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Brighton’s Digital Industries Boom: How, In Web Design, Sussex Became A Creative Hotspot

by Jodie Manners , 03 September 2019

Jodie Manners
Brighton’s Digital Industries Boom: How, In Web Design, Sussex Became A Creative Hotspot
Ask an outsider to describe ‘Sussex’ and they’ll probably talk rolling hills, chalky-white sea-cliffs, charmingly wonky holiday cottages and flowery roadside verges. Narrow it down to ‘Brighton’ and minds wander to hedonism, hipsters and aggressive seagulls. Few outsiders or locals picture a burgeoning digital industries hub rivalling any the rest of the UK and Europe have to offer.

But the latest Tech Nation report marks out our not-so-little seaside city as an industry leader, “an exciting fusion of arts and technology” no less. We’ll take that, thank you very much! 

Brighton and Hove’s digital industries sector generates over £1billion per year, has birthed 218 Startups and created 12,614 digital jobs. It’s now worth as much to the city as tourism, something it and the wider Sussex area are much better known for. Not bad for something that didn’t exist fifteen years ago. 

Bucking the economic trend

This picture of success might come as a surprise to many businesses outside the industry. Since the 2008 recession, a disturbingly high proportion of the UK's economic sectors have been on the downturn. But not so for digital, where Startups, Scaleups and Finishups (ok, I made up that last one) dominate British growth. 

7 per cent of economic output and 4% of employment is wrapped up in jobs across areas like digital media, information services and software publishing. This might not sound exceptional, but the UK's digital sector is actually the largest in Europe. I know what you’re thinking... “What? We’re actually good at something other than making chips and churning out politicians who wouldn’t look out of place in a Dickins novel?’... apparently so! 

We might not make much in the way of physical objects anymore, but we do put a lot of cool stuff online.

The UK’s grand digital dreams

Never one to miss a good business opportunity, the UK government have been ploughing funds into the industry. Particularly, into computer programming and ‘related’ activities, including web development in design. The sector grew by 28% over the period 2010-2015, a trend that shows no sign of changing. 

The government's Digital Strategy initiative sets out commitments to build world-class digital infrastructure, help more businesses get online and make sure people have the skills they need to benefit from new opportunities. 

What does this mean for our little corner of the world?

  • More funding
  • More talent 
  • Better infrastructure

It’s a pretty good deal! 

What universities give, the city retains 

This is all very positive, so it’s obvious why the country as a whole is into digital, but how is it that Sussex has beaten out 100 other counties to be the biggest outside-of-London success story? 

Well, the South East has a few draws. Proximity to the capital certainly helps. The beaches, cafe-culture and countryside are also worth a mention… because who doesn’t like morning meetings with a well-crafted flat white and a side of sea air?

But the South East's real pull is its mass of universities, which pump out highly-skilled young creatives by the electric-bus-load. And, thanks to the strong creative culture in the area, graduates of technical degrees are complemented by those in the Social Sciences, Humanities and The Arts. 

Among the professions wrapped up in this hotbed of talent are digital marketers, content creators, IT professionals and experts in web design. Sussex, along with other university bases like Bournemouth and Bristol dominate the digital employment landscape across the UK. And these education-centred cities are not just a stopgap for enthusiastic graduates, but places they put down roots and stick with over the long-term. 

Creativity in buckets and spades

It’s not just graduates that the city holds on to. The loosely defined traditions of liberalism, excentricity and artisticness are ever-apparent across the region. From virtual reality to gaming and web design, Sussex has creativity in spades. 

The creative industries are second only to digital in the South East. In fact, Brighton & Hove has more creative SMEs for the overall sector size than anywhere else in the UK. Anyone who has witnessed the expansion of co-working spaces and artist’s studios across the city can confirm the trend. 

For Sussex web designers, this makes for an environment rich in opportunities, clients and inspiration. After all, those SMEs need websites and, if you’re ever short of design ideas, taking a trip to one of the many galleries or open studios, or attending a MeetUp for others in your industry should get the imagination going. 

The city has a strong, social scene, which includes a number of regular and well attended industry-specific gatherings like the Happy Startup School and the Internet of Things Meetup. The School of UX and other web design-related organisations have a strong presence in the are. And the local heroes over at Wired Sussex have created the ever-impressive Brighton Digital Festival, which has become one of the most important in the country. 

Is this the golden age of web design in Sussex?

According to Tech Nation’s report, this melting-pot of non-traditional traditions, industry expertise and creativity is really rubbing off on digital industries owners and employees. Startups rate the quality of life in Brighton and the wider region a solid 93%. Add this to CV-library’s recent report that Brighton residents are the happiest in the UK and it’s clear why it’s consistently topping the charts. After all, happy employees are productive employees, or so they say

Three and a half thousand members of the tech scene say that the the main draws of setting up business in Brighton & Hove are the helpful local tech community, the area appeal and access to talent. This mirrors the findings of other reports and the opinion of Wired Sussex director, Paul Jones, who says “Brighton’s scene has a large number of small businesses… their smaller size requires them to be collaborative and very agile”. This industry heavyweight suggests that business in the region owes its strength to a focus on “the social as well as economic good”, over simply expansive profit margins.

With booming city bases, increasing central funding, dedicated government bodies and more graduates looking for jobs on a local level than in the last decade, it would seem there has never been a better time to run a web design agency in Sussex.

Trouble ahead

Unfortunately though, it’s not all ice cream cones and Google-styled offices. The report also highlights issues that could scupper Sussex’s future digital dreams. The local universities that have typically been the source of regional talent are being defunded in the areas that made Brighton & Hove a success in the first place, the social sciences, creative subjects and the arts. 

The government’s recent “Augar review” of education funding for post-18-year-olds calls for a greater focus on STEM subjects at the inevitable expense of less tangibly valuable degrees. Problematically for the University of Brighton, which has long been a source of entrants to the creative and digital workforce, this means a cap on fees for related courses and a slowdown in investment in course infrastructure. 

On top of educational uncertainty sits the exceptionally high cost of living in the county and in Brighton in particular. Tech Nation puts the average cost of office space in the locale at £26.5 per square meter which is far greater than the national average and in-line with much larger bases like London and Manchester. 

And it’s not just business owners that struggle with the cost of property. The average house price in Brighton has hit close to half a £million and, even with an average cited tech job salary of just over £44,000 per year, that’s unattainable for most. If people can’t afford to settle or raise a family in the city, they’ll move elsewhere, taking their valuable skills and experience with them. 

Final thoughts...

Despite the drawbacks, the outlook for digital industries like web design in Sussex is good. Tech Nation’s research shows there is a strong and ongoing growth trend in Brighton & Hove’s sector. Although businesses face educational and local economic challenges in the near future, unless the city has a major personality transplant or is suddenly relocated 100 miles inland, it’s a course that’s likely to continue in the same direction. For Sussex web designers, this means riding the wave of success onto the pebble-strewn beach for quite some time yet.


Author bio: “Jodie is a Creative Copywriter, committed traveller and graduate of the University of Cambridge. She’s been generating profit with her words for over a decade. In her 10-year non-profit fundraising career, she raised over £2million for NPOs through face-to-face sales, management and expert training. She writes copy that inspires action and lives to help ethical and creative business owners, solopreneurs and non-profits find their voice and get ahead online. You can connect with Jodie through LinkedIn.”

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