LEEDS DIGITAL FESTIVAL
Originally starting life as Leeds Digital Week in 2008, Leeds Digital Festival had a simple brief to promote the digital sector, creating a single platform and unified voice for the industry and positioning Leeds as a home for the creative industries and future inward investment. However, in order to achieve this the festival needed to unite a notoriously divided business community where competition and rivalry ruled, often spilling out into public spats between agencies in the digital and design sector.
In 2008 Leeds signed a three year deal with The Drum Magazine to bring its prestigious DADI Awards to the city. In order to ensure that Leeds was well represented at these national awards hosted on home turf, I created a festival which in its first year as Leeds Digital Week was, as the name suggests, a week-long festival of industry events, talks, networking and debates which built excitement for and culminated in the DADI awards.
The first year went so well it caught the eye of the then Regional Development Agency, Yorkshire Forward, who asked us to expand the 2009 festival to have a regional focus, which we dutifully did. However, the digital and design industry across the region varies significantly with some areas taking a focus on digital as it is applied to an artistic practice and others having a much more commercial focus. The regional offer did not sit well together under one single festival brand an in 2010 we returned to a Leeds focus with a newly named Leeds Digital Festival which would take place over two weeks and bring the focus back to the commercial industry in the city, positioning Leeds as the place for digital organisations to invest.
A programme of events was created and we took to social media for the first time with our renewed focus, however the industry was not happy. Many in the sector felt that the festival did accurately represent their aspirations for the industry, that the events were not exciting and different enough and that the voice created by the festival did not belong to or represent the personality, energy and dynamism of digital in Leeds. Rather than defend the festival choices I chose to listen to the feedback, after all this was meant to be a festival to celebrate, promote and unite the industry and therefore would need to be owned by it. Over the course of three weeks I engaged in open social media discussions about what people wanted from a festival of this kind, I met with those who had strong views and opinions and together we arranged an open meeting for those who wanted to help shape a new direction for the festival.
Following the 2010 festival the sector wanted to take ownership of the festival but needed someone to lead and deliver it. Myself and Si Wilson, who had been an active player in the discussions, became joint Festival Producer & Director and spent the next twelve months building a community that would create the 2011 festival. Over the course of a year we created a monthly meet up to design the programme, brainstorm event ideas, prioritise activities and agree key messages. The meet ups, held in the upstairs room of pub, were always open to everyone regardless of where they were in their career and were usually attended by between 30-40 people each month. The festival was no longer funded as the three year deal with The Drum Magazine had ended, however it created huge amounts of momentum and good will and through a series of hack days and competitions the sector came together to create a new brand, website and marketing collateral.
The 2011 festival ran for a whole month with more than 60 events, increased the visibility of the digital sector in Leeds through local and national media coverage, caught the interest of industry professionals in cities such as Manchester, Brighton and Newcastle all of whom attended the events, and was recognised by city leaders including the Chief Executive of the city council. Most importantly the 2011 festival created a united and better connected community within the digital sector. This community celebrated each other’s successes, learned to collaborate and experiment together regardless of commercial rivalries and went on to deliver two more years of festival together.
In 2013, due to work commitments both myself and Si stepped down as festival directors and the event took a break. In 2015 we were approached by a group of people from the industry who wanted to revive the festival which is a fantastic testament to the community created over the previous festivals. The Leeds Digital Festival of today has evolved to include the tech and data sector and continues to showcase the digital sector in the city to new audiences through partnership and collaboration.