Digital Strategy for the West Midlands

I gave a presentation at the LUCID dissemination event today in which I proposed that the region needs to think afresh about setting a strategy for identifying opportunities in the digital economy. I know, sounds grand doesn’t it. The bottom line is that I have to write a short paper for Advantage West Midlands to influence their agenda in this area.

I’ll be writing that paper on a blog platform over at

The theme I’m using (the same one they are using for the Digital Britain consultation) allows for comments on each paragraph which I’m hoping will get populated sufficiently so that I can work them into the paper I send back. I’d welcome co-authors as well as commentators although I’ll appreciate it if the thought of writing strategy fills you with dread. The site is looking a bit bare at the moment but I’ll be setting out the sections of the paper very soon so do subscribe to the RSS feed. In the meantime I’ve posted up the presentation that kicks it off both here and on the consultation site.

Social Media ‘Seminar for Success’

I did a presentation at one of Aston Science Park’s ‘Seminars for Success’ this week – I don’t do many 7.30am starts so that’s almost worth a post in itself. All I want to do here is say thanks to those that sent me positive feedback afterwards and a general hello to some new followers on Twitter and LinkedIn. All the speakers’ presentations are posted up on the Science Park website and for reference mine is below also. It looks a bit brief without the arm-waving and additional anecdotes but you get the general point. Any questions please get in touch (in the comments or dave [at]

Writing about worms & business

I’ll avoid cross-posting in future but my first posting at the Digital Birmingham blog is about a useful example of how social media can be used by small businesses:

I’m always looking for examples of how social media can support small businesses. I’ve raised the question before using the local builder as an example. Why on earth would the bloke who knocked a hole in my wall have a reason to use any kind of social media tool?

Well I found a partial answer to that in a video from Herefordshire firm, Wiggly Wigglers (amongst other things they sell worms for composting). Founder Heather Gorringe explains how a shift to social media over tradititional media helped cut her advertising costs without cutting her customer base.

What’s clear is that Heather knows her customer extremely well: “we sell stuff that gardeners may not know they want”. Of course Heather’s firm have had an e-commerce presence for quite a while but they’ve embraced social media in a big way.

She has a blog, a facebook group, uses podcasts and is all over Youtube. I can’t help wonder why Wiggly Wigglers aren’t on twitter (there’s certainly plently of chat about them). Social Media is ideal for building a community around your products, for ensuring customers value the advice you give them and the knowledge-sharing that comes from connecting to each other. Increasing value-added rather than cutting prices sounds like a good strategy in an economic downturn. Previously Wiggly Wigglers had bought in customer lists, now in effect they create their own customer lists for free through word-of-mouth on social media.

For her efforts Heather has won a global award for Small Business Excellence – that’s right, a worm seller from Hereford beat off international competition. Well done to her. We need more local and regional social media champions from the wider business community. Here in Birmingham I think we’re certainly adept at knowing how to make a buck by playing the local card – but maybe we could take tip or two from a rural worm-grower about how to build a global community who care enough to come back again and again.

Getting Birmingham Businesses online

(pic Dr Craig)

This is part crowdsourcing, part just setting my stall out.

One of the aspects of my new job that I’m wrestling with is the notion that no matter what kind of business you are you need to have an online presence. In Digital Birmingham we have a target for increasing the amount of businesses trading online but ‘trading’ needn’t necessarily imply buying or selling online. It might mean getting customers interested enough to talk to you about a contract over a rival. It might mean increasing your business contacts by using any number of social media networking tools. It might simply mean getting yourself listed in online directories enough times so that you come up high in google when a new customer is fishing around. 

But how do you develop a strategy to get Birmingham businesses online? Here’s my take on it as a series of questions that I’d welcome responses on:

What are we measuring?
Pete Ashton has a specific target in mind for Custard Factory clients. He wants 50% of them blogging by next year and at the moment 18 of them are. Anything with content that can be subscribed to counts. So Pete has a baseline to work on, it’s measurable and specific. What’s the appropriate measure for the city as a whole? There are some EU benchmarks which are worth considering and tell us lots about the national picture for e-commerce (UK is 2nd in the EU for enterprises selling goods online) but they only cover part of the story.
So my first question is really: What’s the measurable? Is it an E-commerce one or a ‘subscribable content’ one or something else? 

Why should Dean the Builder care?
Dean is knocking a hole in the wall of my living room on Friday (it’s okay, I asked him to). He comes recommended by a neighbour. But Dean is just a phone number and a cheery smile – he’s legit and everything but works alone or in a small team and picks up work based on personal contacts. He’s got tons of work so what’s being online got to do with Dean? There’s plenty of places you can see a generic rationale for getting businesses online but little tailored to specific sectors. Dean is reasonably priced, in fact I think I’m getting a bargain for the work he’s doing. He doesn’t need to advertise for more work but I wonder if there’s a place online where he could pitch for higher value work? Same effort, more reward should maybe be his goal.
So the real question here is: Do we need a sector-specific approach or a wider there’s-something-for-everyone approach?

How do we make change happen?
I like the Social Media Surgery approach. Get some keen people in a room and give away your knowledge for the greater good. Is that scaleable across the city? Seems a tough task if it is. Are there enough online experts to go around? Perhaps instead there’s a staged approach to take. Business leaders could start to use the tools themselves and hope that others follow. Perhaps identify and support a specific business on its digital media journey (no I’m not asking Dean, he’s got a hole to create). I’m unsure a ‘let’s-do-workshops’ approach will work at this scale. It’s a ‘heart-and-minds’ thing isn’t it?
So: what are the specific actions we need to take? On the ground working with businesses or a big fat PR campaign? 

Who’s on board?
Which businesses in the city are already doing this stuff? The media/creative industries ones certainly are and they should really be demonstrating to others the benefits of working online. I suspect the business sector as a whole is still very firmly of the belief that websites are brochures. At best they can show off stock. Perhaps you might sell stuff through it. But online as a way to build customer networks, social media as a tool to position yourself as the supplier of choice, as a way to continue the conversation started at the golf course – that thinking seems a way off yet. But there are useful corporate examples out there and maybe a public/private coalition could help drive this forward.
Which brings me to: Who is the ‘we’ that need to make change happen? Digital Birmingham + Chamber of Commerce? + Universities? + Tech firms? + a network of leading bloggers/social media types?

Any thoughts on all this are welcome.

Birmingham’s place in Second Life


This is in direct response to a couple of blog posts (Bounder & star-one) about today’s launch of b-scape by the Digital Birmingham partnership, for which I now work. In fact, as from next week I’m tasked with taking forward the stuff we’ve done on Second Life to the next stage so I’m just laying out my position now on why Second Life matters for the Second City.

Firstly, my colleague Phil, who presented at today’s launch event, had the misfortune to experience enough glitches to drive a man to an early grave. The next presentation suffered as well with the Skype connection continually cutting out. One for the organisers to address at our first ever Digital conference.

Making the case for Second Life isn’t easy I realise. It is glitchy if you’re not on the quickest of computers. I tried it a couple of years ago but gave up when I realised my laptop couldn’t take it. But just as we didn’t give up on the slowness of the internet during the dial-up years we shouldn’t give up on Second Life either. Indeed we shouldn’t give up on Virtual Birmingham yet because what we’ve done with b-scape is fundamentally different to how Second Life has been used to date. Our approach, working with Moseley-based Daden, has been to rethink how virtual worlds can work in the city context. We’ve asked ourselves who would use it and why and realised that simply putting recreations of the city centre in there wasn’t the answer. Building them is costly, takes too long and is often little more than an exercise in vanity (it’s what Manchester and London have done – in fact Manchester is populated by fake residents sliding around the place).

The point of getting Birmingham in there is part of keeping us ahead of the game on the digital front. But it’s not keeping ahead for the sake of it. It’s innovating in the same way we’ve always innovated around new technologies – and it’s being recognised as such. Leading self-confessed geeks around the world are excited:

“hats off to Birmingham, a city that is taking more of a chance than any other I can think of. Certainly, Boston has a ways to go before it adopts virtual (let alone digital) technologies with such enthusiasm” (Place Of Social Media blog)

I think you need to give this one time. Realise that the curve of interest in virtual worlds is settling down to real interest from transport planners, developers, architects and regeneration experts. Libraries, hospitals and universities are getting on board because they see in Virtual Worlds a way of working that either more closely replicates how they work in the real world or enables new way of consultation on real-world infrastructure projects. 

I hate to wheel the next example out because I generally hate ‘kids know best’ arguments but a group of teenagers being accompanied by the council’s youth offending team were at Hello Digital today and were introduced to both the virtual Millennium Point and the Virtual Birmingham space and seemed genuinely excited by both. For them it more closely replicated the visual experience of computer games. So, at least for a short while, it engaged them. It made them stop and ask questions. I’m kind of glad that Birmingham’s online community are doing the same as well since my job is to build partnerships and see where we want to go with this thing. If you want me to come and ‘re-launch’ Virtual Birmingham to you I’ll do that.

So I’m at the reins of this one for the meantime and I’m hear to listen, albeit in my pants:

Link for Virtual Birmingham in Second Life

My new workplace

This is what’s oppostite my new workplace in Camden street, Jewellery Quarter. I believe it’s a former GKN works (due for redevelopment – item F on this map) but is now where the smokers from where I work hang out.

Having trumpeted my return to working in the Jewellery Quarter I actually find myself in a rather undeveloped corner of it which still has large empty factories and small, usually busy, warehouses. That’s  fine as I like undeveloped corners of the city and walking from the centre to here takes you through the back of the library – now there’s a nice messy undeveloped bit.

I work in the B1 building which has the following benefits:

  • It sells okay Starbucks coffee for half what it costs on the high street.
  • The cafe doesn’t understand portion control for cakes.
  • It is close to the canal networks for pre, during or post work runs.
  • It has shower facilities for the above.

Working in the Jewellery Quarter generally has the following benefits:

  • Banks (and therefore cashpoints).
  • A supermarket.
  • Newsagents that stock newspapers.
  • People – both work people and customers for shops.
  • Lots and lots of place for lunch.
  • A train station
  • A diverse population of blue and white collar workers.

In a fight between Digbeth and Jewellery Quarter I wonder who’d win?

A two pence bus fare for the digital age

I have a new job. I’m off (on long-term secondment actually) to work for Digital Birmingham as their Economic Development Manager. As part of my interview I had to do five minutes on how I would put Birmingham on the digital map. It was five minutes without PowerPoint so I wrote a speech which I thought I’d reproduce here (and no, I don’t quite answer the question but I do talk about buses a lot and yes, I added the embedded links afterwards):

“Birmingham feels strangely exciting at the moment. I say strangely because as someone who’s lived here all of his life, ‘exciting’ is a status that Birmingham has only occasionally reached the giddy heights of. But there is one time when I remember Birmingham reached a frenzy, when an event affected everyone in the city. No, I’m not talking about the double whammy of the G8 and the Eurovision in 1998 but rather, about the now almost legendary decision by the city council in the early 1980s to introduce 2 pence bus fares for under 16s. What halcyon days they were. That long-held dream of going all the way round on the number 11 bus could now be made a reality. The question of what to do on a weekend now had a simple answer – get on a bus and stay on it, see where it took you. It was a decision that mobilised a generation of idle youth. It took us to town and back every Saturday and left us plenty of change for space invaders and a cup of tea in the café on the sixth floor of Lewis’s.

On the Bus

In his article on youth culture from 1981, Gary Clarke actually makes reference to Birmingham’s 2p bus fares. He notes it caused uproar amongst the population, everyone was talking about it. He describes the moral panic caused by this mobilisation. To quote him: “Birmingham youths have created new meaning from the conventional activities of shopping and public transport”. But what’s this got to do with Digital you’re asking? The quote’s interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I don’t think I’ve ever read a better summation of how I spent my teenage years. Secondly, I suspect that is how we’ll be talking 20 years down the line about the digital tools we’re seeing now. That is, as conventional activities.

Actually you’re probably thinking what’s all this got to do with buses? Well, the most exciting blogger in Birmingham right now is a Bus Driver. TWMDriver has his own blog as well as a Twitter account where you can leave him a question about life on the buses. Also, Jon Bounds, author of the Birmingham Its Not Shit blog, wants us all to spend the 11th of the 11th this year on the 11 route, leaving at 11am. He wants an army of Brummie bloggers out there, talking about it, recording it, photographing it. Why? Because it’s there I suppose and because blogging connects you to people and once in a while can actually mobilise them to do something they may not have thought about doing otherwise.

And I think that’s what I feel is exciting at the moment. There’s seems to be a developing, lively social media ‘scene’ going on and some of us have cottoned on to the fact that it’s cheap bus fare time out there in the digital age. More than cheap actually, most of the tools are free. But, what drove us onto the buses in the 1980s wasn’t just the reduction in fares. That facilitated the pre-existing desire we had to discover, to meet, to share. To spend afternoons in Virgin records flicking through magazines we were never going to buy. Digital technologies aren’t the driver of change – they’re an enabler of change.

So what excites me about this social media landscape is how it seems to be bringing citizens together and connecting them on a whole range of topics. I’d agree that at first glance it seems to be a social space partly occupied by a few ‘usual suspects’ in the creative industries. Yet if you dig deeper, you’ll find a rich seem of bloggers talking about where they live (Vale Mail), their work (a blog dedicated to Night Working in the City), or their interests (myself and others wittering on about our allotments). There are opinion leaders out there of course and what I think Digital Birmingham should be is one of them.

Using my Birmingham Post blog I’ve already written about how those with influence can make use of Social Media to start a genuine debate about the city  – to develop, if you like, a Birmingham Digital School of Thought. There is a lot of influence to be gained in this city by being part of the digital discussion. Bloggers have a developing cultural capital that planners and decision-makers are beginning to take notice of. Power comes from what you’re saying as well as what you’re doing – it comes from being a part of the discussion.

We’re potentially heading for an economic downturn and if digital technologies can help us through the worst of the impact of such a downturn – by creating ‘digital’ jobs in the creative industries or in medical technologies or in serious games – then we need to speak up now to ensure those with the money, as well as the power, are listening to us and heed our guidance. What growth there is in the economy is in those and other hi-tech industries – the evidence is out there, let’s ensure we understand it and that it influences change.

So for Digital Birmingham its about exerting your influence by contributing to the debate. Be someone, or something, with a view, a position, a take on things. Digital isn’t a box to tick or a target to reach, it’s not a league table…. It’s a bus. The driver, as I’ve mentioned, is already part of the action. I believe Digital Birmingham can be a powerful body to exert the kind of influence that will mobilise our citizens to get on the Digital bus, stay on it and, as we did on the number 11, go round and round just for the hell of it. Birmingham needs a 2p fare for the Digital age and Digital Birmingham could be the body to make that happen.”

Job starts in September. Nicely evocative bus pic by Pete Asthon