Embracing and Growing a Digital Community

Featured photo by Shaun Bellis.

Barnsley is where it all began for me, both literally and metaphorically speaking (I was born there, and my business is based there). So you could say that I have a bit of an attachment to that particular town, and that probably explains why I (along with a bunch of other likeminded people) want to improve it.

Embracing the Digital Community

A few years ago, Kimb Jones (co-founder and Managing Director of the web agency Make Do) and I, put on a ‘little’ (actually it got quite big) digital and web event for designers, developers and geeks set in the charming town of Barnsley. That event was called the Digital Barn (the website is long since dead, but the Digital Barn twitter is still alive), and it made waves. Waves so large that most of the people that came weren’t even from Barnsley.

The Digital Barn achieved its goals, it was created out of love (it was 100% non-profit), it engaged a community, it helped digital enthusiasts get together with digital sector experts, and it inspired a great deal of fantastic talented people, some of whom have gone on to do amazing things (and if you are one of those people, please tell us your story in the comments).

The Digital Barn inspired nobody more than Kimb and I. The company we formed together grew out of the Digital Barn (but that epic journey is a story in its own right).

Digital Barn Attendees
Attendees at the Digital Barn – Photo Credit Shaun Bellis

At Make Do, embracing and growing the digital community is at the heart of the organisation, they love events, and although the Digital Barn has ceased its memory lives on through our ventures such as Front End North, WordCamp Sheffield, and the monthly WordPress Sheffield meet-up (to name but a few). Not to mention all the other events that we are sponsors for.

Growing the Digital Economy

Barnsley has some very talented people, especially within the design and web communities (I am honoured to know a few of them),  and I personally dream of Barnsley becoming a central hub for the digital sector. So if we can gather digital experts and leaders from across the globe into a single building for a day, how do we keep them here (and get them to work here).

There are not enough digital startups in Barnsley and this is something we need to remedy. This (amongst other things) was the subject of a recent meeting I had at Barnsley DMC with people from Enterprising Barnsley, and a number of Barnsley based digital businesses and educators.

The truth is, Barnsley still gets a bit of flack from the rest of the UK. It is perceived by many as a community of small-minded stereotypes who have nothing better to do but tend to their flat-caps and whippets.

Those people do exist (many news reporters seem to actively find them whenever they want to broadcast a controversial view “‘bart them int’ sarth”), but for the most part Barnsley has normal, decent, hard working people (albeit a great deal of us do have a funny accent).

Sheffield used to carry a similar stigma, as did Manchester and Leeds, but now each of these have booming tech communities, thanks to areas such as MediaCity and the Electric Works.

We have the infrastructure, and Barnsley is currently in the middle of a massive reinvention. So how can we sell Barnsley? What can towns like Barnsley do differently? How do we attract businesses to setup in our digital hubs like Barnsley DMC or the Barnsley Business Innovation Centre (BBIC)?

Barnsley DMC
Barnsley DMC at Sunrise – Photo Credit Shaun Bellis

Should we go out and find digital companies and drag them into our town? I think personally the answer is a little more home grown, and with groups like Barnsley IO engaging with young people in schools, we are making a start. We are changing attitudes in young people by letting them see how interesting and fun the digital sector can be, and engaging their entrepreneurial spirit.

Nurturing Homegrown Talent

However from experience (Make Do engaged with young people at a number of events), there is much work to be done. Some talented young people don’t realise that building an iPhone App, or designing a website is a job option available to them, and I think we can change this attitude by creating initiatives such as:

  • Setting up more Code Clubs within Barnsley
  • Digital agencies working within schools and colleges to keep them abreast of technology, and provide real world projects and scenarios
  • A resource that lists job types within the Creative Digital Industries, and shows the skill paths that can be taken to get there
Horizon Digital Open Day
Horizon Digital Open Day – Photo Credit Phil Watson

That being said, the homegrown approach is all very well for developing the entrepreneurs of the future, but what about the now?

Engaging Traditional Companies

A great percentage of digital jobs are actually within traditional companies, those internal communication teams, web teams, and server managers you hear about.

Can we do more here to engage with these embedded digital groups?

Do we need to show our traditional local businesses that becoming a digital business can not only make them more efficient and cost effective, but by embracing web technology to promote themselves and perhaps embrace online sales or bookings, it can boost their takings?

Building a Consortium

One of the ideas tabled by one of the local businesses around the table at the afore mentioned Barnsley DMC meeting was that the various Digital Agencies in Barnsley could work together as one.

Many of the digital agencies within Barnsley do something unique. For example, Make Do do not provide video editing services, or digital photography. Likewise the agencies that do provide these services don’t necessarily provide web services.

Acting as a consortium the digital agencies in Barnsley could provide an end-to-end experience for the entirety of digital business needs.

For me this is a natural extension of the social engagement I am working to achieve, and I think it would be a fantastic idea. My thoughts around this are that the consortium would have to:

  • Have a cool (the kids still say cool right?), engaging name and brand that avoids any Barnsley based negativity or stereotypes
  • Be managed by a party external to the businesses within the consortium (so no business has a favourable bias), although business leaders would likely be in a steering group of sorts.

Going Global

So what now? Well, I am going to keep engaging with the digital community, and helping it to grow. I want it to grow far beyond the borders of Barnsley, which is why I was thrilled when Enterprising Barnsley teamed up with Make Do and local design and development studio Genius Division, to help deliver a hack day as part of the URBACT ‘Tech Town’ programme.

Layershift Hack Day
Hacking in action – Photo Credit Shaun Bellis

Posted by Matt Watson

Matt Watson loves to talk about Health, Wealth and Code (mainly WordPress). Get in touch with Matt or follow Matt on Twitter to get notified about his latest posts.