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Silicon Dream Town
-Bournemouth is on its way to being the country’s new ‘creative digital’ hotspot, nicknamed ‘Silicon Beach’ – if you believe the press hype.
In 2013, we did a long blog post titled ‘@Connecting Up The DotComs’ predicated on the question, “Could the Bournemouth conurbation become Britain’s own ‘Silicon Beach’?” Now the national press have run articles suggesting this is now happening. (Examples here, from the Telegraph and Guardian respectively: Silicon Beach Britain's unlikely new tech capital and Forget Silicon Valley, Bournemouth has found its mojo ) That would be great, if true, but what’s the actual substance behind the hype?
In the examples above, some of it is just the standard reporters’ press-clippings-morgue narrative we’ve been seeing since at least the late 90s, how Bournemouth is finally transforming itself after decades being stuck in the past with a bath-chair mentality, blah blah. (You can find examples I compiled from the press at the time [c2000-1] here, re the town’s supposed earlier transformation, finally shaking itself from the decades-long deadly embrace of the ‘blue-rinse brigade’, by turning itself into ‘the English Ibiza’ with a night-time economy of clubs.
As I commented ten years on, in 2011, it seems a case of ‘plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose’ - The more things change, the more they stay the same. The night-time economy catering to stag and hen nights etc is still with us, though the press label ‘the English Ibiza’ seems to have vanished, perhaps as the Council began discouraging it due to a backlash over an increase in violence and drug-related issues, and the added cost of policing. It may be that the local powers-that-be saw how other resorts successfully moved upmarket rather than downmarket by focussing on the cultural side, a topic we’ve blogged on before. This time around, the spur seems to have been a Tech City UK report [PDF] that the town is the fastest growing digital economy in the UK, a claim promulgated in the Commons by Bournemouth West MP Conor Burns last March. (Local 'digi cluster' profile online here.)
The report claimed ‘the number of digital start-ups in the area [was] growing by 212 per cent between 2010 and 2013’. Bournemouth is not the only town or city to have experienced growth in this sector, and there are such ‘tech clusters’ or ‘tech hubs’ all around, making similar claims, as the actual number of startups is not definitive (the number who are still there after X years would be more telling). Bournemouth is sometimes referred to in the press as Dream Town because every month, it seems, some grand new makeover vision is presented to ‘transform’ the town centre, the seafront etc. The trouble is most of these plans never get off the architect’s drawing board. Either the funds are not available or the developers and the Council fall out over changes to the original design. A few schemes do eventually get built, after a long and painful history, and end up embarrassments, like the IMAX Waterfront building and the Surf Reef.
However the advantage of the ‘tech cluster’ or tech-hub ‘development’ is that it is not a property development, and the Council thus need not be involved. Some years ago, the city of New York decided to rebrand itself and commissioned a contest for an advertising slogan which would emphasize its attractions. The official winner was “The world in a city” but this sociological phrase never caught on as a nickname, since it isn’t. The one that became established was The Big Apple, which had popular appeal in its suggestion anyone could have a bite of the apple (slightly racy in its Biblical association with Adam and Eve), and in fact went back a century as a nickname in ordinary usage.
Bournemouth as ‘Silicon Beach’ is a new top-down attempt at rebranding which is not particularly original. It’s been in use in California (Florida’s earlier use seems to have been overshadowed) as the SoCal [LA / Santa Barbara] surfer-minded alternative to Silicon Valley, the nickname going back decades for the main US production centre in the San Jose/ San Francisco Bay Area for silicon microchips, and after the dotcom boom, a more diverse digital-sector industrial district, focusing on software patents as much as hardware manufacturing since the boom in mobile “apps.” There’s now an expensive annual September conference here called Silicon Beach, seemingly funded by a business-angels setup. This is held at the Bournemouth Pavilion (optimistically advertised as 50 yards from the beach), but it’s hard to discern what substance there is beyond the hipster “Be there or be square” futurist digi-hype and jargon. (No link here as their website hasn’t been updated to include any comment on how it went.)
Reportedly, a local #BmthinLA techie delegation from here to the LA-based annual ‘Silicon Beach Fest’ (billed as LA's largest tech startup festival) explained to geographically-challenged Californians that Bournemouth is London’s “beach,” which is one way of looking at it, if you use a very small-scale map. It certainly fits the idea that if you want to get out of the London rat-race, you can set up down here, and chill out, man, and it is indeed this lifestyle-appeal aspect that has potential. (You can see how important the lifestyle aspect is to the sector from this YouTube video about the LA-based annual ‘Silicon Beach Fest’, here.) The 5 miles or so of sandy beach is the one real thing Bournemouth has going for it, though the climate isn’t up to southern-Cal standards. Whatever the weather, it has a lot more appeal than the nickname of the East London home of Tech City UK – ‘Silicon Roundabout.’
One immediate problem with this ‘Silicon Beach’ rebrand is that Bournemouth can’t really own the phrase. Ignoring any US precedents such as Silicon Beach Software or Silicon Beach Digital, an SEO outfit in Santa Monica, or www.siliconbeachla.com (which claims to be the home of “the LA Tech & Startup Community”), or the Australian [Sydney-based] Silicon Beach Computers (which owns the domain siliconbeach.com.au), here in Britain there is already a Silicon Beach training company in Brighton, and there may be other such initiatives or domains already registered. (The local Silicon Beach conference people use siliconbeach.eu, other standard extensions like .com, .net., .pro, and .uk being registered even if not actually in use online, as are other less mainstream ones – see screenshot below.) Other monikers that spring to mind are also already in use. There are in fact so many such Silicon-this, that and the other names they have a collective label: Siliconia [current international listing here].

Our next best choice, Silicon Bay, is already in use [since 1996] by Silicon Bay Ltd, “innovators in web centric software and media services” based in Cambridgeshire. (I supposed they use ‘bay’ as in loading bay at a plant.) ‘Silicon South’ is the name of a local quango-style agency set up in 2013 with local enterprise funding to help kickstart “the growth of digital businesses in Dorset”. Their target of “making Silicon South a lucrative area career-wise for London professionals to move to” indicates they regard Silicon South a sector brand name for the county. It covers a larger area, and there’s no sign of it prevailing as a popular label, since 2013, over Silicon Beach, which implies the Poole-Bournemouth-Christchurch conurbation fronted by 7 miles of sandy bayshore. Bournemouth Uni, which is behind some of these initiatives, is planning to develop its Talbot Heath neighbourhood as a ‘digital employment village’, for which the nickname 'Silicon Heath’ has been suggested, though this obviously lacks the appeal of Silicon Beach’s seaside-fun associations, and makes it sound remote from civilisation. Of course, beaches and computer microchips are both composed mostly of silicon. However explicit “surfer” references, though they might seem to fit in with “web surfing,” are best avoided, given the fiasco of the much-heralded Surf Reef, which was billed as "Europe's first artificial surf reef." (Poole-Bournemouth bay is too sheltered for surfing-size waves, and the project was soon abandoned.) ‘Silicon Chine’ is unused, but is unfortunately too obscure, too parochial.
No escape As to the actual activities conducted under this banner, a lot of it seems to come under the heading of “ad tech”. This is the sector that boasts of being a “disruptive” technology that pushes e-advertising at you wherever you are. It’s the online equivalent of cold calling in the phone industry, where they won’t stop pestering you. The pushback from consumers using ad-blocking software has escalated the situation into a sort of arms race. Adobe Flash, the program long used to produce those epilepsy-inducing, in-your-face animated flashy ads, is now being increasingly blocked by parts of the industry itself (like Apple and BBC iPlayer) as insecure, a prime malware-delivery vector. Browsers like Firefox also now offer a clickable 'Reader View' icon to see a simplified version, akin to the older 'Printer-Friendly' version, of a web page. The cross-platform enabling technology Java has already been largely abandoned, and now JavaScript, which creates more interactive pages (drop-down menus etc), is next up, largely due to Google's AMP initiative. There is also the issue of increasing numbers of users going online via mobile devices dependent on a wifi connection often not much better than the old dialup, with the ad-bloat slowing page rendering down to nothing. (This is the main reason for Google's forward-looking AMP.) Ad-tech is also big on behavioural-tracking software (any script-blocker addon will show dozens of trackers trying to download their cookies before the page renders). Being continually tracked and having their details harvested is another source of consumers’ concern, especially where data is sent to the US, a practice just ruled unlawful by the EU.
But given the indifference or even hostility to these issues of the ad-techies (who regard ad- or script-blockers as a form of theft from their clients), a market implosion seems inevitable. It is already starting to run afoul of privacy and data protection rules, and will go the way of unsolicited ad-faxes and now the cold calling industry, which has generated a national scandal over its ask-no-questions use by charities. The sector however seems oblivious to such issues. Recently, a Bournemouth firm trading as 'Stop The Calls' that sold call-blocking software was fined £50,000 for making unwanted cold calls to its own customers, where staff shouted at people who complained and tried to get credit card details off elderly people with dementia. For anyone to think that this was a workable business model (and this is scarcely an isolated instance) suggests a business culture with a pathologically selfish, patronising, bullying antisocial attitude. (It's also misogynistic, circulating rape and death threats against female tech writers.) It’s ultimately a short-sighted, self-destructive culture. Technically, a lot of the sector is coasting on the "Web 2.0" model that's already ten years old and on a downward curve, its market-penetration statistics and methods exposed.
Luckily, there is a supply of more creative graduates coming out of both BU and the newer Arts University Bournemouth (chancellor Sir Christopher Frayling), the UK’s largest film school outside of London, who can apply their skills to something more enduring than flash advertising, and have already been s
upplying the film industry with talent where CGI is called for, on films like Avatar and Gravity. This is no doubt why Silicon South includes among its aims, the “promoting of Dorset as a location for film production and assess the viability of future film studio” [sic]. That way lies the best hope for long-term creative development.
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Squares, Triangles & Circles
As discussed last time, Bournemouth has been getting press attention for its new ‘Silicon Beach’ identity. But even the most dedicated, starry-eyed enthusiasts of this sector can’t live entirely in cyberspace and need to have a suitable physical environment as well, where people can meet, talk, work away from the office on their laptops, think. What can the conurbation offer in terms of such public spaces?

The economic potential of a nation can be held back when its capital city reaches the developmental limits of its infrastructure. Space itself becomes a premium commodity, rents and business rates go sky-high, transport systems bottleneck, parking is either too expensive or impossible to find, construction of new buildings is constant just to keep pace. London certainly fits this description, perhaps has done so for some time; but it is only with the advent of the internet that businesses have been able to contemplate relocating, as they can do their business online from anywhere there is a fast internet connection, or at least most of it. (Face-to-face meetings are still necessary with prospective clients, who may still be based in the capital.) Logically, London should have the fastest connections; but this is not necessarily the case. (One of the reasons for the London-based start-ups in the first “dot-com” boom crashing was that the slow connections of the day could not sustain the top-heavy, interactive e-commerce websites created for online sales-catalogue sites.) Now, even if fast broadband and wifi systems are available in a locality, the problems of overcrowding, noise, high rents, etc continue to increase. Quality of life correspondingly suffers.

Just as an individual needs a private space, so a potentially collaborative professional peer group needs a common shared, reasonably quiet, space where they can meet and talk (the formal phrase for this is "off-site business meetings"). The need for quiet green open-air spaces where one could sit and think, talk, go for a walk, was recognised by the Bloomsbury circle we covered in our earlier post. The famous quote about the Bloomsbury circle, which gave its title to the recent BBC series, was that they were a circle who lived in squares and loved in triangles. It’s the ‘living in squares’ aspect we’re interested in here.

Bloomsbury’s leading author Virginia Woolf famously argued a writer needs ‘a room of one’s own.' By the same token, every cooperative creative movement needs a physical shared space to flourish. The Bloomsbury set originally flourished in rooms set amidst leafy park-like squares in central London’s Bloomsbury district, later adopting the town-and-country back-and-forth lifestyle standard among the moneyed set of the time. (Some of their country excursions were actually to beaches in this area, which we’ve covered separately, here.) Other examples of this phenomenon, such as the Bohemian quarter of Paris known as the Left Bank, with its pavement cafes on the boulevards, are familiar enough. And anyone who has holidayed in the Mediterranean will have experienced the allure of sitting on a sunny cafe terrace overlooking a beach.

Above: Many first experience the attractions of cafe culture when on hols in the Med. (Mouse-over to see 2nd image; both images of Chania waterfront.)
Just as the village was built around the village green, monastic churches had their cloisters, and universities had their campuses, so towns and cities grew up around the Greek agora, the Roman forum, the central square, the marketplace, the plaza where civic functions were also held. The pavement café in these centres and the surrounding alleys provide a sitdown space for anyone with the price of a cup of coffee. Even the interior cafes had a major impact when they first appeared: inns when the church relinquished control after the Reformation, and coffeehouses when they first appeared in Restoration 17C London. Both quickly became meet-up centres for particular professions, such as journalism. (An article last year suggests this is an European idea that hasn’t been worked out yet in the New World due to the way cities are designed around the needs of vehicular traffic, cf ‘Why can’t America get the sidewalk café right?’)17C coffeehouse

US cities have partly got around this problem by creating the shopping mall, but these artificial environments with their fluorescent lighting and background "white noise" have never been popular with the creative set, especially as most of them are out of town. The alternative for the creative set has been renovated, newly-fashionable gentrified neighbourhoods with a moniker that abbreviates their location. For example, "SoHo" in NYC, which goes back decades, is nominally an abbreviation of "South of Houston Street", but is meant to invoke London's Soho district as well as supporting the back-formation Small-office/Home-office, which described zoning measures to allow this sort of start-up (typically in a loft), and was transferable, as in “We could have a SoHo setup here in our town too.” The Wiki article on this also cites TriBeCa [known for indie-film production startups], short for "Triangle Below Canal Street", and the less well known NoHo ("North of Houston Street"), Nolita ("North of Little Italy") and NoMad ("North of Madison Square").
It should be noted that locally, the standard moniker or nickname Bomo (supposedly coined by Harpers & Queen magazine) is sometimes spelt BoMo to emulate this type of neighbourhood-amalgamation label (cf Wikitravel - 'Bournemouth's growing population of students, gays and surfers have given it a more bohemian image than a typical south coast retirement town, leading to the nickname "BoMo". ' It's now that new: the Guardian did a feature on 2-10-99 called 'BoMo On Sea'). However it is simply a conflation of Bohemian [Boho for short] and Bournemouth, to indicate the Bohemian-artistic side of a seaside resort long stuck with an old-fashioned "square" image. The prefix also fits the local-airport code BOH. A demand for such a geographic-amalgamation abbreviation may arise if the local “super-council” cost-saving plan goes ahead and Bournemouth merges with Poole and Christchurch – though nothing obvious springs to mind which isn’t risible.

Regardless of neighbourhood boundaries, the key development factor is public spaces around which amenities can develop. “Tech clusters,” as they’re known, were originally a light-industrial development (manufacturing silicon chips and computer hardware), and they often don’t have architectural centres in the form of squares, parks, gardens etc. Simply labelling a large area ‘Silicon something’ (as with Scotland’s Silicon Glen, which is really the entire industrial belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh) doesn’t offer the physical focus it needs for key personnel to meet up, talk etc. Nor does an out of town industrial park, or technology park, as they’re now known where aimed at the tech sector. (This can be the case even if they don’t come wired up. New-building owners often expect tenants to pay to be wired up to the internet, and BT-Openreach can stick occupiers with a slow internet connection, or even leave new-build tenants offline for months, undermining the start-up.) It’s because they are remote from the usual inner-city leisure amenities that big companies like Google (who are also in London) began to build quirky in-house leisure facilities.
In London, the name Silicon Roundabout sounds like a parody of this central idea, and it seems to have started as just that - a joke that then got picked up by realtors who used it as a promotional nickname for Shoreditch. A roundabout suffers even more from the prioritisation of vehicles over pedestrians – the latter have no place on a roundabout – the best they can hope for is a pedestrian underpass (often colonised by vagrants). The government tried renaming it Tech City, but the use of ‘city’ here is so overambitious it is as laughable as the original Silicon Roundabout. A tech specialist who moved out blames the property costs inflation that followed the Whitehall announcement this was to be the country’s “Tech City.”
It’s said London grew from a collection of hamlets, each of which originally would have its own village green, and later market square, but this is true of many present conurbations, whose origins lie in the loss of greenbelt between nearby villages. The same applies to the Bournemouth conurbation, where a row of Saxon and mediaeval hamlets along the south bank of the Stour connected up in the 20th century with newer, 19th C. holiday districts along the coast, as well as the older ports of Poole and Christchurch to the west and east.
The Bournemouth conurbation has a number of possible shared-space neighbourhood hubs, which means development is not dependent on a single district where, as soon as a neighbourhood acquires an upmarket rebranding (let’s say ‘Silicon Chine’ as a hypothetical example), a developer can move in with the connivance of the council and start buying up buildings to enact rent hikes and evictions so they can demolish and replace them with more lucrative properties in the newly rebranded neighbourhood. This is part of the larger process of what is called urban regeneration or urban gentrification, where rundown or down-market neighbourhood pubs, stores etc are taken over by businesses sometimes labelled hipster. (The more formal sociological phrase, coined by American urban studies theorist Richard Florida in a series of bestselling studies, is “the Creative Class” for “the young, trendy and creative who regenerated previously run-down inner city areas” and are the ascendant economic force in America. The Wiki article linked to above attributes "about 12 percent of all U.S. jobs" to its "Super-Creative Core" which doesn't include "the classic knowledge-based workers" it calls Creative Professionals, or in addition the "Bohemians", whose job descriptions are harder to define.) An Economist article from 2013, "What is driving urban gentrification?" notes "Artists, musicians and other bohemians tend to be the first to move into poor areas, opening the terrain up to the bankers, advertising executives, journalists and university lecturers who follow."

The gentrification of Shoreditch was the aspect which recently led to a menacing protest-demo (involving anti-capitalist protesters and anarchists from around the country) that vandalised a small café, opened in December in a former video store site, that sells only breakfast cereals, along the lines of US and German precedents. (If the choice of target seems odd, it’s probably to do with the fact small establishments don’t have the same level of police protection as big corporate outfits, and are more easily intimidated – which didn’t work in this case as the owners are from Belfast, and as they put it, used to mindless violence.) The demo seems to have backfired, though it drew attention to the issue. (For photos of how hipsterisation ‘reclaims’ a run-down neighbourhood, see here for a NYC example, and there is a cartoon on the 4 stages of gentrification here.)

One aspect it incidentally pointed up is that the older hipster is being joined in these centres by the younger Yuccie, or Young Urban Creative, defined as a group who "want to get paid for their own ideas, rather than executing on someone else’s." Yuccies flourish where there is a “high concentration of creative hubs, start-ups, co-working spaces, galleries and renovated areas”. Besides being part of a younger generation than the hipster (often a baby-boomer), the 20-something Yuccie is said to be more serious about making a decent income from creative work, using the platforms offered by the new tech sector (article here).

A major reason for hostility to urban regeneration is where, instead of growing naturally (organically, some might say), it is organised on a top-down basis. As consultant Robert Bevan put it in the Guardian, in 'What makes a city a city':

... above all, a city, rather than a village green, is a place, as the writer Richard Sennett put it, where strangers meet; where new ideas are formed in a public space. A common ground. Developers seem ever more keen to label a place a "tech city", a "media city" or a "smart city" to connote this notion of exchange and innovation. But true cities are dense, messy, uncontrolled and cosmopolitan – the opposite of garden cities or self-styled "office hubs".

Such top-down approaches are usually backed by local government in partnership with private developers or brought-in out-of-town consultants who call themselves urban regeneration practitioners, with funding support from some national or EU agency. and public access to information limited by "business confidentiality." (There is often an 'Urban Regeneration Company' involved.) Brian Jenner, who organised the BomoCreatives business-networking meet-up group [pictured below] when he moved down here over a decade ago, saw the divisive impact of urban regeneration firsthand before he left London, and commented:

If there is one thing regeneration practitioners can’t stand it’s local residents. They are well-informed, articulate, difficult, appreciative of complexity and sceptical about what can be achieved. Many are mad enough to work for their community for nothing, while the regeneration industry pumps vast amount of money into the pockets of expert consultants – an expert being a man from out of town carrying a briefcase.
Neighbourhoods in towns and cities function because residents report things: dumped rubbish, anti-social behaviour, graffiti and planning infringements. If a neighbourhood doesn’t have enough concerned individuals it will go into decline. The trouble with regeneration is that if people are being paid £20,000 – £100,000 to sit in comfortable offices, it makes volunteers extremely sore when they have to deal with splenetic residents, object to planning applications, put together newsletters, go to meetings and write minutes, for nothing. The regeneration industry actually corrupts the incentives for people to do things in their local community.

Locally, the one hope is that the sector will grow organically before the Council can step in and try to control the initiative. Hopefully the town has enough natural attractions the sector can establish itself before any developer-led official quango can emerge, even if it means more 'bootstrapping' or “lean start-ups”.
There is still the issue of transport access, for ever-increasing traffic and parking problems as well as rents eating up most of your salary mean that many of those who might be interested in fleeing London for the Bournemouth conurbation don’t drive a car and rely on either public transport or their bikes to get around. (Big-city tech types are particularly associated with ‘fixies’ or fixed-gear bikes.) Bournemouth has various public spaces, perhaps more than most places, for it was built up as a resort. In terms of visiting London from here, to meet clients still based in London, it’s a 2-hour train ride, and thus feasible for day trips back and forth.

A positive factor for the interest in having a tech cluster embedded in a suitable pedestrian-friendly shared space is growing recognition of the unhealthy side of the dotcom work (or rather, workaholic) ethic and of dotcom 2.0 user addiction in general, as indicated by articles such as this one in the Telegraph: 'Kidult' offices hide the dark heart of dotcom 2.0' and this one in the Economist: Facebook is bad for you - Get a life! . Working in the media is a working lifestyle rather than a regular job, where you really need to be a workaholic to survive. The recent NY Times story about Amazon’s aggressive management style burning out staff or driving them to emotional or physical exhaustion has prompted followup coverage that this work culture is endemic in Silicon Valley and the web-based business sector. Adding premature burnout to the already high turnover and failure rate of startups is not constructive. There is already some recognition of the remedy for the unhealthy working conditions in "cafe culture", as indicated here. The longstanding use of cafes by writers is the subject of a 2006 book, reviewed here, and the subject of a more recent personal essay, here. A new business development for 'digital nomads' to do work requiring greater peace and quiet than a cafe is the availability of co-working spaces via dedicated franchise companies like WeWork, LiquidSpace, NearDesk and ShareDesk who rent out desk space by the month, week or day. Such premises are classed by Tech City et al as "incubators."

Finally, various commentators on the growth of the tech scene have spoken of the vital need for a “critical mass” of firms and individuals to come together, and suitable shared spaces are obviously helpful here. Locally, there are already several formal meetup, conference or networking groups: as well as the annual Silicon Beach 2-day conference (which seems dominated by out-of-town speakers), there is the annual Re:develop conference, plus meet-up group HACKBMTH for "web developers, game designers, 3D printerers [sic], hardware hackers". (There is also MeetDraw, for 'digital animals to talk about and share collective passions', which is Dorset based, but does events in town.)

With all the above issues in mind, we’re putting together a separate website section under the heading Silicon Beach Bomo Orientation Guide, with pages on the various possible local “hubs”. The index or table of contents page is already up, here.

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