Kate Ryrie talks to Stuart Clarke about celebration, collaboration, and why this year’s Digital Festival is set to be the biggest and best yet.
There’s a certain time of year when Leeds feels like it’s coming to life. A time when the light pours back in, when every evening offers up a host of gigs, workshops and talks – when the City’s talent and enthusiasm come together in one giant collaboration.
Even from the depths of winter, that time is tangibly on the horizon. It begins at the end of April, and it’s kick started by Leeds Digital Festival (LDF) – a two-week celebration of all things tech, and the largest event of its kind this side of London.
‘2018 was our most successful year.’ Stuart Clarke – co-founder of LDF and general champion of digital opportunity in Leeds – reflects on the event’s growth since it first graced our streets back in 2016. ‘We’ve gone from 56 to 170 events across 68 venues, with 400 companies taking part.’
If the numbers don’t speak for themselves, there are plenty of other things that do. ‘Leeds University came on board last year as a sponsor and they are backing the Festival again,’ says Stuart, highlighting how the Festival is realising its goal of connecting with young people by strengthening partnerships across the City. ‘We have to engage with the students while they’re still in first and second years – tell them about the incredible opportunities here in Leeds.’
There are bold things planned for the imminent 2019 edition, which is set to take over multiple venues in the City (from the most corporate spaces to the likes of Headrow House) from 23rd April to 3rd May.
It’s hard to know where to start with the expansive list of events coming to life during those two weeks. ‘FinTech, med tech, biotech – all the techs,’ says Stuart, ‘coding careers, data, artificial intelligence, robotics – you name it, there’s something.’
Stuart starts listing some of his highlights. ‘Code in the Dark (a live code-off at Duke Studios) is back this year, The Data Shed are putting on an event with Amazon Web Services, there’s going to be a brilliant event called Women in Leeds Digital with 500 attendees and over 50 speakers, and this year you’ll see more events at the social end of the tech world, from stand-up comedy to music to running.’
Last year’s big, Channel 4-shaped news falls perfectly in line with LDF’s own mission, and connecting the two seems an opportunity not to miss. ‘Channel 4 is that big, high-profile moment,’ Stuart tells me, emphasising how, alongside visible industries like retail and property, the growth of tech can be trickier to quantify. ‘Sometimes, you need that catalyst,’ he says, ‘then, it’s having platforms like the Festival bringing out the amazing things that are happening, and helping to talk about them.’
The 2019 Festival places collaboration at its heart more than ever, this time not only serving as a platform for a diversity of opinion and expertise, but also as a place where digital meets food and drink, where tech meets music – where young and old, beginner and specialist, present and future are all welcome.
It’s that golden thread of coming together that forms the lifeblood of Leeds Digital Festival. ‘Sometimes, people come with fully formed ideas, but other people will want to put something on, but might not want to do it on their own,’ Stuart explains, telling me how the Festival’s reach enables them to piece together different speakers, specialities and talents to build a vibrant roster of events.
‘We’re a bit more ahead of the game this year,’ says Stuart, recalling with a wry smile the sleepless nights of 2018’s last minute sponsorship arrangements. Joining Leeds City Council and the University on the sponsor line-up are IT consultancy, BJSS, and social media agency, Crisp – both of whom have seen exceptional growth over the past couple of years. ‘It’s about making the digital sector within the City much more attractive for people coming in,’ says Stuart, ‘We just have to keep shouting about Leeds – a great place to start a business, grow a business, and to move your business to.
As talk turns back to the most aspirational weeks of the Leeds calendar – that magical awakening time as May dawns – I ask Stuart about Leeds International Festival, the separate innovation event that picks up the baton from LDF, and runs until 12th May.
‘There are going to be almost four weeks of the two festivals making noise about Leeds,’ says Stuart, quietly waiving possibilities of rivalry or direct partnership between the two institutions. ‘We’re separate festivals, but the more we can collaborate, the better. That time of year, that lightness, that sense of promise – you get real buzz and momentum. And after the International Festival, we head straight into Leeds Indie Food – another great event in the City’
With a fairly ground-breaking celebration of Leeds heading our way, I ask the obvious: what’s next? ‘There are so many amazing companies in Leeds, but there are also so many amazing companies within the City Region,’ says Stuart, enthusiasm lifting his voice as he tells me about the dream of expanding the Festival to have a more regional focus.
‘We’ll have more companies and individuals from the wider region taking part in this year’s Festival and we’ve also been working with a group in Halifax who are putting on their own Digital Festival in the autumn. It would be great to have a series of monthly Digital Festivals across the City Region.’
The LDF story is one that’s never been afraid to dream big, think big and demand big things from its audience. But that tenacity has paid off, and with the 2018 event seeing Leeds play host to more tech events that San Francisco, the bar is only set to get higher.
‘We’re proving that it’s a model that works – a model that the City and the sector need,’ says Stuart, pondering over where the Festival will be in the years to come. ‘It would be great to have permanence, to keep the noise and promotion going throughout the year.’
With more companies – from start-ups to multinationals – choosing to lay roots in Leeds, the 2019 edition is well on track to become another monumental chapter in the City’s digital story, showcasing the very best talent, the most exciting potential and the friendliest people we have to offer. It’s just about making people think a little differently, says Stuart. ‘If you think “I need to work with someone on this; do I need to go to Manchester or London?” Well, actually no, it’s right here’.
To find out more about Leeds Digital Festival and to see the full lineup of over 220 events, visit the Festival website – leedsdigitalfestival.org
Feature photograph by Mark Wheelwright.