The Kent Digital Conversation – GEEK 2013.

A commission from Kent County Council to capture the conversation. 

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Government and councils have now recognised that a key area for growth will come from digital and creative industries. The Kent Digital Conversation brought together the informed and active participants in those areas, alongside creative entrepreneurs and industry leaders.

Focusing on skills and infrastructure, a myriad of round table discussions ensued, covering the challenges and opportunities – to both new and existing businesses – that will arise as the digital sector seeks to grow. Although these will take different forms in different places, East Kent was the focus of these debates, which asked: What support is needed from the industry, government, education and media to nurture digital entrepreneurs and SMEs in East Kent?

Three very different speakers shared their thoughts and visions to help us look at a mixture of activities happening outside the area, and how they can benefit Thanet and Margate. Their input also shaped and facilitated the subsequent workout sessions. I was incredibly fortunate to be at a table full of passionate and enthusiastic doers, and swapped like for like with the switch-a-round for the second workshop.

“The digital world is for everyone.”

The world is changing hugely, from toddlers learning through playing, to grandparents seeking to stay in touch. Some of the biggest gains are being made by the elderly: Digital diagnosis by way of access to health professionals, playing games online they’ve previously enjoyed physically, and shopping – these can help them stay mentally and physically active.

Employers and employees have the chance to work smarter with the ease of sharing and communicating; as old industries stagnate, new industries will replace them to develop and grow East Kent. The internet is barely 25 years old but has already disrupted traditional businesses – they need to embrace digital, especially with super fast broadband set to reach all across Kent sooner rather than later.

East Kent is tempting people from busy lives outside the area, with many from the worlds of art and media seeing things happening and wanting to be part of it. Creativity and talent is everywhere and it works best when corralled in communities, an example of this being the BBC’s natural history unit in Bristol – many other creative industries have sprung up around them.

What is most important for a digital community?

We were given a choice of three answers to the above question:

a) The right accommodation facilities
b) Free Wi-Fi
c) Collaboration opportunities

While it was recognised that free Wi-Fi and a central space would play an important part, overall, the physical nearness of others for collaboration was the overwhelming winner. It was agreed that the ideas and spontaneity from live connections – over coffee or in social spaces or via shared working – would be far more beneficial, and indeed, this is my personal experience.

A new corporate backed company in London uses this approach. With nineteen start ups, working off each other in a shared space, they’re moved around every three months and forced to mix with others. Facing new challenges, they learn through doing, together. They have access to a mentoring scheme, marketing, development and board advisers, which can only serve to build their confidence in devising different ways forward.

The clear message is: Do not be afraid of competition. Talk to others similar to you, build a buzz around what you’re all doing and it will benefit you all. Digital business is just like any other business but with the bonus of being fast, flexible, fairly cheap and needing no major infrastructure.

Draw people in and enthuse them by providing temporary spaces or regular social meetings. There’s no better time than now – if you can get it to work in this climate, imagine how good it will be when things improve.

“Cultural and social conditions create networks within the digital sector … enable growth and support it.”

Bringing digitally like-minded people together, those with similar outlooks but differing perspectives, will undoubtedly turn people into stories and help them become a fundamental part of a networked sector. Communicating a clear purpose will generate interest far beyond your own area and encourage them to talk about you and to you. An element of luck is required too – the intangible, the indescribable. Not everywhere will work but there is a chance and we should take it. Let the ‘digital sector’ become more than a vague term, a label foisted on the community by public sector and media organisations on the outside looking in. Don’t let them put us in a box.

“Bottle and store the annoying naivety of youth.”

As was then, so is now: Need is the mother of all invention. We’re driven by need. The need to create and do, the need to make a difference, to shape our world. Petition councils and ask them to hand over empty buildings – it’s already happening in East London, with The White House co-opted by artists and makers rather than left empty. Creators can find and cultivate the makers and share their stories with others, it has to be people-led as governments and councils work in cycles. You have to look beyond the local angle so you don’t become stale. Don’t lay out a path for people to follow – let them choose their own route and then sow the seeds for the paths. Tap in to those already doing something – it’s all about collaboration not competition.

“A portal to a different audience.”

Gaming must be incorporated into the culture of Margate; it’s a part of its heritage. There is so much more to it now than the shoot-em-up games, there’s a chance to create something very different and to push the boundaries. Engaging the audiences is key, with mobile apps developing all the time: animations for their fans; original TV programming available via consoles; an e-reader to capture audiences who don’t consider themselves gamers. There is huge growth in games for purpose, such as physiotherapy and fitness – physically better means mentally better. Art can be made accessible through digital history; cross generational games can motivate, inspire, teach and engage – and even force moral decisions.

What does a digital community look like? What does it need? 

Stereotypically, digital is defined as web design, gaming and computer technology but it’s so much broader than that. There is no divide now – all businesses need it, whether they are seen as a digital, creative or traditional model. It’s just another medium, moved on from hand delivered letters. Different forms of games have been around forever, just as animation is today’s version of the manuscript. The community is driving itself forward, nurturing the skills to support collaboration.

What are the important things to help digital business grow?

The most animated discussions took place around this question, with everyone on the table offering their suggestions, showcasing the collaborative nature and will of those present.

  • Tweet ups/meetings – inspiring but also complex and not for everyone. There are a lot of creative people across Kent, brought closer together as each town spreads. There are many smaller set ups but no all-encompassing one. However, there is a desire for each community to retain its own identity.
  • An on line forum to help the different communities converge.
  • Education to embrace technology. There is already a green screen motion capture facility in East Kent College – let’s hire it out to everyone else. Kids need to know opportunities exist here, that they don’t have to go to London.
  • Pooling resources and raising awareness of them.
  • Branding – digital coast? Not just #eastkent or #northkent – let’s just #kent. We don’t care what the councils say, we’re all in Kent!
  • Electronic notice board.
  • Utilize the differing energies and talent under one banner.
  • East Kent is much cheaper than London – property prices will make it happen; it brings people to an affordable area, so a diverse community grows. This will change as new investment changes the area over time to become more affluent.
  • Communal childcare.
  • Demonstrate innate collaboration and trust.
  • Connectivity between the private and public sectors.
  • An informal yet focused space for people who are learning and for people who are growing.

The ‘powers that be’ say we need to bring people in – but they’re already coming, they can see it happening for themselves. There’s a fundamental change of values, with material possessions becoming less important and less valued than before. Handing in your notice to fly solo is liberating and takes courage – risk taking is exciting.

Kent is offering education, interesting people and creative industries: If you can capture it and bottle it you can ignite and connect local talent, focused on opportunity.

What is important in people when recruiting for digital business?

Our three choices this time around:

a. Vocational experience
b. Qualifications
c. Developed their own experience

As before, there was an almost unanimous vote for ‘C’. The experience of real life, of interacting with potential employers, customers and colleagues, was seen as more important than vocational experience or qualifications, which, valuable though they are, do not give you that competitive edge or desire to achieve “out there in the real world”.

Both ‘C’ answers suggest that here, in Margate at this particular time, the mindsets of the digital and creative doers, are being enabled to just ‘do’, to enjoy a lack of constraint in their thinking. There is no ‘right way’ that can be taught, there is only learning through doing.

What would be important in developing a centre for education excellence for the creative digital sector? 

Taking a radical approach – or an obvious one?

  • Ban age limits.
  • Lose entry requirements
  • Recognise the value of aptitude and enthusiasm as being more important.
  • New language – learners: encompasses all stages and ages.
  • Tech hubs
  • Throw qualifications away – we need industry led ones, experience is more important.
  • Student businesses – cheaper but customers accept they’re taking a risk.
  • A virtual centre?
  • Real life experience. Quite often, people in education have no experience of work in the outside world. It should be added in: “The classroom doesn’t fit what you do in the real world.”
  • Closers links between digital companies, media organizations and colleges.
  • Curriculum work needs to be revised but gradually; education doesn’t respond quickly enough.
  • Cross pollination e.g. arts and technology.
  • Flexible work experience. Currently set weeks – creative and media companies work varies, they need to offer the time, not be led by schools and colleges, to make it worth the students while.
  • Excellent facilities exist; they just need a conduit to link them together.
  • Make it easier to get people through the door.
  • Make commitment less scary.
  • Enable people to try.
  • A centre of curiosity rather than excellence. · Smash down the massive wall between school and workspace. School should be the centre – give them the tools and the challenges.

Are apprenticeships the answer to training and practical learning? How can apprenticeships be improved and what do businesses want?

  • Apprenticeships traditionally didn’t exist in design, as the very nature of the business meant companies were too busy ‘doing’ to teach. But the large successful companies in those industries could invest and enable the industry to help apprentices tailor their learning.
  • Take students out to a space where the public can pitch up and learn from them and vice versa. Tools such as You Tube offer tuition, but people interaction – to be able to ask questions and receive a direct answer – is the way forward for some.
  • Everything is possible but you may have to give something up, i.e. time, to get there. Apprenticeships are good in theory but real, work based training, spending time on live creative projects, will be more beneficial. Some skills are almost obsolete by the time the course is finished – they need shaping with input by businesses.
  • There was a plea for information for apprentices themselves, and funding support for small businesses. Also, the idea of a shared apprenticeship scheme was mooted, leading to more engagement and input from different personalities into each business involved.

“Keep it simple, keep it cheap, keep it basic.”

The opening of the Turner Contemporary gave artists and creative like minds something to cluster around and realise they’re not alone.

People all over the world are struggling and while there’s no particular formula for success, there is already an industry in East Kent, it just needs to be made accessible. With a huge amount of impetus and energy to make it work, luck and serendipity will also play their part.

Digital needs to be thought of in different terms – industries and entrepreneurs are converging. Do something now; simple can grow.

“Plant the grass; see where people walk and they become the paths.”

“It was good to know that creative businesses are in the area and raise awareness of the existing community.”

“Really interesting; pushed forward the idea that we need to get people together, both like-minded and from different industries. Get that dialogue going; learning through telling stories together, on both success and failures.”

“The key part was about how you build an industry – very practical and concrete.”

“Margate is taking a pioneering approach to social engineering.”

“Interesting to analyse what we otherwise take for granted. An ecosystem exists and you plug in – how to create from the ground up.”

Ends

Image: PIxabay

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