DESIGN LAB 2: Leaders, pathways and networks


The first Design Lab was a breakthrough opportunity for industry in the West Midlands to express its viewpoints about future growth.

It was an energising moment in which delegates collectively demanded to take hold of their destiny and to be given a much clearer voice in the region.

The second Design Lab, at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon Avon, focused on issues that had been raised in the first lab, and brought together a top-class series of speakers from a wide range of disciplines.

The full range of topics is explored in other posts from the event. But a big theme from both the Labs has been for a much stronger voice for regional industry as it looks to grab opportunities emerging in a changing ecosystem.



John McVay

Frances Anderson
IP and Creative Industry Specialist, VWV
Jack Powell
Senior Policy Analyst, BFI
Caroline Percy
Investment Manager, Ingenious
David Furmage
Creative and Cultural Lead, GBSLEP
Rachel Robey
Senior Producer, Wellington Films
Sol Papadopolous
Producer and director, Hurricane Films
Will Hanrahan
Creative Director, FirstLookTV
Gareth Ellis-Unwin
Head of Film, ScreenSkills
Laura McMillan
Director of Operations and Legacy, Coventry City of Culture
Martin Simms
Head of network development, West Midlands Screen Bureau
Neil Cocker
Consultant on startups and network development
Chris Southall
Studio Director
Sumo Digital
Nick Harper
COO, Exient
Zac Hancock
Production Lead, Social Chain
Amrit Singh (Mr ASingh)
Creative Designer, Artist, Streamer
Natalie Edwards
Birmingham Entrepreneur and Influencer
Sarah Ellis

Director of Digital Development, Royal Shakespeare Company

A theme emerging from both Design Labs has been the requirement for much higher levels of industry engagement and institutional frameworks able to turn industry need into a real case for local, national and global investment.

Those elements need to come together as a coherent system and network, which maximises engagement and creates a flow of value.

There was a need for a clear vision and leadership to deliver, suggested consultant Neil Cocker, though he drew an important distinction: Leadership was essential, he said, but warned that there was a difference between “leadership” and “ownership.”

He said that in his experience, public sector bodies often struggled with that distinction. Success came from structures that encouraged meaningful interaction and engagement between policy and an engaged network of practitioners, not from the exertion of a controlling influence.

He suggested a successful balance was needed between what he called ‘leaders’ and ‘feeders’.

The relationship between leaders and feeders he said was not hierarchical. Feeding the ecosystem with regular interaction, ideas and collaboration was critical. The best networks, he said, were “radically inclusive.”

Leaders were able to pull that together to ensure that momentum was built around a shared sense of direction.

"Industry needs to take the lead."
“We need a coordinated united front”
“Remember most creative industries are small. Don’t let institutions swamp the discussions!”
“The public sector can help champion the case that industry makes for future funding.”
“We need ‘twinning’, pairing companies with different skillsets to share experiences, mentoring and ideas.”

One of the great UK successes, said Jack Powell, Senior Policy Analyst at the BFI, was Screen Yorkshire. What Yorkshire had managed to do was to create industry leadership that could bring together different industries, further and higher education.

 “They have leadership and a plan of how to work together. And there are people willing to deliver on a day to day basis to ensure that businesses work together.

The Design Labs and other research has suggested that work is still needed on making those connections, with industry often feeling disconnected from policy decisions that directly affect them.

Johannah Dyer, MD of Hotbed Media, for example, asked why there seemed to be so little knowledge in industry about key areas of the Local Industrial Strategy, raised in a talk by David Furmage, of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP.

In response, Furmage himself made the case that industry needed a clearer, unified voice to “make our case better.”

The sector needs to take control of its own destiny, suggested Will Hanrahan, of FirstLookTV: “The talent in this room is fantastic. We are much better than we think and we’ve got what it takes.

“But I wouldn’t wait for a local authority to help you and I wouldn’t wait for a British broadcaster to help you. Make something, put it in a can and see who buys it.”

An agilE CO-CREATION culture

Change is a constant in the current Creative Screen ecosystem and it shows no signs of slowing down.

Many of the entrepreneurs around the table at the Design Lab were working with tools, formats and ideas that did not exist a decade ago.

Nick Harper, of games developer Exient said: “You have to be incredibly fast to work in our (games) industry because it keeps changing and you need to change with it.”

Leamington Spa’s so-called Silicon Spa cluster had managed to foster a sense of movement that was able to grasp opportunities in changing markets.

While companies might compete in the marketplace, the cluster as a whole fostered an open culture, in which ideas about change were freely discussed. “Most people in our industry are young and sociable and hang out with each other,” he said. Creative sharing if not free exchange of IP. “Natural and organic”

It is about a dynamic culture of shared direction, said Harper. “The games industry is a balance of creativity and science. We are always trying to solve complex technical problems in order to create an emotional experience for the end user and that unites us. If you are looking to issues like how to access China it is very useful to have peers around you who may have done some work on that and to be able to bounce ideas off them.”

The more established screen industries have also been through a long period of disruption.

Rachel Robey, of Wellington Films said: “It has always been hard. Maybe now it’s got different. The challenges have evolved as the industries have evolved.”

“We need new voices to lead not just the same ones that have been in control for years of decline.”
“We need much stronger collaboration and communication”
“It is time to build better links between FE/HE and industry”

She said the difficulty when Wellington started out was access to the equipment and means to make films. “Nowadays everybody can make product with things that are in our pockets and handbags.

Again, she suggested that the right response was to work with peers and across sectors to discover opportunities. Collaboration counts.

Frances Anderson, an IP specialist with legal company VWV said changing times increased the need for partnership and cooperation: “You need to be able to work with people who have done it before, who can help you take your task through  and help you find the right partners.”

The necessary culture is one of informed risk-taking, a theme explored more below.


The positive tone of the Design Labs has been welcomed by delegates as a necessary antidote to the focus on past failures to invest in the region.

Nonetheless, speakers and participants have recognised the difficulties in trying to quickly build the necessary skills and studio space to support development.

But building the case for investment requires a sense of direction and purpose that has been lacking.

The Labs have criticised the scattergun approach to investment that has lacked a clear narrative, adequate coordination or clarity of need.

As one delegate put it: “You don’t know what you need until you know where you are going.”

Entry level

Entry to the Creative Screen Sector remains a serious challenge, particularly when looking to develop talent that reflects the diversity of communities.

Jack Powell, Senior Policy Analyst at the BFI, said the diversity of the area ought to be one of the greatest strengths: “Every area has something different and the West Midlands has is a diverse, young talent base, a variety of screen industries and world-class video games.”

But feedback from the event suggested that claims of a “young, digital and diverse” West Midlands talent base was a work in progress with serious shortfalls.

Rachel Robey, of Wellington Films said: “Privilege is such a massive issue. You think about all the people who think the industry isn’t for them. Class is still a big issue.”

She said a desire to be inclusive needed to be backed up with actions. Some of the necessary work was in ensuring that the industry makes proper connections to the full diversity of communities.

“You look at some of the training courses and you see the children of lots of other industry practitioners. It might be that they are the best people to be on those courses but it can also be that they are the only people who know about them.

Chris Southall, of Sumo Digital, said that these are challenges for education as well as industry.

Games, he suggests, is a mixture of both hard science and creative skills. It is where art meets science and, he says, there are concerns about the development of the UK skills base in both areas.

Some companies have been successful in developing their own means of recruiting young talent. Sol Papadopolous, of Hurricane Films, said there was no substitute for hands-on experience. His company helps young talent get a foot in the door through a placement scheme, which asks participants for two days a week for three months to a year to read scripts and do reports. “80-85% of those people go on to work for the bigger production companies.”

Robey said that those business-led initiatives had become tougher because government schemes to support business placements have declined and she said there was strong evidence of the value of placement to both candidate and employer. “It would be a huge springboard for businesses anywhere to recruit in a way that’s financially supported.”

The skills base

Oscar-winning producer and now Head of Film at ScreenSkills, Gareth Ellis-Unwin, said it was important to understand the breadth of need in skills development: “We’ve been trying to bring some cohesion and alignment to what we are doing around skills development.

“If you are trying to build a region, I would urge a couple of things to take place. I’ve heard lots about IP and content generation but you have to look beyond above the line. I employed 456 people on The King’s Speech – one director, four producers and one writer and everyone else had proper jobs. We need to start paying attention to those other jobs.”

It was important to understand the needs of a screen economy in terms of that bigger working infrastructure: “We are creating incredible ambition and belief and I never think we should quieten that but look at those ratios, six people versus 450.”

Developing business

“We need more peer-to-peer mentoring.”
“We need well-resourced industry organisations working in collaboration.”
“It feels like we have a training gap between further and higher education and the needs of industry.”
“We need to ask how an inclusive workforce is fostered in every intervention.”

The Design Labs have been focused on how to develop sector growth.

Delegates have talked about much of the sector as a series of “glass ceilings”, which become increasingly difficult to break through, particularly for less-established producers.

Robey said: “There are lots of things that are complicated in running a business. You need to keep it as streamlined as possible to keep the costs down but equally you need to expand to the point where you can take on more work.”

Robey said the West Midlands Production Fund, like many other regional funds, have got incredibly stringent commercial requirements because its money has to recycle, so when you are putting together early-stage feature films, they often don’t have those commercial elements attached. “It’s not soft money but it feels like it should be. In reality, these are incredibly commercial funds going into incredibly commercial films.”

She suggested that there needed to be different kinds of funds aimed at emerging film-makers to support growth. And, she warned, there were no signs of the task getting easier.

“Understanding routes to market has got really challenging, particularly as the industry never stands still.”

Creative industries

A number of delegates said that the screen industries had failed to exploit the opportunities that might come by connecting with other creative industries.

The digital era has seen the boundaries of creative content creation blurring.

“It is good for people to break out beyond the groups they have already got established because today Film, TV and whatever have become a collective medium,” said Rachel Robey, of Wellington Films.

It was a common piece of feedback from tables, which were posted on the walls for comment.

“Where is the music industry in our discussions?”
“We need to find methods in which traditional screen media can engage with immersive technologies.”
"Most of us are commercial companies but we often make cultural content and we need those links."

Delegates pointed out that opera is now regularly seen in cinemas, while music video, particularly on YouTube now represented an invaluable part of the music business model.

Splitting the screen industries from the rest of the creative economy risked missing economic opportunities and ignored the reality of both the changed business models of different parts of the sector, and the ways that today’s audience consumed content.

Nick Harper’s Exient worked with the BBC on developing an app for Strictly Come Dancing.

“You need to think wisely. You cannot do everything. Why did we collaborate with the BBC on Strictly? It was because we felt we could make a game out of that experience and that the IP would make an easier route to market. The stars aligned.

We always look for opportunities to work with creatives in other industries.”


LOCATION AND Environment

The West Midlands as a region faces challenges, lacking the clear identity of a UK nation, or a region with a long-established and clear identity, such as Yorkshire.

Years of neglect of the Creative Screen Sector has also led to critical weaknesses. Regional business has not, for example, been comprehensively mapped, meaning finding other businesses with whom to partner can sometimes be a matter of luck. (Mapping is an important part of this work.)

Robey, of Wellington Films, said growing a business in the Midlands was a “double-edged sword. “Being outside London means there are less obvious opportunities on the doorstep.

“But there are advantages. Before we made London To Brighton, we got lots of mentoring, funded by what were then the regional screen agencies, including mentoring, workshops and support for travel to festivals and events. “We just soaked it all up,” she said.

Those regional screen agencies have been replaced and there have been challenges in setting up alternatives but she said: “I would urge this region, like any, to set up networks that allow people to make connections and find like-minded people. And you need a support network, people you can share the pain with.”

Those hubs, she suggested are most valuable where there are physical spaces to collect people together and finding ways to make content together. That growing sense of collaborative space underpinned much of the conversation at the Design Lab.

Cocker said that physical meetings were often where the greatest value could be found: “Meetings in pubs and chats in coffee shops are often where the real information exchange happens.”

That sense of place is an essential part of a successful cluster, he suggested, and there is evidence from the region to back up the idea.

“We need to develop open formal networks and informal close networks working alongside each other.”
“Integrate social and commercial activity.”
“Wales became a major production centre because it decided it wanted to be one.”

The West Midlands has a great example in the power of those physical networks in the games cluster around Leamington Spa. The so-called Silicon Spa, with more than 40 developers in a five-mile radius, has a worldwide reputation and is a magnet for investment from some of the biggest multinational names.

Chris Southall, at Sumo Digital: “It is a nice area and people want to come here.” 

But the trick is building a sense of a shared space and a shared culture, he said: “Because we have a cluster, we do see people coming internationally, who are happy to accept a job in Leamington because they know there are other developers.

“There is a sense of stability in the area. If one developer goes pop, there are others around. TV is more contract based whereas developers like to stay in the same place.