Birmingham stakes smart city claim

Could Birmingham have found its tech niche as a smart city innovator? With new initiatives up and running, it seems clear that England’s second city has moved on from its car-manufacturing-dominated past to face the future with projects that look to make the city a better place to live and work. Julian Blake reports.

birmingham city libraryIs Birmingham the UK’s newest smart city? That was the question on the table this week at DigitalAgenda’s latest ‘city impact’ dinner, as we assembled entrepreneurs, investors and others looking to change England’s second city for the better through digital innovation.

At the dinner, hosted at KPMG’s Snow Hill office, we heard from organisations working to improve the city itself through digital, as well as those looking to grow Birmingham’s economy across the board.

More than 80% of UK residents now live in cities. But despite recent regeneration, our urban areas are too often inefficient and unhealthy, with low participation in public life. Digital is helping to address these challenges with new products and services – though it technology also presents real challenges of its own, especially the disappearance of existing kinds of job through artificial intelligence.

Like other UK cities, Birmingham has faced the pains of de-industrialisation, in its case the loss of most of its car manufacturing capacity and the thousands of jobs that went with it.

Regeneration of a flagging city centre since – including with stunning landmarks like a new city library (pictured) and a Selfridges flagship store – has helped attract service industries like banks and more. HS2 will in 2033 (eventually) add a real boost to its transport infrastructure.

Among the city’s assets is the presence of no less than 18 universities within an hour’s drive. Students, many in science and engineering, are increasingly choosing to stay on after graduation, adding to the tech talent pool for business.

The tech startup scene is supported by networks like Silicon Canal, and investors include Oxygen, Ascension and city council-owned Finance Birmingham.

The arrival of dedicated tech startup spaces, especially at the local authority-owned Innovation Birmingham Campus, is proving a major boost for the city. And it is at IBC where smart cities innovation is happening faster than anywhere.

kompas iPhone displayLast year, at its new £8m iCentrum building, IBC opened the doors to its 12,000 square foot Serendip Smart City incubator, bringing together startups with corporate partners to share knowledge and access to markets. The space has most recently played host to the London Midland Labs transport accelerator, creating ‘simply better journeys’ through digital innovation.

Among the graduates from LML’s first 2017 cohort are city explorer app Kompas (pictured), fault reporting app Transreport, delay compensation app RailRepay and disabled travel specialist Limitless.

The sense that Birmingham is becoming a smart city innovator was underlined by its hosting last year of an Innovation Week, backed by the Future Cities Catapult urban innovation agency.

Elsewhere in the city, other spaces starting to make a digital mark include Assay Studios, John Lewis’s dedicated Tech Hub for Innovation, and the mission-driven Impact Hub Birmingham, created by local founders with collaborative studio Project00.

The Birmingham city economy is starting to feel the benefits of this new business infrastructure. HM Revenue & Customs is set to open a regional hub in the city in 2019 with 3,000 jobs, with HSBC adding 1,200 more. Those add to the established presence of SCC, Europe’s largest independent tech solutions provider.

So are things finally looking up for Birmingham, having lived in a growing shadow of the Manchester powerhouse and rising urban stars like Newcastle, Leeds and Bristol? UK cities are competing for talent and business, after all.

Tech City UK, the government agency promoting the digital economy, has identified Birmingham as one of the country’s leading tech business clusters. Its 2017 Tech Nation report, published in March, placed Birmingham fourth on the list of UK clusters of digital employment, with nearly 37,000 tech jobs.

Tech Nation estimated that digital added £1.4bn to the Birmingham economy in 2016, with 11.4% of firms categorised as high growth. There were 557 startups formed in the city, and the average advertised digital salary was nearly £44,000.

KPMG corporate finance manager Stuart Pilgrim said: “Birmingham has nearly 4,000 digital and creative companies which is more than any other regional city and provides for 36,802 digital tech economy jobs.

“With the presence of major businesses in the region, a young, diverse population and innovative linkages with complementary sectors, Birmingham is quickly becoming a leading technology hub for the UK.”

selfridges birmingham

DigitalAgenda’s dinners are created to help build local networks and share knowledge about the ideas out there that address city challenges. They also offer a chance for people to meet up with others from each city’s startup community.

Read about our earlier city discussions in Leeds and in Newcastle.

DigitalAgenda’s Impact Awards, which take place each March, recognise tech innovations being created to make places work better. For our 2017 awards just gone, the cities award was won by footsteps-into-energy business Pavegen, while our smart award went to audio mobility tool Wayfindr. The awards were sponsored by Nominet Trust.

If you’re interested in attending a future DigitalAgenda dinner, let us know. You can also join the growing UK DigitalAgenda Network.

Birmingham city impact dinner – July 5 – KPMG – guests

Beacon House Events
DESIblitz magazine
Helium Ventures
Impact Hub Birmingham
Innovate Malvern
Innovation Birmingham
Kaido Group
Learning Labs
London Midland
QuickCode Labs
The Developer Society
Turn Partners