Leeds Digital Festival director: ‘We were trending just behind Ed Sheeran’

25 Apr, 2017

This interview was originally published on Medium 

It’s day four of Leeds Digital Festival 2017, a celebration of all things tech and digital. Now into its second year, this year’s festival runs from April 22 to April 29 and features 115 events held at multiple venues across the city. From creative and freelancer-focused workshops at Castleton Mill to future of healthtech debates at Futurelabs, there’s something for creatives, coders and everybody in-between.

Festival director Stuart Clarke believes that Leeds Digital Festival plays a part in tackling a fundamental issue facing the whole of the North’s digital sector: attracting skilled workers to the region (and helping to keep them there). We caught up with Clarke to discover how this year’s bigger, broader and busier event is progressing, and what’s in store for the future.

It’s day four of the festival. How is it going so far?

It’s going really well. We started off nice and quiet on Saturday and Sunday with two or three events each day. It really kicked in yesterday and today is probably our busiest day with around 30 events on. All of them are going well so far.

How does Leeds Digital Festival help put the city on the map for digital and tech?

Part of it is about scale and generating noise. We’re getting a lot of national press coverage, and people from London, Sheffield and Manchester are looking over and seeing what we’re doing. That’s really important, particularly when looking at solving the talent issues we have and plugging the skills gap.

Two of the festival’s events, Tech North’s Digital Jobs Action Summit on Thursday and the Digital Job Fair 3.0 on Friday, are shining a light on jobs in the sector. Why is it important to showcase what vacancies are out there?

We need to attract more people into the city. When people move cities, it can be a risky move for them. But if we show them that there’s not one, not two, but many dozens of fantastic companies that you can work at in Leeds, we can confidently tell people to come here. And it’s a lot cheaper than London!

What has the reception been to this year’s Leeds Digital Festival so far?

The city seems to be fully behind it, and it’s getting lots of publicity. We were trending on Twitter yesterday just behind Ed Sheeran on the back of tweets and retweets. Ed has a few more quid in the publicity machine, so we were pleased with that. But it’s not just about Twitter – everywhere we go people are pleased that it’s happening. The festival’s bringing people together to collaborate in such a positive way.

There are more than 100 events taking place this week. Which stand out for you?

Last year we had 56 events and this year we’ve had 115, so we’ve doubled in size; that surprised us in some ways but not in others. Again, it’s about collaboration between individuals, companies and other people in Leeds that want to make the city a big digital success. That’s how events stand out. We have Code In the Dark and the Algorave, which both did really well last year. The FinTech North panel discussion sold another hundred tickets and maxed out, and there’s a great SEO conference on Wednesday. The Northern UX conference on Friday has also sold out, so there’s some fantastic events coming up.

What challenges have you experienced putting on this year’s festival?

If there’s any area where we’re not doing as well as we should, it’s startups. We have a fantastic Founders’ Friday meet up where we have lots of established mentors working with startups and scaleups, which has really helped. But we probably need to be doing more as a city to come together and increase the number of startups that we have.

This is the second year in a row that the festival has run. What learnings did you take from last year?

The biggest learning was to get a website that actually works for a digital festival! But yes – there’s lots of things. We have more people involved in it this year as more people know about it. We’ve had some fantastic sponsorship too – particularly from NHS Digital; Sky Betting and Gaming; and Leeds City Council. We’ve also had many partners and agencies who have come forward and offered us fantastic creative work. It’s been a collaborative effort from the whole city.

What’s in store for next year?

Our target was to put on 56 events last year, and our target this year was 80 which we’ve gone way over. But even if we came down in numbers next year, we need to make sure we increase quality and the number of companies and people involved. Even if we ended up with 100 events and had more of those involved, particularly with more startups in the mix, that would be considered a success.

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