to take the digital agenda under his wing and order his senior people to get with the digital stuff. He needs to re-work the deals he’s done with his private partners such as Capita (who handle Brum’s IT) and get them to stop hugging data.

Now that the aforementioned strategy writers (AWM and SWM) have shut up shop we’re in a bit of a vacuum. But rather than sideline the digital agenda and lament the loss of those BBC production jobs we need to embrace it more than ever.

So let’s write a new strategy. Wearing my ‘Chair of Birmingham Science City’s Digital Theme Group’ hat (I know, it doesn’t actually sound like it means anything but is a group of business-owners, public secotr types and researchers who meet once a quarter to try to get projects off the ground) I’m starting Birmingham’s brand new Digital Manifesto for Growth. Here’s the first line:

  1. Stop pissing about and get that data freed up Mr Whitby. Exciting things will happen. Honest.

You lot can write the rest.

Links for April 13th through April 18th

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Talking pretentiously about animation

For some reason (the details of which I seem to have totally forgotten) I ended up teaching ‘critical studies’ to first year BA (Hons) Animation and BA (Hons) Animation for Games Design students at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design. ‘Critical Studies’ is the theory stuff. Y’know, analysing animation films ‘n’ stuff. This post is about how I set the following aim for the students and how they achieved it:

Unofficial Module Learning Outcome:

Talk like a pretentious snob about an aspect of animation practice of your choosing.

I chose this way to express it as it occurs to me that the sooner we make a link between ‘theory’ in film, media or animation studies, and notions of what constitutes professionalism, the better. In a short space of time I wanted to let the students into a Creative Industries networking secret – people like people who talk pretentiously. In fact they sometimes hire people who talk pretentiously as they want to bring a bit of that deep knowledge into their organisation.

I took as my starting point the following video of one of the Brothers Quay talking pretentiously about their influences. The Brothers Quay are astonishingly talented auteur animators. They are also directors for hire. They make ads (here’s one for Galaxy) and I reckon the combination of the creative talent with a sprinkling of pretentious talking does them just fine. The latter might even add a few quid to their daily rate:

So the students watched the video and bought into the idea. They took on the challenge of focusing on an animation practice of their choice and by the end of the module would stand up in front of their fellow students and talk (accurately and with reference to a range of secondary sources) like a pretentious snob.

The module sprinkled in some key concepts around narrative, genre, auteurship as well as a bit of history. For the history part the students made individual contributions to a posterous blog. This resource,, became a focus for their efforts in the early part of the course. I would sometimes choose random categories for them to go research and find examples of (one category was called “the kind of cartoons Dave watched on TV as a kid”) and they would email the Posterous with a youtube link and some text and collectively the central resource was created.

But as they got deeper into an area of their choosing they realised that in order to talk the talk they would have to do things like, watch more films, read more books. The teaching/learning fell into a pattern of short intro to key concept from me, they produce a nicely illustrated poster to show understanding of the concept, they stand up and talk about it to the group. Our most fun lesson was using Tom and Jerry cartoons to help illustrate ‘Genre’ (here’s sci-fi T & J).

So after a period of seven months, at the end of module, by golly they each did a pretty damn good job of talking knowledgeably about subjects as diverse as the political conditions of communism and its influence on the work of Jiri Trnka, to the Disney animators strike and how it re-shaped the US animation industry during WW2.

Great topics, dealt with in depth and with enthusiasm. They easily achieved the actual learning outcome of ‘critically evaluate historical, contemporary and personal practice(s) within the broad context of the field‘. Overall an enjoyable time with talented students who can now take their knowledge to those kind of networking events where dropping a reference to Jan Svankmajer always go down well.

In addition the students used their own blogs to talk demonstrate their understanding of key ideas. Here’s one as an example – pretty good for a first year I reckon.

Links for January 21st through March 21st

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Links for January 17th through January 18th

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