Insight | South by South West – learnings from the US and beyond

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Having just returned from South by South West, an annual conference held in Austin, Texas, Invest North East England Inward Investment Manager Rachel Burdis looks at the opportunities available for our region.
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The South by South West festival brings together creatives across the tech, film, creative and music industries and offers them multiple opportunities to connect, learn, exhibit and be inspired. Speakers were varied and sessions covered everything from NASA’s Webb Space Telescope, overcoming the challenges of using the metaverse, AI in gaming and the future of Electric Vehicles.

The best and the brightest of British talent attended the festival in their thousands, either speaking, exhibiting or eager to learn more -including Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton (who coincidently was on my flight out to Austin – but that story is for another day)!

UK House, hosted by the Department of Business and Trade, showcased our advertising, art, tech, music and innovation through panel discussions, networking and live music.

Sessions by the Belfast and Manchester regions gave insight on their key assets and digital ecosystems, and it was really useful to gain a better understanding of the opportunities and strengths in other cities. Whilst every UK region has its strengths, it was clear that a main challenge for all remains perception and profile. Foreign investors still know little about the more northern cities in the UK – and naturally London draws a lot of attention.

The North of England offers businesses many advantages. Here in the North East, the spotlight is definitely being shone on the digital sector, but we need to raise that profile internationally. The region has great ambitions and through collaborative working, we can raise our profile and highlight the unique opportunities available here for investors. 

Virtually limitless possibilities

The Digital Catapult in Belfast raised awareness of the Virtual Production (VP) capabilities within Northern Ireland and there was much discussion around the pros and cons of various tools and technologies. VP is seen as another tool to be used rather than a replacement. The convergence of various technologies and skillsets has meant that there are limitless possibilities for film and media production. However, as this is such an emerging area, there are still challenges around convergence, particularly with different working styles of those in gaming, film and media.

Another hotly debated topic was around the environmental impact and energy efficiency of VP. There are clear environmental benefits of not having to transfer large production operations cross country. This is something PROTO: Emerging Tech Centre and the team at the Digital Catapult North East & Tees Valley are soon to be researching. Coincidently, their new VP stage officially opened this month, following investment from Innovate UK. The studio aims drive further regional capabilities by increasing the North East’s share of R&D and skills in advanced media production. Investors have an exclusive opportunity to work with the PROTO team developing and testing new content on the 8×3.5m curved LED screen, as well as tracking cameras and a motion capture system.

Creative and Screen Industries

The US has strong creative and screen industries, with much talk of developments in areas such as Atlanta, Georgia. Over in the UK, focus has rightly been on the North East in recent weeks – thanks in part to Robson Green’s Weekend Escapes on BBC2 showcasing our glorious coastlines, parks and beauty spots, but also thanks to major announcements in the screen industries. FulwellCain Studios, a joint venture between global entertainment company Fulwell 73 and Cain International, announced plans for one of the largest filmmaking complexes in Europe. The project will create around 8,450 jobs over the next decade and will include up to 20 premium sound stages suitable for film and high end tv. This along with a dedicated business support programme, the BBC’s commissioning fund and the plans for the world’s largest underwater studio to be built in Sunderland’s docks, means that our region will be ripe for production companies looking for new pastures to create exciting content.

In other great news, the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre is coming to Newcastle University. They will be the new Northern hosts along with London partners at the Royal Society of Arts. The news means Creative PEC can continue its work on evidence-informed policy and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) have confirmed £11million in funding to enable this work to continue over the next five years.

The Lionesses leading the way… in Esports?

Interesting discussions took place at the festival around the accessibility and inclusivity of esports and the need to drive that further forward for the good of the industry. The excellent work of the Lionesses in last year’s tournament has significantly increased the interest and uptake of women’s football and industry leaders in esports are considering how to do the same. Challenges facing those starting up esports teams and businesses were also highlighted throughout the festival, but with the promise of new business models potentially offering a solution.

The recent announcement of the new multi-site venue around the National Esports Campus in Sunderland will aim to overcome some of the known barriers to growth and accessibility. The multi-million-pound development will include self-contained gaming houses for 25 people, as well as a state of the art creative hub. The facilities, together with the work that Durham University and others are doing to support females and minority groups to access esports, offers investors a distinctive opportunity in the UK.

The Future of Gaming

AI and data in the games industry will continue to drive innovation and growth. Sessions discussed the likelihood of openworld type games becoming more feasible when content becomes cheaper. The use of data in understanding players, why they want to play a certain game and how studios can entice them to play longer and invite non-gamers to get involved, was also a main topic of conversation.

The work of the National Innovation Centre for Data based on Newcastle Helix, is the only centre of its kind in the UK. The experienced and dedicated teams of researchers and academic experts can support these studios to harness the full potential of their data and use it to unlock new market opportunities. The centre for doctoral training in Cloud Computing for Big Data at Newcastle University also offers investors access to skilled PhD students and projects guided by the issues the games and tech industry face today and will face in the near future.

Fancy a Charge and a Coffee?

An interesting session at the festival was around the future of Electric Vehicles (EV) and the focus being on meeting the needs of the ‘consumer on the go’. The Likes of Ford and Shell re-iterated the need to make it simple, reliable and easy for drivers of EVs to make their journeys. Discussions around super-charging points and fast chargers on forecourts located with coffee shops offering consumers a chance to grab a convenient drink and snack whilst topping up, were hot topics.

As EV take up moves from the early adopters to mainstream, there is recognition for the need for reliability, convenience and providing consumers with more intuitive experiences. Here in the North East, we are accelerating the response to the scale of adoption and the challenges it presents. Our research capabilities in North East Battery Alliance (NEBA) and the Driving the Electric Revolution Industrialisation Centre (DER-IC) mean that investors can benefit from a research community and dedicated support programme.

A region which has truly led the way in electrification with Europe’s first battery gigafactory and mass produced EV, it is no surprise that we have an innovative cluster of SMEs in this space as well. With companies like Equiwatt providing smart energy solutions and innovators in immersive technologies, Fuzzy Logic Studios, creating AR solutions to meet the electrification skills challenge, there is a vibrant tech and creative cluster in the North East to rival international competitors.

Whilst lessons can be learned from around the world, North East England already offers a wealth of experienced professionals, a strong pipeline of talent, dedicated specialist facilities and a clear and ambitious plan when it comes to driving further innovation and growth in creative and tech. If your business is looking to expand, there’s no better place or time to do so than North East England

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Invest North East England is the first point of contact for companies looking to invest in our region. Our highly experienced team opens the door for investors to North East England’s network of specialist organisations and individuals with the information, support and advice essential to any investment decision. We co-ordinate investment enquiries on behalf of our region’s local authorities to ensure businesses are able to make the best decisions based on a wide array of information.

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