10 years of DigitalCity: Teesside University’s vibrant hub is a model for powerful partnerships

10 years of DigitalCity: Teesside University’s vibrant hub is a model for powerful partnerships

Skills transfer, access to investment and extensive networks are among the key benefits for students, entrepreneurs and local communities.

This case study originally appeared on page 83 of the State of the Relationship 2014. The report outlines the state of university-business collaboration in the UK, featuring expert views and over forty case studies. Read the full report.

DigitalCity is a multi-partner initiative to create a high-growth digital cluster in Tees Valley, North East England. Led by Teesside University, it capitalises on academic expertise in digital media and technology and a strong enterprise agenda, providing a unique environment for the development of digital start-ups.

Since it began, DigitalCity has seen purpose-built facilities spring up on the campus and in the town centre, with a network of new buildings in development further afield. It is a cornerstone of the Local Enterprise Partnership’s economic development strategy.

The initiative is defined by a joint investment by the university, local authorities and LEP. This partnership helps facilitate a number of key features. For example, an innovative fellowship programme aims to capture the best graduate talent and encourage the startup of new businesses. Meanwhile, the national and international virtual and physical networks provide benefits such as the transfer of digital skills and knowledge to businesses, a creative environment for entrepreneurs, postgraduates and established companies, and access to inward investment, innovation and trade partnerships. Local schools and communities also benefit from initiatives promoting social inclusion, raised aspirations and the sharing of digital skills.

This year sees DigitalCity’s tenth anniversary. This milestone is a testament to the partnership that has created and grown it. Over the years it has had the active support of regional and local development bodies, private sector organisations, local authorities, the European Commission, government departments, and a wealth of community groups. Against a backdrop of political and economic change partnership commitment has only increased, to the extent that six councils have adopted DigitalCity as a key economic driver, generating revenue and capital investments for innovation, jobs and businesses.

DigitalCity works because of a shared vision and shared benefits, which have meant everyone involved has been able to commit to it and to understand what it can deliver.

Strategic leadership and collective ownership have played a part, too. DigitalCity has not been without challenges and risks, but the continued, explicit commitment of strategic partners and effective governance by a private sector-led strategic board have given continued confidence in its future. In addition, strong project management and successful delivery have meant that partner support has been there when needed to exploit opportunities or address problems.

For example, the abolition of Regional Development Agencies and subsequent loss of income had the potential to be damaging had it not been for the ideas and support from DigitalCity partners. Indeed, the changing financial and political environment has been the biggest threat to sustainability and to continuity of project staff.

The sheer complexity of DigitalCity, the partnership and the organisations involved can make it challenging to keep activity on track and exploit opportunities. The only answer is high maintenance and clear, consistent communication at all levels.

While there has rightly been a strong focus on delivering, greater marketing and strategic liaison would have helped increase the visibility and influence of DigitalCity at an earlier stage. However, even those things that have not gone to plan have left valuable lessons for the partnership that can be applied elsewhere.

For more information, visit www.thedigitalcity.com

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