URBACT programmes bring together towns and cities from across Europe to work together, share best practice, and develop solutions for urban challenges. TechTown, as you might guess, is a project focussed on digital tech. The representatives from the eleven European towns/cities taking part are all from the public sector, usually with a focus on urban and economic development. Specifically, the aim is to “equip small and medium sized cities with the knowledge and networks to maximise the job creation potential of the digital economy”.
In plain English, the Tech Town project poses the question, “How can we create the right environment in our town/city for entrepreneurs and businesses operating in the digital economy to thrive?”
Barnsley is the lead partner for TechTown, bringing together eleven European cities. Barnsley is a medium town of 230,000 inhabitants (within the metropolitan borough), and is situated in Sheffield City Region (SCR), just 20 minutes by train from Sheffield. Tracey Johnson is the TechTown Project Lead from Barnsley, as well as being the Digital Sector Specialist at Enterprising Barnsley (part of Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council), and the Director of the wonderful Barnsley DMC, a creative hub providing business support & startup incubation, co-working, and office space. I’ve got to know Tracey over the past couple of years, and she invited me to come to Estonia, along with representatives from most of the other 11 cities:
The brief was to run a workshop to encourage participants to come up with practical actions to help them facilitate an effective tech entrepreneurship ecosystem in their town/city. Back in September 2016, I had presented to this same group about “digital tech entrepreneurship ecosystems”, so in a way, this workshop was Part II: Putting it into Practice.
To cut the jargon, we come back to that initial question, what can local government practitioners do to create the right environment for digital entrepreneurs and businesses to thrive? The focus for most local governments is job creation and economic growth, and participants in TechTown were no exception to this.
I decided to run a workshop called “Ecosystem-in-a-box”, based on an exercise that I had taken part in on a three-day ecosystem course run by the ScaleUp Institute in April 2016. The challenge I set was for TechTown participants was to design their perfect ecosystem, and then work backwards to establish what actions they (and other stakeholders) needed to take in order to realise their vision.
One of the principles of ecosystem development is that you categorically can’t “create” an ecosystem top down — but what you can do is create the conditions to allow entrepreneurship to flourish.
From a public sector point of view, this often means removing barriers (for example, lowering business rates) or providing business support (mentorship schemes, training etc.). There are multiple ways in which the public sector can act holistically, and the aim of this workshop was to draw out those practical actions that each town/city could take.
It was a fun workshop; we had on hand all possible craft materials anyone could possibly need! I think there were a few eye-rolls when I announced that they’d be building something, but actually, there’s something quite powerful about making your vision come to life physically and spatially.
What came out of the workshop was a whole range of innovative ideas… Cesis (Latvia) came up with the idea of a “digital sandbox”: a playground for the business sector, local government, and the education sector to integrate, communicate, and create new things. The focus in Dubrovnik (Croatia) was on space — how to more closely physically interlink local government, the business sector, and the creative industries. “Digital Limerick 2020” aims to be one of the most digitally mature cities in Ireland by coordinating skills provision across educational providers and by bringing specialisation to the various digital tech incubators in the city. Clermont-Ferrand (France) is fortunate to have the amazing Bivouac tech incubator space, and they want to build on this by forming strong connections with other international ecosystems, such as Tel Aviv, and start to pilot exchange programmes. The primary focus in Gävle (Sweden) is to map what is out there at the moment in terms of entrepreneurship support, assess gaps, and then to communicate a singular vision to get everyone’s buy-in and commitment. In Barnsley, the desire is to work to break down any barriers around closed data, and remove any geographic barriers by forming strong connections with nearby cities.
The takeaway here (to answer the titular question) is that there’s no such thing as a “perfect” ecosystem. Each town / city / cluster has its own strengths and areas for improvements, its own cultural norms, its own particular mix of stakeholders with their varying motivations. By coming up with a vision of where we want to get to, we can start to put in place actions that will help us to get there, and this particular workshop is just one way of exploring that vision. There is no point copying and pasting* from Silicon Valley, London, Boston, Colorado, Tel Aviv… but what public practitioners can do is take key learnings and adapt them to their own environs.