A look ahead to Brighton Digital Festival 2016
PUBLISHED: 16:23 06 September 2016 | UPDATED: 16:23 06 September 2016
This month Brighton celebrates being at the forefront of digital technology. Duncan Hall finds out why the city is so tech-savvy
This year is a milestone in Brighton Digital Festival’s six year history.
For the first time it is being run as a Community Interest Company, just like Brighton and Hove Pride – and new manager Laurence Hill is relishing the challenge of bringing the event to a bigger audience.
“The festival has grown year on year,” he says. “The audience last year was 160,000 people, but many of them were from a fairly narrow pool. For me what is really crucial is that we start to widen the audience for the festival’s long term sustainability. We need to move away from the tech bubble and start thinking about the people outside it.”
The idea of a Brighton tech bubble is not new. A study by the University of Brighton and University of Sussex estimated the digital and creative sector in the city contributes £1bn a year to the local economy. In December 2015 the Financial Times reported a 91 per cent rise in digital companies between 2010 and 2013 in Brighton and Hove, with 7,458 employees in the digital sector.
With these numbers it’s no surprise the Brighton SEO Conference – which launches Brighton Digital Festival on Friday, 2 September – has grown so fast. Kelvin Newman founded the event in 2010 as a get-together in the pub for those involved in SEO (search engine optimisation – getting people to your website or business). This year the day-long event in the Brighton Centre sold all its 3,500 tickets in 13 minutes.
Kelvin, who came from a Brighton-based digital marketing agency, says the conference’s audience has changed. “Initially it was people working in a couple of digital marketing agencies in and around Brighton, Worthing and Eastbourne,” he says. “Now we have people from 20 different countries, even Australia. More businesses take SEO seriously and more people are being employed in-house to do it. A lot of people we meet in the pub afterwards say they moved down or relocated their business to Brighton, Worthing or Haywards Heath because they had a good time at the conference.”
He believes Brighton’s location is important – not least its proximity to London and the sea. The two city universities bring new graduates into the digital world – he himself is a graduate of the University of Sussex. “You might be in a digital marketing agency, and have a hobby in music or art,” he adds. “There is an opportunity to follow that hobby in Brighton, which many other cities don’t have.” The flexibility of the digital world means people can work from home – Kelvin works remotely from a cabin at the bottom of his Tarring garden. “I would rather work in a place which is more convenient for me and enjoy the place I have chosen to live than spend that time commuting,” he says.
A sense of place has been key in the rise of the blogger and vlogger. Brighton-based YouTube stars such as Zoella, Alfie Deyes, Niomi Smart and PewDiePie regularly talk up the city. Zoella even used Brighton as her inspiration for a beach hut cake when she was on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off in 2015. More bloggers and YouTube stars are moving to the city, including 26-year-old Lily Melrose, whose work inspired blogger Rosie Crompton.
Rosie 25, launched her own beauty blog Everything’s Rosie while still a student at the University of Brighton in 2011. Her site was nominated for a Cosmo Blog Award in 2013. Unlike Zoella, who according to the Daily Mail bought a £1m five-bedroom house in Brighton from the proceeds of her 7.4 million subscribers, Superdrug bath range and best-selling book Girl Online, Rosie is still holding down a day job as an events and marketing executive. “The blog has grown with me as I can afford to buy nicer things,” she says of the website she describes as a hobby rather than a career. “I have a disclaimer on my site saying if I’ve been sent something and don’t like it I won’t write about it. A lot of bloggers are brutally honest and give very negative opinions. I see my blog as a positive space on the internet – it’s about what makes me happy.”
Brighton has its own beauty blogging community which regularly gets together and is invited to launches and special events. “Places like Trevor Sorbie will have blogger parties,” she says. “Since 2009 most of my friends I have made through blogging. We all share a similar interest, and learn a lot from each other.” Perhaps more importantly businesses are seeing the value of bloggers. “I think the bloggers are more valuable than a celebrity endorsement,” she says. “If a product gets a lot of hype from certain bloggers then everyone wants to write about it and review it. Companies pay bloggers a lot of money which is how some people make a living from it.”
The tandem rise of the vlogger and blogger is part of what could be seen as the digital world’s generation gap. Juha Van’t Zelfde, artistic director of Brighton-based digital arts and culture agency Lighthouse, believes there is a huge disconnect between people born in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and the technological world. “If you were to ask Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn to describe Snapchat, Grindr or any kind of obscure social media app they would have no idea,” he says. “But it is so natural for people born after 1989 you don’t have to tell them about these things. There is such potential for equality in engaging with each other through the internet with communities that are disconnected with each other or aren’t so visible.”
Lighthouse produces commissions and exhibitions supporting contemporary art and digital culture – running mentoring schemes for film-makers and hosting the regular Progress Bar club night for what FACT Magazine described as “cutting edge thinking and dancing.”
“Lighthouse tries to explore things from the bottom up,” says Juha. “We are interested in new developments, as well as the political, social behaviours and cultural impacts of new technology and the spin-off externalities.”
The company was one of the original partners in the Brighton Digital Festival, and is bringing a bigger Long Progress Bar to this year’s event. Graphic novelist Warren Ellis will introduce radical artists, musicians and thinkers to Brighton Dome Studio Theatre on Thursday, 8 September to explore “the platforms, interfaces and resolutions needed to build a better future”.
“What is playing out as we speak with the US election and the whole post-Brexit debate is a post-fact and post-truth democracy,” says Juha. “Meaning has been turned into imagination and sentiment rather than facts. Donald Trump says what he feels like, and people believe it until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Understanding the dynamics of the media is core to what we are trying to do.” Other areas the Long Progress Bar has investigated in the past include the need for an economic revolution in arts funding, to support those doing new work which might not turn them a profit – especially now music and movies can be streamed for free. He sees the role of Lighthouse in the future as the equivalent of a digital job centre and alternative school. Brighton’s history of revolutionary thinking and change, in championing movements like organic farming and slow food, fits in with the digital world. “I wish the entire UK were a bit more like Brighton,” he says. “But then I wish Brighton was a bit more like the UK as well – it is very expensive to live here and seems to be swayed towards the middle class cosmopolitan lifestyles which might not benefit all of us.”
And this is where the Brighton Digital Festival might help in getting the message of this new growing economy out to a wider public – as festival manager Laurence says, out of the tech bubble.
Laurence doesn’t believe there is necessarily such a digital gap across the generations. “There is a relationship between young people and Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat – but they still only look at the first page of Google results and don’t think beyond that. I was born in the 1960s and I’m much more connected than that.”
So across more than 150 events Brighton Digital Festival is aiming its sights on a broad audience from school children redesigning their home city through building game Minecraft to Age UK classes teaching digital essentials for the over-50s.
“The way the festival works is 95 per cent of the events are organised by people in the city who want to do something,” says Laurence. “We try to curate an arts strand and education strand which supplements the rest of it.”
Among the free events is a chance to send text messages to lamp posts and street furniture across the city in Hello Lamp Post, as piloted in Bristol three years ago.
A theme throughout the programme is virtual reality, as devices such as VR headset Oculus Rift become more affordable. Slave To Mortal Rage is a new immersive work at The Old Market in Upper Market Street, Hove created by arts company Circa69. It gives participants five minutes to explore a virtual reality apartment and discover the story at the centre of it.
More traditional dance culture interacts with the digital world in Pattern Recognition, a collaboration between choreographer Alexander Whitley and digital artist Memo Akten. The performance, also at The Old Market, uses motion-responsive technology to track and respond to dancers. And a fun free show at Fabrica in Duke Street, Brighton, sees resident artist Elly Clarke adopt the persona of drag princess Sergina to star in one of four simultaneous 25-minute performances staged in Brighton, Berlin and Belgrade which will be broadcast with each feed overlaid each other on her YouTube channel.
The performance links into what Laurence believes may be part of Brighton’s attraction to the digital community, based on Richard Florida’s idea of The Creative Class – a group of people who drive economic development in post-industrial cities. “Often the creative class follows the LGBT community,” he says. “It attracts creative people who think outside the box. The universities and former art school really feed creative interests.” Indeed a study by Brighton Fuse in 2013 found that 48 per cent of Brighton entrepreneurs were actually arts, design or humanities graduates rather than having studied the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects pushed by the Government as being essential to the digital economy.
Laurence hopes that in 2017 and 2018 the festival will expand beyond its September confines to offer more digital opportunities throughout the year. “We have to go out to people and talk to them about what we do,” he says. “I want to encourage more reaching out to different communities in a very proactive way.”