DESIGN LAB 2: Building an international reputation

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The final part of the Design Labs is always an open discussion based on the principles of Design Thinking. The first Lab proved to be an influential debate involving voices from across the sector and offered a vision of a collaborative, networked sector with a clear sense of direction and the industry-led processes go advance.

The second Design Lab discussion aimed to build on those initial findings, focusing on how to build an inspiring and coherent regional message that could help the West Midlands take advantage of the global opportunities, outlined by speakers earlier in the day.

To understand the potential, delegates were asked to find what they felt were the strengths of the region that might translate into assets for sectoral growth.

There was some consensus:

Location and demographics were clearly seen as a major strength but any aspiration to turn “young, diverse and digital” advantages into world-beating business comes with major challenges.

Delegates were under no illusions that while there is a wealth of young talent and growing transport connectivity, it is as easy to leave as it is to arrive.

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The agreement at the Lab was that the region needed to address:

·         Business and talent development strategies

·         Support for Research and Development

·         Production spaces

·         Aligned skills strategies to support the new strategies

·         Mechanisms for supporting diverse talent with a focus on under-represented groups

·         Communication with the wider world - brand, festival appearances,

·         A clear and confident brand

Open doors

Earlier in the day, Gareth Ellis-Unwin, of ScreenSkills warned against insularity and urged the region to look for answers and ideas from the widest sources possible.

It was an idea that resonated with delegates with a sense that regional ambitions were best achieved through opening doors.

“We need to bring in the best new talent and take pride in them coming to our region, rather than thinking this is all about promoting what we already have,” said one group. “When no-one wants to come here, it also means that no-one really wants to stay.”

A number of contributions talked about the value of incoming talent, which is appropriate for a region where immigration has created our identity and cultural wealth.

“We need an environment where people feel welcome,” said one group of participants.

A feeling of dynamism, competition and fluid movement between sectors and skills was felt to be essential to the economic case for regional investment but also critical for making younger people feel there were opportunities in industries that have been seen as closed and elitist.

A major obstacle to regional growth, some suggested, was the domination of a few local voices in industry and the private sector.

Unlocking fresh opportunities required a new set of influencers and engagement with emerging global markets and exciting new opportunities to build IP.

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 Brand messages

There was a feeling that the rest of the world, and even the rest of the UK, had a limited, and sometimes negative, impression of the West Midlands.

Building a singular narrative, capable of changing minds, was recognised as a major challenge. One of the most basic issues was the lack of a strong identity for the West Midlands regional, certainly compared to the UK nations, or to regions, such as Yorkshire. It was easier to think in terms of cities, such as Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton.

Some felt that cooperation among Creative Industries might act as a catalyst for building that sense of a regional loyalty. It was pointed out that Denmark, Sweden and Norway had successfully built a global creative reputation around the brand of ‘Scandinavia’, with enormous benefits to each constituent country (e.g. ‘Scandi Noir’ books, films and TV).

While some felt it was easier to focus on individual cities, others felt there were good reasons for building a West Midlands identity, including existing and strengthening regional political and industrial structures with a voice in government and the geographic spread of industries across the regional creative sector.

Event chair Michael Gubbins reminded delegates that the combined West Midlands population is bigger than Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and 25 European countries, including creative success stories, such as Denmark and Finland. Regional ambitions needed to aim high at those kind of levels.

Within the region, it was felt that there was a tendency to either exaggerate strengths, or over-play weaknesses with little sense of a coherent narrative. The region had a tendency to be defensive, suggested a number of delegates, and to focus on what has been lost (particularly in relation to television studios), or where investment has been missed.

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One of the values of being in Warwickshire for the event was its proximity to Leamington Spa, whose games cluster has a global reputation. It was felt by some that the region had failed to work with, and learn from, those world-beating digital businesses.

Others suggested the region has assets that are already feeding a growing and positive international reputation (Peaky Blinders being a prime example), or could be better promoted, notably that the region has been home to many great musicians and musical genres.

Delegates divided into groups and were asked to come up with what they felt were the key messages. What emerged was surprisingly consistent.

A storytelling brand

Delegates divided into groups and were asked to come up with an initiative that could help build and promote the West Midlands on the national and international stage. Their thinking was based on what were felt to be regional strengths and on the suggested opportunities revealed in the Design Lab.

What emerged was surprisingly consistent, beginning with definitions of the West Midlands. ‘brand’

Among the suggestions were:

A number of participants felt that we needed to ensure that we tied historic tradition to a focus on the future. The idea of “Digital Shakespeare” was mentioned by more than one group and most sought explicit links to past strengths in industrial innovation.

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All saw value in stressing the potential of focusing on storytelling in its broadest sense.

The West Midlands Screen Bureau’s initial thinking on regional development had suggested that the region could be promoted as The Ideas Factory, and similar themes emerged. The Bureau’s overall strategy is called From Ideas to IP, which was again reflected in the discussion.

There was a strong sense of realism about the challenges of mobilising the full diversity of talent into a storytelling powerhouse. And equally, about the difficulties of turning those ideas into sustainable business with the muscle to compete in global markets.

Some missing ingredients were identified:

·         Development methodologies

·         Incubation spaces and processes

·         How to finance development stage

·         Inclusivity policies to develop talent

·         An event that would allow the regional narrative to reach a global audience

·         Professional brand building

·         Links between industry and key stakeholders

At the moment, some felt, the region is a brain drain, the brightest and best went to Manchester and London and places with easier access to infrastructure, capital and jobs.


CONCLUSION: AN INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT EVENT

Among the suggested areas for strategic focus, agile and flexible film funds, aimed at development was a high priority for some. “We need funds with rules that can work for us,” said one of the delegate groups.

Those funds needed to be focused towards developing skills, according to another. A changing world created new skills needs and the West Midlands needed to have the finance to support development in areas of potential faster than elsewhere. Five-year plans and grand strategies no longer worked.

But the conclusion of the majority of groups centred on the idea of an event with the potential to build an international reputation.

Delegates recognised the valuable global profile that came with major hit events, with UK examples mentioned including the Edinburgh Television Festival, Sheffield Doc Fest and the Manchester International Festival.

It was acknowledged that the region had some strong events already, that might benefit from greater coordination and from a higher profile. But it was also felt that something new was needed that tied into the ambitious brand message.

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One table concluded:

Another said:

The exact focus of the event clearly opened up a range of diverse possibilities, but they tended to revolve around a festival of storytelling.

For some, it was less about finished stories and ideas (for factual series, etc) and more about turning the West Midlands into a recognised global centre for creative ideas development.

One group suggested a 10-day event that would bring together an exciting public festival, showcasing talent with a strong practical component as a collaborative practical event, developing multi-layered ideas for a range of creative businesses. Most proposed events included a strong outreach programme, creating links with diverse communities and ensuring the festival belongs to all.

As well as being a showcase local talent the festival would invite the very best in the story and ideas development field from around the world, including success stories from the region, who have left the region.

Others suggested market and pitching elements, in which buyers could come face to face with brilliant new diverse talent and look at potential investment. That would create links with the international market. Such an event would offer an unprecedented opportunity to really capitalise on the power of academic institutions, working hand in hand with industry.

A number of participants said it could be an opportunity to collaborate with some of the fastest growing and rapidly evolving creative industries outside the screen sector.

 

 

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MICHAEL Gubbins