Whatever Happened to Silicon Beach?

For most of the last 20 years, people have been talking about Brighton as ‘Silicon Beach’. The idea is that we are Britain’s San Francisco, combining cutting-edge technology with a laid-back seaside lifestyle. Brighton is definitely a hub of creative technology but, even after years of hype, the technology sector here is much smaller than I realised.

Brighton is unarguably an exciting place to live and work. I’ve been here a quarter-century, and worked here a lot of that time. I love how friendly the technology scene is, with local companies supporting so many community meet-up groups. There are some very talented people and companies that work together for the benefit of the sector as a whole. Brighton is a place I’d love to see succeed, not least because I want to carry on living and working here.

And Brighton certainly has a reputation. In a Guardian article announcing the town’s win of digital catapult funding, Neil Crockett, the chief executive at the national Digital Catapult said that Brighton “is the poster child for the campaign because the whole community is involved in digital innovation“. A 2015 Forbes magazine piece on about Silicon Beach announced that “Brighton now has the highest density of digital companies of anywhere in the UK“. A 2014 report by Wired Sussex and the universities showed thatthe average digital firm in the area is growing by more than 14% a year, while the sector in Brighton is experiencing jobs growth at more than 10 times the rate of the wider UK economy” (the report does caution, in relation to that 14.8% figure that “The median is still a respectable 3.8%“).

The town is a good one for technologists. There is an annual Digital Festival, long-established co-working centers such as the Skiff, a strong freelancers community, including a regular weekly meet-up, a Codebar branch, and dozens of other meet-ups for a range of technologies. We’ve had world-class conferences such as Clearleft’s dConstruct, UX Brighton and BrightonSEO. While diversity is still a problem, there are some great attempts to improve this, including from Wired Sussex and Rifa Thorpe-Tracey.

However, I’ve recently encountered statistics comparing towns across the UK and was amazed to see that Brighton’s digital economy is not as large as I’d realised. The best example I could find was the Tech Nation report. The data gathered in the 2018 research is available for review online.

Looking at this data, Brighton (pop ~230,000) has the 28th largest number of employees in technology at 6493, which is smaller than Leicester (pop ~330,000), Southend (~174,000) and significantly smaller than Milton Keynes, Crawley or Luton. In terms of digital turnover, Brighton ranks 36th, similar to Hull, Chester and Wolverhampton. The turnover/employee leaves us in 91st place (Enniskillen is an outlayer in 1st place, but Bristol, Newbury and Swindon are over three times larger).

I don’t know if the problem here is a misreading of the statistics. Slough’s size as the second largest hub seems misleading, and could be due to the presence of O2’s office. Interpreting statistics is tricky – there was one report that noted Brighton was a hotbed of new company formations, and didn’t spot these were companies from around the country with a single online accountant as their registered address. It’s also possible that this survey misses some of the freelance and informal economy. Notably, the Fuse 2 report calculated that Brighton’s digital ecconomy is worth £1 billions.

(EDIT – 30/9: Alastair Reid tweeted a link to the Coast to Capital Report, which said that Brighton was UK’s fourth-largest digital technology city‘. However, this report seems to be based on the number of organisations and meet-ups in the towns – as we see above, this is a metric Brighton does particularly well on, and underlines the issue with translating this into the size of the local economy.)

But, even if there are errors in the comparisons above, Brighton’s IT sector is still significantly smaller than a lot of towns with a lower profile. After almost 20 years of hype, Silicon Beach still feels like an exciting place to be, and I’ve chosen to live here throughout that time. But we’re also not seeing the technical economy mature into something large enough to support people throughout a long career. After almost two decades of Silicon Beach, Brighton still feels full of potential and exciting new things – but that’s been the case for years.

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