Flatpack creativity: can you build a tech cluster from scratch?

Are creative tech hubs artificial or organic?

Silicon Roundabout

Is the rampant startup culture that's insidiously burrowing under the skin of UK PLC the saving grace of our future economy? Yes, most economists and politicians will answer emphatically. But is it that cut and dry? Creative hubs in London, Manchester and Cambridge have grown organically and been very successful, organised locally by some enthusiastic people that have benefitted from Goldilocks conditions.

But does that mean that the success of one creative hub can be replicated elsewhere? Can it be artificially recreated and planted in a town that needs a new economic saviour? Or is the rise of the tech hub the result of a combination of factors that ultimately lead to creative success?

A fresh start?

The story of a creative hub always follows the same narrative. Creatives and entrepreneurs settle in a deprived part of a city looking for cheap rents and likeminded people. This creative overspill attracts music, food and entertainment that caters for the new residents. Which in turn attracts others who want to be part of the 'scene'. When it's officially known as a scene, you officially have a tech cluster with people starting businesses, just to remain part of the scene.

London, Manchester and Bristol, as well as the tech clusters up and down the country exist because the entrepreneurs in the respective areas wanted to create a business or a community of techies. In every cluster you'll find at least one person who's well known for organising meet-ups, hackathons or just being 'that guy' who everyone knows and uses as a conduit for networking.

Take Manchester for example – the digital creative sector accounts for around 50,000 jobs and generates around £2bn in economic output every year. It also has the most significant internet exchange outside of London and houses huge data centres. This is all backed up by Manchester Metropolitan University which produces lots of talented digital and media graduates, as well as trade associations like Manchester Digital which promote the cluster. There's a lot of local support.

But it wasn't always like this. As digital strategy expert and Manchester's 'that guy', Shaun Fensom, explained to me: "At the start of the digital age Manchester was a depressed rust-belt, failing city."

"What were the initial conditions that helped it grow such a thriving digital sector? Some of it was doubtless about the universities and the fact that Manchester was the home in the North for media and advertising.

"But digital infrastructure played a vital role. The cluster of digital businesses that grew up around the Telecity hosting space, which later became an internet exchange point, were an important initial condition. This wasn't about getting access to the internet so much as getting access to the value chain."

Infrastructure issues

Manchester's infrastructure provided a huge boost to local businesses and attracted more. A pre-existing gaming industry, which collapsed before the tech cluster fully formed, was reinvigorated with the advent of mobile gaming. This meant that the skills and talent that formed and worked at the many gaming companies were available when tech companies began to show up.

Infrastructure is a necessity, and it's what largely drove the digital sector in Manchester. However, atmosphere, people and amenities play a big part too, especially for clusters like London's Silicon Roundabout.

Fensom explained: "There are standard economic regeneration and property issues. But if a location isn't appealing it won't work – it needs the right atmosphere and amenities. The clichéd view is that you need great cafés, restaurants and bars, and there's truth in that. Plus there are straightforward infrastructure issues like housing and transport."