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I tend to agree, and I think it's one of the biggest barriers to Brum becoming a 'digital centre' (David Harte, the speaker at the last Presents event, is involved with a city project to achieve this by 2010).
The thing that has struck me before is that communities exist - lots of them - but it's all really disparate and all contained in very small bubbles and therefore not very scene. I'm aware of things like Social Media cafe, Birmingham Bloggers, the the Twestival meet, the Wordcamp two years ago etc etc - it shows people are engaging, but the fact is we have no common overlap. In fact, I was passed details of another organisation in Brum that meets at Millennium point monthly to discuss web (and sound) stuff only this week - I had no idea they even existed until someone at Matthew Boulton college mentioned it: http://www.creativenetworksonline.com/portal/index.asp
Clearly there is an ability to build a scene here, but like you say, the fact Multipack itself is made up of people all over the West Midlands (stretching from Stourbridge to Stafford) means that it's just not that easy to build regular, reliable web communities. It's not like Paulo Alto where 90% of the people are web types and live within two or three miles of each other.
I think there is a real opportunity for Birmingham to lead the way, but I think often the people who can facilitate change (e.g. local government) don't engage the right people, or at least all the people who should be engaged, nor does the Midlands as a whole get treated as a single block when it comes to funding.
If Birmingham really wants to become the leading digital city in the UK (and I genuinely believe that's a title up for grabs over the coming years - and I don't want Manchester to claim that crown too) they need to invest in venues and centres where we can meet and use for digital ends. For example, somewhere well-publicised, providing free wifi, office/conferencing facilities, a permanent place for exhibition (local and international content), a sort of business-club house for the web industry and based sensibly and centrally near transport (so it's taken seriously) that digital businesses could hire, showcase in and have a say in it's operation would be fantastic and at least provide some higher point which would allow some overlap of these groups.
It wouldn't want to attempt to merge any of the groups, just provide a central point of communication that actually had some draw for people to come and use it, including outsiders and (digital-related) visitors from other cities to see why we're leading the way in the field.
It's a big and blue sky idea, but if Birmingham/The Midlands is serious, we need something like that, and it would need to be guided by people 'on the ground' because like with every government-funded project (think Business Link) the money is so rarely well spent when it comes to digital (or at least that's my experience in this region of the country).
Currently I think the reason we fail to have a serious scene is because there are a lot of independent organisations and individuals, but none of them share any space - people are spread right out across the city and beyond. From the Custard Factory to the Jewellery Quarter, from Fort Dunlop to wherever. There are loads of people engaged in this industry but outside of our own small groups we don't talk or meet because there simply aren't the facilities, lines of communication and we've no ability or finance to do anything about it ourselves.
And this is one of the reasons that if it were to happen it shouldn't be tacked onto/be part-use of the Custard Factory or Millennium point because these buildings are not central, not really easily reachable and don't provide a good enough reason for people to drive and just use them.
The idea of a point which could become a well-publicised focus (with adverts on public transport stretching out in all directions from Birmingham) for all people in the region would be smashing. I've no idea if this would even be taken seriously.
I don't even know if there is a forum for these 'bigger' ideas - why? - because communication between West Midlands based local government and citizens is both poor and disconnected.
It's a shame because I share Stuart's frustration.
I think you're right about the youth club thing, and that's a fear I'd have too. I also understand the practicalities are somewhat complex/expensive! If it were to ever happen I'd be keen to give the stake holders as much control as possible (local goverment, no matter how well intentioned, would not get it quite right) and also that's why I wouldn't want it 'appended' to any other initiative or pre-existing 'center' as they all appear to lack location, location, location.
The spontaneous coffee shop idea is good, and I know that persons from the social media cafe would recommend Coffee Lounge by New Street station as a fantastic venue for that to happen from. I would agree.
If you're not familiar with it, it's always packed with businessy types because it's the only coffee shop in the city with free wifi and has (open) meeting space downstairs including a boardroom table (and sockets!). If you don't want/need beer or a proper office space, it's the best place to meet with clients IMO.
It's great and I've had many business/web meeting in there. The only place in Brum I ever meet anyone.
That said, I'm not sure how you can grow it from there, I'll self-profess, organising events are not my strong point.
I agree, this is a West Midlands problem, not just a Birmingham city one.
Oh, and as a reference point for my hairbrained idea - think less youth club, more IOD hub, just a little less grand: http://is.gd/uzK4
I think you've touched on an important issue Stuart.
Birmingham doesn't have a "web scene", not in the way London and Brighton have. I'm not entirely sure why this is but there are a few issues involved from my point of view:
This is just a brain dump on the topic with no real objective by the way. Don't think I've got a plan.
If I was to be honest Stuart, I'd suggest you do move to London. I know what a great crowd there is down there, even if my involvement was rather limited. If it was a realistic option for us two years ago, we'd've moved down there too but it just wasn't fair on the rest of the family.
I don't think this issue will be resolved that quickly neither but I'd like to think the Multipack have and could contribute even more to creating an actively engaged web scene who are passionate about what they do.
I think most of the reasons for the lack of a web scene in Birmingham have been suggested, but I thought I would chime in with a few thoughts given that I'm now a self-conscious hip Brightonian (yet still regular Multipack attendee).
I think Brighton and London are hubs for new media is down to a combination of factors, namely location, population density, culture and background.
Palo Alto (and the San Francisco peninsula) became a hive of technological activity largely due to the presence of Stanford University.
London is a hub of activity almost by default being the nations capital and home to 7 million people (and for that reason probably the centre for a lot of different industries also).
Brighton is an area rich for new media geekery due to a combination of it's closeness to London, its small concentrated size, and also it's liberal attitude (see San Francisco) which is attractive to many within our industry (see Open Source, Creative Commons and the like).
For these reasons, they almost didn't have to try that hard to become home to prominent web scenes. At the same time, none of the same could be said of Birmingham: It's population is spread out across a large number of counties, the city centre has no creative hub whilst all the coffee shops are owned by Starbucks and the area has poor transport connections. At the same time its background is largely industrial, and in terms of politics, historically more socialist leaning than liberal.
So in order for Birmingham to achieve the same level of prominence as other hubs would require a consistent and sustained effort from a large group of people, over a number of years, as building such a scene is going against the grain.
One thing I will say however, and this struck me a little after the first Multipack Presents event when this was mentioned - I do sense a slight uncomfortable anti-London/Brighton vibe. I know this is largely in jest, but I do think we should be more open to learning from those areas rather than dismissing them out of hand. I've spoken to a few people in Brighton for example that would be more than willing to travel to Birmingham to give presentations at the Multipack Presents event for example. In fact, accepting such offers would have the effect of legitimising the area as up-and-coming.
I think your website Stuart is a great first step, but we need more of the same. Brighton's scene seems heavily based around an industry wide mailing list (http://www.brightonnewmedia.org/), so maybe Birmingham should have something similar? In terms of groups, it would be nice to see a few more that meet up on a weekly basis, rather than monthly. There also needs to be some outreach amongst the different groups, as each seems oblivious to the other right now. There are a lot of different blogs and websites that try to promote creativity and community within the area, but frankly I don't think its enough. There needs to be face-to-face contact, there needs to be more events, there needs to be more socialising between different new media companies... more, more, more! Of course this is only possible if there are the numbers of people available and willing to do so, and companies able to host such events.
In short there needs to be a continued and sustained effort, operating on multiple fronts, otherwise I'm not sure a prominent web scene will ever exist in Birmingham.
Hmm, I don't know enough about the history of the Brighton new media scene to know which came first, but I'll ask as I'm interested to find out. Indeed I will ask around for ideas from people down here to see what they reckon.
One idea I had regarding outreach, was to make the next Multipack Presents all about doing just that! The Multipack Presents: A Connected Birmingham for example, and essentially force (if need be) a number of people from the different groups to be in the same room and hash this thing out. I think it's important that it not just be the more geeky groups either, as I think there is a large cross-over between the geeks and the creatives. But seriously, get everyone in a room, and not let them leave until they come up with a plan ;-)
I'll give you my thoughts, for what they're worth.
Until 5 years ago, I lived in Birmingham for my entire life. For 6 years, I worked in Sutton Coldfield - a relative stone's throw from the centre of Birmingham - and I never heard of anything going on around there. I can blame the place I worked at for enforcing a 'closed' mindset to anything going on, but really, I didn't get engaged to a group of people or choose to start anything.
In 2003, I moved to Leamington Spa, having landed a job in Stratford-upon-Avon. Again, either down to the fact that I wasn't looking hard enough or the groups round here are not promoting hard enough, I couldn't find anything going on down here on a regular basis. I'm presuming the former.
Fast forward to 2007. I read on Jon Hicks' blog that there's something going down in Leamington Spa and that any self-respecting web geek should be there. 2007 also saw my first conference attendance, and I start getting this feeling that I'd like to be part of a group of like-minded people.
I enjoy being part of the Multipack and I would deeply like to be able to meet up with people from time to time and hang out informally without a rigid calendar - being able to drop in is valuable but, personally speaking, I'm unable to get from Stratford to Birmingham at the drop of a hat.
I do think that the midlands' transport links play a part, but I think people's willingness to travel will inevitably trump that. People come to the Multipack events from all over the place - and I agree with Paul, it's just a case of getting people to come.
The other issue I see, and I draw on experience here, is that unless you're working for an open-minded, forward-thinking company who recognise the value in community and networking, they won't allow their staff to openly partake in such activities. I know my previous employers would have laughed at the idea of things like the Multipack and other socials, regardless of the fact that our then CTO was heavily involved in business networking breakfasts and the like.
The Multipack is a great foundation for a good movement in Birmingham and the midlands ("Greater Birmingham") area - I think more than anything, our big hurdle is getting companies and web employees to recognise the value of the community and contributions they make to it.
Whilst I didn't specifically mention journey times above, the journey from Warwick to Birmingham by car usually takes me 45 minutes.
By train, from Leamington or Warwick, it takes between 40 minutes and an hour - depending on which train I use.
That said, I enjoy the journey and I always find the Multipack meetings worthwhile, getting something from every attendance I've made.
Well until Friday I was the same as Sil - in the 'Bridge - although I never really experienced lengths of journey over 35 mins into the centre of the city, but I don't travel at peak times (although I always found the train quicker than driving anyway).
I'm now in the Jewellery Quarter, 10/15 mins walk from the centre of town. In fact I don't know for certain, I've not actually done it yet.
What a useful discussion this is. Really thoughtful.
As has been pointed out, I work for an outfit called Digital Birmingham. Effectively we're a city council project although we have a range of public/private partners behind us. We do have this broad aim of making Birmingham 'a leading digital city by 2010'. What does that mean? A range of things, many of which are about access and participation - digital inclusion if you like.
But as the economic development bloke at Digital Birmingham I have to do a couple of things to contribute to the 'leading digital city' stuff. Firstly, increase digital participation by all business sectors (40% of Birmingham businesses don't use a computer as part of the their business - not even a bit). Secondly, support the development of an emerging digital economy. That is, do what I can to draw attention to Birmingham as a place where exciting digital stuff is created.
So you guys feeling part of a vibrant Birmingham web development scene is really important. Having Multipack as a sector-led organisation contributes to the story I can tell about Birmingham. As does the social media cafe, as do the bloggers meet etc. etc. Obviously I want to do more than seek reflected glory in your achievements and I do my best to bid for and secure project funds, influence external agendas and change hearts and minds in the council itself (not alone there, lots of us at it).
I did do a presentation at a recent event where I outlined why I think that a strategic push from the public sector can make a real difference to growing your industry. I then wrote a paper on the back of it which I'm due to present to Advantage West Midlands in a week or so. I've dumped the paper on a blog to invite comments and I'd welcome yours.
I'm thinking this is what you should expect of your public partners isn't it?. They do the strategic stuff, create the conditions, improve the physical links (cos you'll take care of the virtual ones), inject funds when they can, persuade those who want the funds to go to a sector that's dying to one that still seems to be growing.
Happy to discuss with your group anytime. Enjoyed the meet I came to the other week.
As a side note, I think I know what I'll be asking everyone - on camera - at the next social.
Stuart, regarding birminghamgeeks.net, I think it's a good idea and the more that things are communicated, the better.
After all, getting more people involved boils down to better communication - perhaps it's just a case that the more active groups need to get together throughout the year to further this.
sil: I'd agree - Birmingham does seem to lack a coherent web/geek scene, but I'm hoping that's more because it's not quite organised enough, rather than lacking a critical mass of interested people/companies - there are to my knowledge several SMEs (quietly) doing a lot of interesting things. Equally, my bad, I've never made it to a Multipack event - maybe it's cos I tend to be doing Other Stuff on a Sat afternoon.
There are indeed loads of social media type things going on, but for me that isn't geeky enough - sure, there's an intersection on the Venn diagram between geek and social media, but I'd identify more with the geek circle. The vast majority of the Soc Med types are extremely very nice friendly people, but in my experience you do get the odd patronising berk, which really puts me off (though maybe that's true for any largish group of people?), plus for me there's a limit on how much I want to chat about blogging and/or twitter - though the cakes at Birmingham bloggers meets are excellent :). I've also had a similar experience of Creative Networks events as zeen - it's just the wrong set of people for talking about web geek stuff.
I think I'd slightly disagree with one of pete ashton's points - sure, social media stuff is newer, but as far as the web's concerned, it isn't early days. Birmingham's late - I'd be frankly amazed if Birmingham can claim to be a leading digital city by 2010 (though the Digital Birmingham criteria are pretty unmeasurably vague...). I like pete's idea of a geek spinoff of BSMC though :).
I've been grumbling about Birmingham's apparent inability to hold, say, a barcamp for months, so I finally bit the bullet and started to try and organise one - see @brumbarcamp and/or the blog - though I think at the mo my plan will have to be to scale it down to a one-day event (cos I can probably just about organise that myself unless I get flooded with offers of help) - doing it true unconference style, nothing predefined, so I'm hoping it'll be a good way to get everyone interested in a Birmingham geek scene to at least meet each other & find out what everyone else is into.
re: public funding of this kind of stuff - Digital Birmingham (pre Dave Harte) seem to have focused on digital inclusion stuff that isn't really relevant to geek SMEs, and I don't really get the argument that public sector tinkering/innovation can drive the SME/digital economy unless it's via consultancy. What I'd really like to see - similar to Igtastical's idea and commented on Dave Harte's site is AWM or some other public body funding a Rapid Innovation Lab for both hardware and software, basically a member-run space for exactly the type of interactions we're all craving, set up in the city centre, with the agenda set by the members not the funders. It could easily host both the soc med and the geek stuff.
In the meantime, some interested people have set up a Birmingham hackerspace (disclaimer: I'm a member) - no set home yet, but regular meetups to tinker with code / arduinos / RFID readers / whatever (and see also the links on that site to Brum perlmongers and Python WM). Would be good to see you there.
I'm also biased cos I'm orginally from Brighton way, so I do pine for it occasionally - it's a bit weird being so far from the sea here. I've also worked in London (and with magicmilestones, hi steph! good to see you're spreading the agile skills up here) and fervently hope Birmingham can set up some infrastructure to sustain some of the kind of things everyone's mentioned above and that happen elsewhere like mobile monday, geek dinners, girl geek dinners, hack days etc. etc., otherwise the geek brain drain will just continue ...
I'm more than happy to help out :). Maybe we should all meet up and thrash this out into a proposal for AWM?
re: birminghamgeeks.net - the more brum geek sites the better :)
I set this up when I last proposed this idea (4 years ago!) - http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/mnmlist/</a> (and a homepage at http://www.midlandsnewmedia.co.uk/ ) - but didn't really do anything with it.
All you need do is sign up and start talking rubbish.
Happily transfer these over to multipack, if someone wants to manage it.
Interesting the human side of this discussion - despite being part of a largely location independent industry, we still seek to nurture a real world, localised community. Not that I'm saying it's a bad thing, or particularly strange - we all like to attach physical roots to our online presence; whether to communicate a sense of trust (as per online retail and services), or identify with an area or group. Still interesting though.
Like the idea of more regular, less structured meetups but figure that by their casual nature - they are not easily organised. I'm not that interested in the SMC and bloggers meets; Twitter, blogging and social media in general are tools I use daily, on a personal and professional level - not as any sort of communication or promotional medium for an organisation...
I have lived in Birmingham for over 9 years now, the West Midlands for longer - and been a web designer for all my working life. I've worked for large companies in the region, contracted around the country and freelanced in Birmingham. I've known many local people in the industry - those who i have known well are generally the people I have worked with. The ones I know 'of' are more likely to have been considered competitors when i was marketing myself as a business, and remained at a distance unless i got to know them on a personal level through some other means.
These days I work for a largish IT services company having little professional interaction with my contemporaries outside of the organisation, and have no need to promote and market my services. A selfish attitude perhaps, but when freelancing I regularly attended networking sessions and saw every social event as a potential business opportunity (Not intentionally - just becomes habit). Perhaps one of the reasons for the perceived lack of a community amongst Birmingham web professionals is the lack of a common purpose. I refer specifically to web professionals, as it has been demonstrated above that there are plenty of community based, web oriented groups in and around Birmingham - but most are related to the use of the internet as a medium, rather than developing for it.
One of the reasons for the success and longevity of the Multipack, I think, is possibly its standards based bias. This is, and has long been a common goal among professionals who care about the health and progress of the industry - and as such binds people together. It also has the potential to be slightly tribal, risking alienation of those who don't 'get it', and there is the danger of displaying a certain amount of snobbery (for want of a better word) towards those whose standard of standards doesn't live up to one's own standards...
But I digress :) ... maybe the common purpose that is needed to bind all of these disparate tribes together, is just this - the desire for a buzzing and respected web 'scene' in Birmingham, and wanting the city to receive the deserved recognition for the application of people's inherent creativity and ingenuity to the new social, economic and industrial revolution.
Oh, and for what it’s worth - I live in the centre of Birmingham (Ladywood/Jewellery Quarter) but now work in Telford.
I don't think you need any kind of 'central authority' trying to promote this, if you want a scene as some of you have described, then move your business to where creative/web stuff already exists, get a unit in fazeley studios or move up into the jewellery quarter with 383 and a few others.
More communication between groups would be awesome, but I don't think you need anything or anyone to make it happen. If you want to meetup more regularly then just start doing it, piggy back of what's already happening to promote the group to a wider audience.