Northern Lights: Innovation runs through the DNA of our city of creators and makers

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The creative industries contribute 92bn a year gross added value to the UK economy and employs over three million people, states a recent report from the Government. 
From publishing, to theatre to media and arts, architecture and games technology, its influence is both economic and social.

From the films we watch, to the books we read, the images we see on billboards, Instagram, the music we listen to, the clothes we wear, all are created through imagination talent and skill. But it is an economy that has been historically overlooked by regional and national agendas because small micro businesses make up more than 92 percent of the companies within the creative industries sector, employ fewer than ten people and on average a lot less.
It is more difficult perhaps to coalesce the many, than to bring four or five industrial giants into a room – more difficult to understand that small businesses do not have the infrastructure or the luxury to attend government think tanks, local enterprise breakfast mornings and often do not meet the criteria for networking opportunities. Stereotypes are generic and sometimes sadly accurate and approaches between the creative sectors and the wider business community in the city can sometimes resemble a bad episode of First Dates.

We had an advantage over other cities as our relationships were real and developed through years of collaboration and integration from our two universities.

The standard top down approach of engaging with businesses through the Chamber of Commerce or Local Enterprise Partnerships generally results in a room full of middle aged businessmen with identikit grey suits. On the other end of the scale, creative networks in fashionably decaying buildings lit by Edison style bulbs and fairy lights, populated by bearded hipsters, are equally riddled with clichés.

The creative industries are a business, their companies make money, have collectively over 21,000 employees in the city and are the very reason why Sheffield is vibrant, funny and continues to retain its historic identity as a City of Makers. The news then of a nationally funded scheme to enable creative clusters to be funded, supported and developed announced last September came as welcome news with the added caveat that this support must be enabled through university research and development and would be a national competition.

So in true Sheffield fashion, a coalition of the willing was led by the University of Sheffield, co-produced in partnership with Sheffield Hallam and many leading companies. We had an advantage over other cities as our relationships were real and developed through years of collaboration and integration from two universities. Offers were made from the wider Yorkshire cities to join a coalition but we believed and still believe that Sheffield has enough talent of to go it alone and be the hub not the spoke. We listened to the businesses, organised workshops and surveyed 1,400 companies, asking them what was their main challenge.

Their answers have shaped our bid, their concerns are real, not imaginary, grounded in evidence based on listening and learning. It has enabled us to construct a framework that enables space to grow, time to think and investment for development – a place where blue sky thinking can be backed up by hard economic resource. We concentrated on growing hubs of activity, design, publishing music and performance as who can argue when your city is home to the Crucible, Docfest and Yellow Arch studios. We defined our cluster as being emerging but historic, vibrant but lacking scale and true to the spirit of the original mesters workshops that define the architecture of the city. For where once there would have been courtyards full of individual makers associated largely with the cutlery industry there are publishers, poets, designers, gamers and bakers. From the desolation of the death of the large industries that shaped the city and region, the makers and future makers continued creating, forging, innovating but in areas such as gaming, immersive technology, product design or beautiful craft based products.

Last month we discovered our proposal Future- Making was one of only 22 shortlisted in the country and one of only three in Yorkshire. We had taken the amble and stuck true to the spirit of Sheffield, the city of Little Mesters who produce, develop and create things of beauty and practicality. We have come this far, shown to the wider economic paymasters in London that Sheffield is a place of high growth, a city of ideas and talent where we make beautiful things, practical products and high tech innovation runs through our DNA.

We have more steps to take, more deadlines to meet but wish us well, this coalition of the willing, as we continue through the beauty parade of the shortlist. For the city deserves it.