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A Capital of Creators

It is 2050. 75% of the world’s population live in cities. We are in the world of powerful digital technologies and green infrastructure. We are in the world of smart, green, inclusive cities which have radically transformed how we live, work and play, our impact on the environment and our personal wellbeing.

How did this happen?

Thirty years ago, a region in the UK, the West Midlands, began a movement, which sprung from a germ of an idea and was given life by the emergence of an increasingly powerful force – the world’s leading cities.

The germ of an idea? That it was possible to have a strong local voice, whilst also being able to collaborate nationally and globally. That digital creativity, inclusivity and environmental change lay at the heart of a successful city. That we can change the way we do things.

In the early 2020s the world’s cities were all tackling the same issues, which the pandemic had only exacerbated. To improve the brand and attractiveness of their cities, the economic prospects of all their citizens – the young, long-term unemployed, low skilled and skilled alike – and the health and wellbeing of their people. Whilst at the same time reducing their environmental footprint and building a sustainable future.

But it was the West Midlands that took the first, decisive step, turning the decade between the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games and the first HS2 trains rolling into Curzon Street Station in 2032 into a golden one.

The region’s leaders grasped that the world of 2032 would be a world of immersive content and services, enabled by superfast networks offering awe inspiring speed and capacity. They recognised that this world would be defined by a blurring of media formats. TV, gaming, social media, digital marketing and commerce blending into a seamless whole. Consumers being able to feast on snackable subs – affordable, accessible and easily turned on and off – and shoppable TV, where a game player, chatting to friends on a social broadcast feed would be able to respond to a digital marketing offer and buy a product without ever taking her eyes off the game she’s playing.

They understood that the virtual and physical world were complementary not competing, and that the impact of this digital creative revolution would be felt not only in the future of mobility, data driven health and life science, professional service and creative content sectors, the four pillars of the region’s industrial strategy, but much, much more broadly across the region. And they also understood that their diversity – a city in which more than 100 languages were spoken – would be a major positive in a world hungry to hear different voices.

At the same time, they also recognised that the world’s cities (which occupied only 3% of land globally, but which were responsible for 80% of GDP, 70% of global carbon emissions, and 60% of resource use) needed to radically transform environmentally, as well as technologically. A transformation just as, if not more, fundamental than the famous photos of New York in 1908 and 1918 reveal. In the one, all traffic is horse and cart. In the next, all cars.

Only this time around, the transformation they required to build, at speed, was an increasingly digital, inclusive, sustainable way of life.

How did lives improve?

By 2032 the West Midlands had built a global reputation in multi-platform, multi-format immersive content and services.

The world’s leading creatives queued to work with our region’s specialist pitch, pre-vis, production and post- production teams. Teams who were instrumental in helping creatives get their ideas listened to and commissioned in the first place, who helped ideas come to life by turning them into virtual prototypes and storyboards, and then helped produce and deliver that exquisite final piece of games, film, TV, augmented reality or metaversal content.

The world’s audiences thrilled to the extraordinary diversity of opinion that West Midlands creatives offered them. The home of original storytelling, which had begun with Shakespeare and Tolkien, was now telling new and different stories in more than 100 languages and almost as many formats.

And that reputation in turn attracted the world’s businesses, drawn by the volume and vibrancy of the region’s talent, and its applicability more broadly across sectors. With the help of a joined-up skills strategy the West Midlands was able to create over 100,000 jobs in the creative digital industries. Jobs that covered a vast range of ability and experience, and which provided a way to harness people’s passion and talent, while providing flexible and inclusive environments in which to work and grow.

From highly skilled creative jobs to the enabling support service jobs, for example, script writers, editors, pre-vis technicians, production teams, coders, technology innovators, camera operators, electricians, accountants, carpenters, Esports producers, marketing execs, user experience experts, 3D modelling and texture artists, sound design engineers, games testers, hair, make-up and costume designers, production buyers, data wranglers, kit room assistants, riggers, caterers and much more…

The West Midlands had also built a reputation for “getting sustainability and the race to negative zero right”. The region’s Sustainability Roadmap 2030 led to improved social, economic and environmental indicators across the region resulting in a more sustainable, fairer and greener place to live, work and play, for all.

The early decision to change planning regulation to utilise and respect green assets, or green infrastructure as they would ultimately be described, had paid off. As had the introduction of a carbon tax on products and services bought and sold in the region. Recognising that to solve the climate crisis the region needed to tackle both production and consumption.

The benefits of these decisions – in addition to rapidly falling emissions – could be seen in many examples, both large and small, as one walked around the region.

Hedgerows had proved powerful scrubbers of pollution, and now lined the major routes into the city. Strategically placed trees and living walls next to and on offices had reduced ambient temperature, significantly lowering the demand for air con. And the replacement of hard landscaping had improved the region’s capacity to deal with ever increasing torrential downpours.

The establishment of an “urban eden” which allowed the region to work with its communities in the choice, development and running of sustainability initiatives had increased public, private and community engagement, and had, somewhat unexpectedly, led to an upsurge in funding and early-stage companies operating in the green technology sector.

And a reinvigorated and expanded Parks and Recreation department – formed in response to the fact that green infrastructure, as with software, needs regular maintenance – had given the low skilled and long-term unemployed access to secure employment, with one major, unforeseen benefit: a corresponding drop in violence and improved wellbeing and mental health. The need for and costs of policing and social care reducing as a result.

What challenges had the region’s leaders overcome, and what was their approach?

When asked this question, the answer from the region’s leaders was both resounding and simple. There had been many challenges over the decade, some expected, some entirely unexpected, which they had overcome by consistently applying five, very basic, principles to the programmes and initiatives they were delivering.

First, the need to ensure public, private and community engagement & alignment. This was an essential element. Easy to say, hugely difficult to deliver in practice.

Secondly, a strong local voice, able to collaborate nationally and globally. The levelling up agenda and decentralisation of political power and decision making had been essential, enabling vibrant regional decision making with access to funds. Another sine qua non.

Third, a strong, positive, collective view of the future, with a recognition that we all – citizens, communities, the public realm and business alike – need to change. And that we can all contribute to and benefit from that change.

Fourth, a strong delivery capability. Here the region’s leaders talked seriously about “getting real about transformation and behavioural change”. It wasn’t just about building a content hub and studios, hosting a global event such as the Commonwealth Games, or even opening Curzon Street station, but about stimulating and sustaining life in them after they had launched.

And fifth, “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish” as Samwise Gamgee says in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You need to start, and test, then refine and test, refine and test, on almost permanent repeat.

These core principles helped define the approach the region’s leaders took to building a smarter, green, inclusive city.

Take Create Central, for example, the private sector trade body, led by industry for industry, in partnership with national and regional public sector organisations, which they formed to turbo-charge digital creativity and inclusion across the West Midlands.

Established at the start of the 2020s, with a remit to create a common strategy and delivery plan, shaped, agreed and led by the industry, Create Central had both public, private and community engagement, and a strong, positive collective view of the region’s multi-platform, multi-format digital content and services future at its core.

Its focus on turning words into reality, and making a tangible difference, which was noticed by the region, nationally and globally, was an exemplar of a strong local voice, being able to collaborate on a national and global stage.

The initial focus on increasing production in the region showed early success with the development of a major indie production hub in Digbeth. More soon followed as the ground-breaking partnership with the BBC brought big name titles to Birmingham, and Mercian Studios saw its first productions underway.

Striking partnership deals with the UK’s leading public service broadcasters and global streamers provided the spark that kicked off some of our most successful and established production companies. Initiatives like Create Central’s Bootcamp programme and the BBC Apprentice Hub were just the start of a framework that provided young people in the region with a clear career path into and opportunities within the digital creative industries.

The City of Culture coming to Coventry and the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games gave the West Midlands the chance to showcase its digital innovation to a global audience. And thanks to the Create Central Esports Task Force and the support of so many of the big-name games companies in the Leamington Spa cluster, it wasn’t long before the region was established as the home of Esports, with tournaments, an Esports accelerator and an Esports academy; not to mention the regular inward and outward missions to and from the USA and China.

They also encouraged cross-sector collaboration, for example, establishing a programme to support the growth and use of virtual production facilities, in which games, film and TV production support staff worked ever more closely together.

All of this enabled Create Central to breathe life into its tagline – the Home of Original Storytelling – and led to the region backing the trade body with increased funding, inward investment support, and delivery capability. A similar approach was adopted on sustainability and the race to negative zero, with “urban eden” connecting communities across the region with each other, assembling all the projects and initiatives underway into a single coherent whole, and helping secure funding and delivery at scale for the most promising ideas and projects.

Looking back from 2050, in a world of negative zero emissions and smart, bio, diverse cities, which have radically transformed how we live work & play, our impact on the environment and our personal well-being, we can view the West Midlands actions in context. We have much to thank the leaders of the golden decade, who refused to accept the status quo and agreed to work together to build a more digital, inclusive and sustainable future for us all.


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