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Bristol: the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley

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Clare Reddington

director of iShed and The Pervasive Media Studio

Never mind Valleys and Roundabouts, says Watershed’s Clare Reddington, it’s time to re-discover Silicon Gorge: Bristol and the South West of England.

Silicon Gorge – the high-tech triangle between Bristol, Swindon and Gloucester – has already proved itself on the world stage, according to the World Economic Forum, who describe the area as ‘a hot spring of innovation’.
We’re all in favour of East London’s Tech City ambitions, but it’s worth remembering that the quaysides of Bristol and the South West are already home to UK’s leading competitors within the silicon sector.
Silicon Gorge aerial view
‘Silicon Gorge’ got its name from the Avon Gorge. Legend has it that two giant brothers, Vincent and Goram built it with their own hands, although it was made most famous by Brunel and his impressive bridge. Passing through our historic city, you might never notice the myriad of high tech and research agencies that dot the triangle area between Bristol, Swindon and Gloucester, yet it is this area that is home to the biggest silicon industry in Europe and consists of over 50 companies employing over 5,000 people, fuelling the growth of the digital communications sector and inspiring international companies like HP Labs and Toshiba to base their research in the city.

Industry leaders

Last November, the NESTA report Chips With Everything stated that “the region around Bristol and Bath is home to one of the biggest silicon design clusters anywhere in the world outside Silicon Valley. It is double the size of its nearest UK competitor, Cambridge, and in the last decade, start-ups in the South West have attracted more than $550 million in investment and returned more than $800 million to shareholders.” Silicon Roundabout eat your heart out: it is Bristol’s heavyweights like STMicroelectronics and XMOS that have been, and are set to continue to, drive the UK’s silicon industry.
But what makes the city particularly special is the proliferation of digital and creative genius that already sit alongside this – from major players like Aardman and IMDB to indies like Dare and E3. It is this combination of talent, collaboration and unusual thinking that places Bristol and the South West in the World Economic Forum’s top 100 index of creative environments across the world. And it is in this ecology of generosity and innovation that a recent development scheme, Media Sandbox was conceived and continues to thrive.
Like many good partnerships, Media Sandbox started life in a bar, with a discussion on how to bring together the best of Watershed and HP Lab’s SE3D and South West Screen. Due to perceived risk or lack of track record, a key friction in the UK media market is the difficulty for smaller producers to secure new commissions, and Media Sandbox was set up to bridge this gap, giving small, agile producers the opportunity to develop early stage ideas that test the boundaries of commissioning and perhaps wouldn’t find support elsewhere.
We knew that to help support extraordinary innovators in the region, we had to give them the time and space to research and develop early-stage ideas, so we built an emphasis on community into its DNA; networking content producers, clients and commissioners, sharing knowledge as widely as possible through physical events, blogs and social media, with a particular emphasis on mixing and mingling in Bristol.

Cutting edge innovation

We started in 2008, which produced prototypes for the ‘Magic Mirror’ (face tracking and digital puppeteering) and expanded in 2009, turning any surface into tiny or massive canvasses for projection.
Image of Adam Place with AlphaSphereThis year, we’ve really pushed the boat out with a slate of innovations and experiments covering senses, technologies, platforms and audiences. Darius Pocha is sculpting with scent and Adam Place (left) is building a new musical instrument. Remode are working on video games and heart rates and Mutant Labs are messing about with grunts and shrieks that accompany playing a console game, making them into something useable ‘in game’.
We’re also proud to be working with the South West’s Creative Industries iNET and Bristol Council, whose digital vision for the city supports our slate of ‘B-Open’ projects. For the first time, the council has opened its data to digital innovators: DeLib will be exploring how public spending data impacts on quality of life at a hyper-local level in Bristol, Mobile Pie will use real life pollution data to grow virtual crops, and Overlay are working on a digital map overlay that will use topographical data to provide routes that take into account hills, road surfaces and other obstacles for those with restricted mobility.
Our Sandbox cohort certainly aim high, but their ideas are not just blue sky concepts, and we will be showing off the working prototypes, including scent sculptures and biofeedback games, at a showcase at Watershed, in Bristol, on Friday 18 February. These are pre-market, next-level projects, which will continue to put Bristol on the global map of creative technology hotspots, particularly in time of funding cuts and a relentless drive for profit in the technology and digital industries.
Clare Reddington is Director of iShed and the Pervasive Media Studio, both part of Watershed in Bristol.

Grace Denton, a colleague of Clare’s at iShed and a graduate on the DCMS Jerwood Creative Bursaries scheme, recently blogged in our Bursary Blog, which is following Bursary holders as they begin their career in the arts.
Bristol City view image © Chris Bahn from Bristol Design

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