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November 5, 2015updated 20 Jul 2021 2:31pm

In Bristol, a vibrant tech sector is driving a creative renaissance, too

By Dick Penny

Bristol is a city which combines livability with an entrepreneurial spirit, born of both non-conformist curiosity and innovation. From today until Saturday, a collection of buildings in the city centre – formerly the fire station, police station and courts, collectively known as The Island – will play host to a playground for new ideas.

The Rooms showcases the creative technology projects that have emerged through the combined efforts of several hundred academics, creatives, technologists, artists, and every hybrid combination you can invent – all supported, encouraged, cajoled and produced by the REACT Creative Economy Hub for the South West and Wales.

Nearby, Theaster Gates Sanctum is in the second week of 552 hours of continuous sound featuring hundreds of performers in the bombed out remains of Temple Church, part of Bristol’s year as European Green Capital.  

Cross The Cut and you have just missed Luke Jerram’s Lullaby, a surround sound illuminated artwork, created by the citizens and delivered at dusk, to the streets of Southville by bike to celebrate 20 years of the National Cycle Network. Meanwhile, as dusk moves into, night the Urbanimals are out and about across the Playable City.

The city is alive with people doing stuff, together, combining creativity and technology in public, in the lab, at work, at play. The REACT partnership of five Universities – West of England, Bristol, Bath, Exeter and Cardiff, working with Watershed and funded by the Arts & Humanity Research Council – has built on and amplified this spirit of open innovation. It crosses boundaries between sectors and institutions to explore future products, services and experiences.

Bristol does clustering and networking really well

But what makes Bristol such a fertile place for creative technology and fostering talent?  I think its all about co-production and collaboration – its about “we”, not just “I”, in a connected system which gives permission to play.

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Okay, this does not just spontaneously happen – but it’s nearly spontaneous. With the addition of some active connectors, Bristol had the pieces and players to seize the moment presented by digital technologies becoming pervasive. It’s a city with a long tradition of innovation, creativity and unorthodoxy – it’s a fundamentally non-conformist place. So provide a tool with the disruptive power of the internet, and you don’t have to wait for bonfire night to come round.

Bristol does clustering and networking really well. Critical to the success is the spirit of open enquiry, exploring and combining diversity to create new combinations of talent, ideas, cultures, experience and expertise.

And Bristol is big enough to play host to brilliant people in both tech and the creative industries, but small enough that, without too much effort, you can cross the apparent divide between the two sectors.

Last year this fusion was highlighted by the Centre for Cities and McKinsey. In their Industrial Revolutions report on the most economically significant UK clusters, they identified one such cluster as “High-tech & ICT South West”, focused on the Bristol and Bath area. But the report then went on to say that the vibrant and innovative cluster is producing animated films, the latest breakthroughs in analysing “big data” and drones the size of honey bees.

It is this cross over and fusion that makes Bristol tick. McKinsey suggest that the strength of a cluster flows from the “alchemy” of institutions, facilities, culture, formal and informal networks, people, and place, cutting across traditional ideas of sectors.

Well, I think Bristol’s “alchemy” is the people: there is a respect for difference and invention, a culture where people want to help even if they don’t get what it is that you are trying to do, a sharing of ambition and engagement between people who celebrate, promote and challenge each others talent and ideas. And there is a propensity to engage in new ideas, to try them out, to activate for change and make our world more liveable. It’s no accident that Bristol is the first UK city to be European Green Capital.

So while the city is known for its creative icons – Aardman, Massive Attack, Banksy, Luke Jerram, BBC Natural History Unit – It is also home to world class high tech innovators like HP, Toshiba, Oracle, Cray, Sony. And it houses a host of start ups in the creative tech space – Ultrahaptics, Reach Robotics and Interactive Scientific – who have developed out of the universities through the network of talent and incubation support at connector hubs like Engine Shed, Bristol Robotics Lab and the Pervasive Media Studio.

And if you need to slow down and take a break from creative tech inventors and entrepreneurs then you can always drop into the Bristol Museum to see Death: The Human Experience. What more could you ask?

Dick Penny is managing director of Watershed, Bristol’s arts and media centre. You can read more about The Room festival here.

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