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12 Aug 2016

For a digital city why does Leeds remain culturally analogue?

Posted on August 12, 2016 by

Dombis_1687

If you ask around the creative hubs of Leeds, you will hear the view that we are the UK’s second ‘digital’ city after London.

Clearly that’s a difficult title to lay claim to and I’m pretty sure that Manchester and Birmingham are saying the same things.

When asked, the likes of AQL’s data centre, making the region resilient, the Leeds data mill promotion of open data, which has now become the Data Mill North, and Leeds Digital Festival are cited as examples of our leadership in the sector.

Whilst hugely positive for Leeds, this is where I see an issue. Many of these projects essentially start and finish amongst the city’s digital and business communities. There is little mention of large-scale, accessible and highly visible digitally-driven cultural projects on this list, and nothing of the sort that really captures the public’s imagination and demands their involvement.

The cultural offer in Leeds is incredibly strong and developing at an equally astonishing rate as our digital sectors, which is fantastic as we gear up our European Capital of Culture bid.

From our national artistic institutions, to the incredible burgeoning food and drink scene, the high-profile sporting events that draw huge crowds and the efforts of organisations, such as Leeds BID and the city council, to improve our city centre, it seems that there is something new happening every week.

But so much of this seems to develop with digital being seen as a channel or a platform to hold or host activity as opposed to being the inspiration for it in the first place.

The end result is the digital community organising events primarily targeted at themselves and the city pushing forward with largescale events which, with the exception of Light Night, limit digital involvement to the web and social media as opposed to being intrinsic to the idea.

Please don’t misunderstand me, this is not a criticism, it’s a belief that there is an opportunity on a massive scale for Leeds to define itself for years to come as a forward-thinking, engaged city, if we can find better ways to combine our digital and cultural economies.

With it will come huge benefits. An ambitious programme of activity delivering experiences that bring together the digital with the cultural would be a huge draw for the city, bringing residents into the city centre and encouraging visitors from further afield. I think it would also demonstrate Leeds as fantastic place to live and work to a whole generation and section of people that I know our digital communities are desperate to recruit.

What I’d like to see is a smart city full of smart ideas, not just static and isolated installations providing short-term amusement and short-term content, but connected and evolving projects that people can interact with and manipulate and change themselves.

I want to see collaborative projects that give the wider Leeds community and visitors to our city the chance to engage and interact with the city in a way they haven’t been able to do before, and in way that they can’t anywhere else.

There have been some fun examples recently such as the Talking Statues Leeds initiative done in partnership with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, which saw famous names and voices bringing to life the city’s statues to tell their story via a mobile app.

I love initiatives like Granary Squirt in King’s Cross, which allows people to take control of fountains with a smartphone app and even play games such as the 70s arcade classic Snake. It’s undeniably digital but is easily accessible to everyone and provides a new way to interact with the space.

Another interesting example for me was when someone recently told me that playing Pokémon Go was making them look at Leeds differently. They were seeing things that they’d never taken notice of before: strange and beautiful reliefs, sculptures and architectural details, heritage sites and blue plaques that they had previously been blind to. That is surely a massive opportunity waiting to be explored.

There is great work going on in Leeds in our digital and cultural sectors and if, by working together, we can harness it to engage with the broadest audiences possible, it could play a huge part in the future direction and image of our city.

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