Silicon Beach: What’s great about tech in Brighton?

Way back in October, I was invited to the inaugural Silicon Brighton event at the Eagle Labs building on Preston Circus. A series of events are planned, looking at different areas of technology. The group has three aims:

  1. To bring technical companies together with the town’s talent, with the aim of ‘upskilling’ both employees and companies, specifically by looking at areas and technologies that need more people.
  2. Providing a space to talk about the ‘future of work’, making companies more aware of what potential staff are looking for.
  3. Promoting Brighton as a great place for technology companies.

I’m cynical about the possibilities of Brighton’s position as a technical hub, and the promotion of ‘Silicon Beach’ (see Whatever happened to silicon beach and what are the challenges?). But there are a lot of great things about the town that keep me working in the area.

Below is a list of some of these good points. Please let me know anything I’ve missed. I’m happy to make additions, and the selection below is mostly based around what came to mind as I was writing. There is also a problem in Brighton of seeing who is doing well. For example, I have very little visibility of who is doing great things at Eagle Labs or the Sussex University Innovation centre. One thing Brighton does need is a way of broadcasting these successes better.

Companies and organisations

Much of Brighton’s reputation is built upon its vibrant freelancing/agency scene, but we do have some huge companies, with Brandwatch being one of the most interesting and successful. Other large employers include Unity and Legal and General, and there are some exciting mid-sized startups such as Incrowd and Inshur.

Organisations supporting local businesses include Wired Sussex and the local Chamber of Commerce. There are also some great initiatives in the town such as the Brighton Digital Exchange and the Digital Catapult, which is supporting a growing immersive technology scene. We also have two great universities, with thriving technology departments.

Meetups and events

Some of the national surveys that have scored Brighton highly have reflected the strength of our meet-up scene. Specific technologies such as Java, Azure, Javascript through the Async group all have meetups. The Sussex Founders group and podcast is a particularly exciting new arrival.  There are also general meet-ups, such as the weekly freelancers farm. Codebar in particular is providing free training to being more diversity into the local tech scene. Other groups working to improve diversity in the local technology industry include She says.
Brighton also has some world-class conferences, including Brighton SEO and UXBrighton. The annual Digital Festival provides a particularly important showcase for the technology/creative scene.

Coworking centres

Brighton has been a pioneer in providing decent coworking space, with the Skiff recently having its tenth anniversary. Platform 9 is a larger, more recent player. There are definitely room for more such organisations, as each of these spaces has a very different atmosphere.

The Town

The main attraction of Brighton is the town itself. As well as the seafront and a national park nearby, there are the attractions of the North Laine. It’s a buzzing area, despite the toll gentrification has taken. There are exceptional restaurants and a range of interesting festivals, including the Brighton Festival and Fringe in May, a comedy festival etc. Brighton is also an hour from London, meaning connections with the city can be easily maintained – while having a (slightly) cheaper cost of living.

Brighton has been declared ‘the most hipster town in the world’, narrowly beating Portland in Movehub’s survey. While this was a marketing device, the towns were scored on various objective criteria, such as vegan restaurants, coffee shops and tattoo parlours. While these things might not be to everyone’s tastes, they reflect a town which welcomes new things.

Conclusion

I have written a couple of posts that are cynical about the idea of Silicon Beach. But Brighton is a great town and does have potential. The main challenge is working out how to support growth that works within the town’s limitation.

The big success in Brighton has been Brandwatch. They’ve navigated the challenges in the town and achieved momentous growth. Obviously, there is the question of whether this is an exception that proves the rule, or if Brighton can support multiple such successes. I’m hoping for the latter.

A mystery in Stanmer Park: the ceremonial staff resting place

Sometimes, you find interesting things.

One of the big problems with hiking around Brighton is that it’s boring. The land here is arranged in strips. You have the sea which takes up 180 degrees. Then there is the prom, which is a nice walk, but I’ve done it literally a million times. Beyond that there is a strip of town, and it’s hard to get out to the country without trudging through it. Then you have the downs, which is a truly beautiful area, but there are certain east-west paths which tend to dominate. On the other side is the weald, which is full of interesting walks, but you’ve tracked about 5 miles to get there.

Any interesting diversion on these paths is welcome. I was coming from Ditchling Beacon and trying to find my way to Falmer campus, and wanted to get my walk over as quickly as possible. I’d walked from Patcham to the Chattri at the start of the day, taking an Uber to reach Patcham, as the walk the the bottom of the downs was so boring.

I was using google maps to find a direct path when I saw something interesting. On the map was listed a ‘Ceremonial Staff Resting Place’. The google maps marker was placed somewhere in the midst of a set of trees on a steep slope.

I know mobile phone GPS can be somewhat unreliable in the middle of nowhere, but I walked back and forth on the wooded hillside for a while, seeking some indication of what this marker might be for. I couldn’t find it, and after twenty minutes of searching had to give up.

It’s still listed on google maps, under the category “Home goods store.” I love how, even with electronic maps, there are still mysteries. Does anyone know what this might be?

A photo of the area near the ceremonial staff resting place.

Brighton Bloggers 2019 meet-up

As part of this year’s Brighton Digital Festival, I’m organising a Brighton Bloggers meetup. It’s on from 6-8pm on October 21st, near the station, so it should be easy for people to come straight from work. Full details and (free!) tickets are available via eventbrite.

Even in the age of social media, there are still hundreds of blogs based in Brighton. At the Brighton Homebrew Website Club recently, I realised the Brighton Bloggers directory is still online and it made me nostalgic for the meetups. As well as being a place to talk about blogging, these events were great for community building; finding out about other blogs in town, or meeting the writers of ones you already read.

In planning this, I ended up looking into some of the previous Brighton Blogger meetups. Among the broken links and dead sites there are still a large number of working pages from years ago. (I’ve been listening to Disintegration Loops recently, and the linkrot feels similar to the effect of that soundtrack).

The first Brighton Bloggers event I could find was in August 2003, which was even mentioned on NTK, a much-missed weekly email newsletter. It was around this time that the Brighton Bloggers directory was first created. It seems to have been initially compiled by Joh Hunt, with Jane Dallaway taking over and maintaining it to this day.

I found a few things I’d forgotten about too, such as mentions of the Brighton and Hove Virtual Festival, the first of which was held in 2001. I read some accounts of the 2003 award ceremony which I attended with Joh. Of the 5 nominees for best personal site, two are still running (here’s wordridden’s account of the night), and two of the other nominated domains work, but no longer contain blogs.

There have been other meetups over the years from other groups of Bloggers, such as one in January 2009, which rowstar wrote about:

A small but interesting gathering took over a corner of the recently opened Florist pub (which was the PV), talking about everything from retro phones to tractor-mounted lasers (blame Ant for that one), eco-travelling to the recent celebrity Twitter explosion. All in all it was a very pleasant evening, and nice to connect with fellow bloggers after years of writing away in my own little vacuum. As was generally agreed last night, all this advanced virtual communication technology is all very well, but it’s good to bring it back to the real world once in a while and meet people face to face.

And there was another group who met in 2013, as well as a Bloggers’ stitch and bitch later that year. I also found a fun blog round-up from the Argus in 2009, written by Jo Wadsworth.

I think there is still a place for blogs, and I get most of my news via hundreds of feeds in the feedly app. I think it’s important to produce content outside of the walls gardens of facebook, medium, twitter etc, and there does seem to be a growing return to blogs (sometimes referred to these days as ‘the Isles of Blogging’). The thing I miss most about blogging was the comments and the community. Hopefully this event will be a small step towards bringing those back.

Silicon Beach: what are the challenges?

Last week, I published a post on ‘Brighton as Silicon Beach’, and how the town’s technology sector has not lived up to all of its promise. I wanted to follow-up with a post describing the issues it faces.

I have a number of posts to write about this, and the next one will talk specifically about the present opportunities and promises. There is much to be excited about, and Brighton needs to position itself to profit from these things. I’ve had some very interesting conversations about this recently, and would be happy to have coffee with anyone who has something to add.

Brighton has long had an attractive and exciting digital economy, but it has not produced large-scale growth, and there is a lack of large companies and senior positions. Some of the issues include:

Office Space

The big problem for Brighton is that there is not enough office space for start-ups. In a 2013 FT article, the Chief Executive of Mediatonic described Brighton as  “a city with tall, thin buildings, ideal if you’re a solicitor but not if you’re a tech business wanting several thousand feet of open plan.

Without decent office space for large companies, it’s going to be difficult to attract and keep large organisations. Another issue I’ve seen raised is that not all the new buildings are suitable for tech companies, which require very good broadband. I’ve also heard mention of high business rates, although I’m not in a position to know how serious an issue that is.

Geographical Limitations

Brighton is a thin strip between the sea and a National Park, giving it very little room to expand, other than upwards; and a large number of sky-scrapers might detract from the very atmosphere that draws people here. But without more office space, growing companies have been held back from expansion, or even reduced the Brighton office to a satellite of a new, more expandable office elsewhere.

Travel to work is a significant issue. Part of the attractive Brighton life-style is walking or cycling to work, which means there is a lot of competition for housing, with few central options suitable for growing families. North of the Downs, it’s tricky to travel in, with few buses from nearby towns, and little parking in Brighton for driving in. If the technology sector grows, it will need to be east/west, which relies on train/bus commutes.

Brighton also suffers from being so close to London. While commuting to Brighton from Haywards Heath or Crawley is possible, it’s not much harder for residents there to head to London for more choice and more money. Hastings is, by train, almost as close to London as it is to Brighton.

Lack of Communication

I’ve seen a number of claims that communications between organisations are not as good as they should be; and that if the right people were just talking to each other, everything would be sorted. I have some sympathy with this. As an organiser for Brighton Java, I’ve found it hard to attract speakers or attendees from the two univerities just up the road. And there is definitely a need for intersections between companies, VCs and entrepreneurs (Sussex Founders is one recent initiative in this space).

We also need to develop excitement around specific technologies. Everyone knows that VR, Machine Learning and Blockchain are important areas, but how do we move beyond an awareness of this to developing a community of skilled developers? (If such communities already exist, the question becomes how to make them more visible). A lot of people are working on this, including Wired Sussex and Silicon Brighton; and Brighton scores very highly on the number and diversity of technical meet-ups. We need to make sure the potential here results in more visibly skilled people being available for start-ups that would like to move here. Employees need accurate information to work out which skills are worth investing their limited free time in.

One danger is that in setting up discussions between different groups is that this is an easy way to Do Something, and tends to happen for that reason. We have some excellent networking and discussion groups in town, alongside initiatives like Brighton Brains and the Digital Festival. How do we make use of the existing groups, and position them to help the sector expand?

Culture

There are some interesting cultural issues around Brighton. One possibility is that the laid-back, creative culture that draws some people here also repels others.

It’s also been suggested that we’re missing the sort of start-up culture that is seen in places like Silicon Roundabout, with a wealth of the accelators and incubators (I know there are some here, but the friend in question has a point – their presence in Brighton has not led to a wider cultural visibility).

Brighton has some great success stories. In recent conversations, people have pointed me to some very exciting companies, which makes me wonder why these aren’t more widely known. This is not just in the sense of press releases. We need to get to the point where locals can explain to friends considering moving here what great opportunities there are. Brighton is definitely an exciting town, but we need to communicate this more widely.

In conclusion

As I said in the previous post, I love Brighton, and I want to see it thrive. But the issues raised in this post are real and they are significant. It’s possible that these problems are intractable, and Brighton cannot support the unicorns we’d all like to see here. If that’s the case, we need focus on the things we definitely do well, such as being a boutique, creative enclave where ideas can emerge.

Thank you to everyone who has discussed this with me, on twitter, linked-in and in person. Those thoughts have informed this post, and I’ve made edits to the previous one as needed.

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.

Some other Brighton

This is not the only Brighton. There is a city called Brighton on every continent. There is even a bar of that name in Antarctica (it is little more than a cupboard with a fridge of beer, but it does have a reputation).

There is a New Brighton in the Wirral. And there is a Brighton Beach in New York, on the Coney Island peninsular. There are Brightons on the shores of Australia and New Zealand, places linked only by their haphazard naming.

But the mystery is the landlocked Brightons, the ones without a seafront, where the name seems like mockery. Places with no piers, no beaches, and no waves. But sometimes, in the heart of the night, a lonesome seagull can be heard crying in Brighton, Illinois.

The Brighton Game

There are a lot of things I’ve missed in Brighton through laziness, shyness or just not knowing how to say “yes, and!” to opportunities: magazines I should have tried writing for, famous people I never met, urbex adventures, the Church of the Subgenius etc… But the thing I most regret is never playing The Brighton Game.

The Brighton Game was a weird mix of treasure hunt and I-spy book. When you joined, you were sent a catalogue of missions. These ranged from simple (“gamble £5 on the pier”) to difficult (“be photographed in the mayor’s chain”) to the dubious (“barbecue a seagull”). You wrote in to the game-master with proof of any tasks that you’d completed and every six weeks you were sent a newsletter containing the latest scores, other player’s responses and new missions.

The game apparently started in 1991, and a lot of Brighton’s weirdness in the 90s can be traced back to it. Playing wasn’t cheap but, really, I should have found the money. I don’t know exactly the details of how it ended but I know that it wasn’t good, involving a viking burial near Saltdean that got the authorities involved. The players and the organisers kept a low profile after that. You occasionally find traces of the game – I saw an update letter for sale in a junk shop; and someone once showed me the rulebook, but said it was too precious for me to take it away to photocopy.

I am sad I never got to play The Brighton Game. But now I have the the tools and technical skill to build something similar for myself online. So, I present: Keep Brighton Weird. It’s a web version of the what I imagine the game is like, with some basic ideas inspired by articles I’ve read about San Francisco’s SFZero. It’s currently in alpha (ie it’s playable but  there may be bugs and things that need fixing). I also need to write many more missions, so let me know if you have any suggestions. The name Keep Brighton Weird was inspired by the Keep Portland/Austin Weird campaigns (I wrote about the Keep Brighton Weird slogan back in 2015).

And, if anyone reading this knows where I can get hold of any original mission catalogues, I’d love to include those in the game. But I’ll probably miss out using the challenges that caused so much trouble first time around.

Some other Brightons

This is not the only Brighton. This is Brighton-1218, Brighton Prime. It’s a nice, safe place to be if you’re a regular person.

Brighton-616 is an exciting one, a world of superheroes; sometimes you see visitors from the Xavier School in Upstate New York, over to visit Braddock Manor to the town’s north. There is Brighton-1705, where a succession of storms wrecked the town – nothing remains, just piles of shingle. Brighton-199999 is made up of the Brightons seen in movies: Quadrophenia and Brighton Rock are real in this universe. In Brighton-54, technology has run wild, but people still aren’t happy. In Brighton-2376 the town has been swamped by the ocean, and amphibious people live among the shells. Brighton-72 is where a local kid became prime minister at the age of 17. Brighton-8311 is populated by anthropomorphic animals – they have mated among themselves and produced chimeras. Brighton-14 is a world of grimdark violence. In Brighton-2149, the dead have risen and everyone has been turned to a zombie; they pace the promenade, no need to work. In Brighton-1602 it is still the Elizabethan age, but as a world of wonders. Brighton-3165 is a world of sentient cars. Brighton-1588 is ruled as an outpost of the American Empire. In Brighton-25, all the men have died from a virus, and women have created a new world. Another virus struck Brighton-2323, but killed no-one – instead their skin turned white, except for lips and noses which became bright red, hair turning green. But an ever-increasing number of the Brightons are like Brighton-11, destroyed by nuclear war, different arrangements of debris. Some were sterilised by fallout from blasts over Newhaven Fort .

So many Brightons, but Brighton-1218 is the safest place to be if you are ordinary.

Brighton Festival and Fringe 2018

It’s that time of year when Present James commits Future James to attending lots of events, even though Current James can’t stand the idea of going out two nights in a row. It’s great that the Fringe brings so much great entertainment, but it would be better to have it spread out across the year. There are too many things happening in a short time.

Of course, May’s highlight will be seeing the full version of Rosy’s show Passionate Machine. She performed a version of this in a previous fringe, and since then has been working with producers and dramaturges, meaning that the new version will knock people’s socks off. You can read about it in this interview with Rosy. I’m going to the Monday show.

  • Sh!t Theatre’s Letter to Windsor House is one of my favourite ever theatrical things, and I can’t wait to see DollyWould. I saw a version at Latitude last year and it was great: cloning, body farms and Dolly Parton!
  • The main festival is curated by David Shrigley, whose contributions include Life Model II, which replaces “the live model with David Shrigley’s caricatured sculpture of a nine-foot-tall woman“. So, not problematic at all. Kate Shields is one of the people appearing at a (free but ticketed) discussion panel at Fabrica on May 2nd, Between Artist and Model. Is this the art equivalent of an automated till?
  • Sunday May 6th, there’s a fun double bill at the Dukebox, with two spoken word shows on the same evening. Luke Wright is performing his Down the Pub show, a relaxed pub set. Earlier that same evening, Jonny Fluffypunk has a show at the same venue, How I Came To Be Where I Never Was.
  • On 8th of May, there’s Laud of the Rings. I’ve been thinking a lot about hiking and Tolkien as part of my Walkerpunk project so couldn’t resist this: “Josh Gardner saved Europe by reenacting Frodo’s journey to Mordor [travelling] from Oxford to Istanbul dressed as a hobbit
  • I’ve no idea what to expect from The O.S. Map Fan Club, but I don’t see how a show on that topic won’t be interesting.
  • Iain Sinclair is talking about his book the Last London on May 15th
  • On May 26th, David Bramwell is doing his The Cult of Water show.
  • There are a couple of good events at the Bosco Tent about theatrical genius Ken Campbell. His daughter Daisy is doing her show Pigspurt’s Child (“a romp through Ken’s legacy of lunacy, and a quest for Daisy to make peace with the gap he has left”) and there is a night dedicated to Ken Campbell too.
  • Rosy Carrick is an expert on weightlifting, so was definitely up for seeing Brawn.
  • And, of course, the surprise return of Dynamite Boogaloo!

The Return of DEAN

I was sent the above photograph by Chris, who took it in Barcelona. The lighting might not be perfect, but you can make out the graffiti: DEAN.

A long time ago in Brighton, there was a graffiti artist who wrote that same word in huge capital letters. I’ve written about DEAN in the past; despite the unsophisticated tag, the genius placements made DEAN my favourite graffiti artist.

I read a rumour that the artist had died fleeing from the police. But seeing this picture from Barcelona, I like the idea that DEAN moved to Spain, and has lived a life so wonderful that they have added colour and sparkles to their tag.