A City Of Inventors

Acityofinventors

Late last Summer, Marketing Leeds' then CEO Deborah Green invited me to contribute a piece on Leeds' technology ecosphere for the 2012 edition of Live It, Love It: A Style Guide To Leeds. The guide is the official publication for marketing the city and distributed freely to visitors and residents.

Leeds isn't understood to be a technology hub, but its history of innovation and invention spans both the industrial and information ages, modestly contributing machines and minds to humanity. I wanted to ensure these stories were known and to deliniate the arc of the city's inventiveness into its future.

You can find a somewhat clunky electronic edition online, with my contributions at page 106 and page 6. It's worth seeking out the print edition beautifully designed by David Simmonds, but I've chosen to reproduce my piece below too…

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A City Of Inventors, 24th October 2011

Acclaimed speculative fiction author William Gibson recently wrote, “in cities, the past and the present and the future can all be adjacent”. Leeds is such a place.

The relics of Leeds’ Victorian industrial past became inhabited by the entrepreneurs of the new millennium’s dotcom boom, and as Britain entered a period of austerity, the city’s burgeoning ‘netroots’ class of activists, bloggers and citizens of the Web 2.0 age, have inherited the city itself as a platform to invent and imagine the distributed, networked institutions of the 21st century.

Cities are humanity’s most characteristic and complex inventions — almost everything that we consider to be culture arose within cities. The notion of cities as simply a place is being displaced by the idea that cities are organisms, mindsets and platforms for democracy, civilisation, technology, arts and sustainability. Cities have a character and a persona, one we collectively craft as citizens.

When considering Leeds’ technology, media or digital industries, there is no institution, company or individual that stands apart. The city’s universities, its vibrant culture, its connectivity to European capitals, the presence of investors, capital and entrepreneurs all combine to make Leeds an engine of invention.

The idea of Leeds has become its most profound creation; its entangled past, present and future, the source of its novelty. So who are those inventors and creators?

 

The Steampunks…

The industrial revolution saw Leeds at the heart of the Victorian era’s Silicon Valley, a constellation of Northern ports, mills and mining towns that powered imperial Britain. 

  • In 1767 Joseph Priestley invented carbonated water by experimenting with bowls of water suspended above beer vats at a local brewery. The process was later adopted by the Schweppes company and – after leaving Leeds – using these experiments, Priestley went on to discover oxygen, encouraged by one of the founding fathers of America, a certain Benjamin Franklin…
  • Between 1758 and 1792 John Smeaton, a prolific local engineer of mathematical instruments became “the father of civil engineering” through his many commissions, including bridges, waterways and the innovative Eddystone Lighthouse.
  • Matthew Murray’s Round Foundry – now home to the city’s “Silicon Shore” – was one of the first engineering works in the world – and the source of early industrialised production of steam engines. Built in 1797 by engineers and financiers, the Foundry exported textile machinery, steam engines and locomotives across the planet and indeed the building’s unique rotunda itself innovated access for machinery.
  • French inventor Louis Le Prince, shot the world’s first moving pictures in Leeds: Roundhay Garden Scene and Leeds Bridge, planting the seeds for a new medium of cinema.

 

The Micro Age…

The 1980s saw the rise of personal computing across the planet along with the nascent UK videogames scene, largely driven by solitary bedroom coders. Leeds was home to the emerging studio structures that began to professionalise the games industry.

  • From 1980 to 1987, Micro Power was a prolific publisher of numerous games for the ‘8-bit’ platforms of the day – the BBC Micro, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. For many British children, their first experiences of videogames were Micro Power titles.
  • By 1982, Micro Power was joined by Superior Software, founded by graduates from the University of Leeds. Superior focussed on adapting titles from other platforms as well as developing original franchises like Repton, recently re-released for Apple’s iPhone.

 

The Dotcom Boom…

More recently, the millennial period saw Leeds as an epicentre of the dotcom boom and the beginning of the internet era. By laying down the media and infrastructural backbone for another new medium, the internet began to disrupt everything before it industries, culture, commerce and media. Leeds found itself directing 40% of the nation’s internet traffic through its radio, fibre and copper networks…

  • In 1995, Planet Online was launched, connecting over two thousand businesses to the internet within their first year. In 1998, Planet joined electronics retailers Dixons to create…
  • Freeserve, the world’s first free internet service provider, bringing affordable internet connectivity and online services to millions of Britons, pioneering consumer broadband services and pushing tech giants such as AOL into a distant second place. Freeserve coupled Leeds’ expertise in network technology with Dixons’ retail network to bring the internet to millions of Britons’ homes.
  • Elsewhere, in 2000, Ananova created the world’s first virtual newscaster and Leeds-based TEAMtalk capitalised on Britain’s obsession with football by quickly adapting its premium phone services for the internet era, providing sports content to a network of mobile and web channels.

This growing fluency with the city’s growing internet expertise caught the attention of larger powers, with BSkyB, Orange and Cable & Wireless snapping up the city’s startups for their global portfolios. Freeserve‘s £1.65bn sale was the largest British deal of the dotcom era.

 

The Great Reset…

A decade into the new Millennium, the city’s great civic institutions – finance, universities, newspapers, TV production, local government are all experiencing the effects of the post-crash age of austerity, what American urban theorist Richard Florida calls the Great Reset. Government is shrinking, whilst media is disrupted and overturned by nimbler social networks.

Amongst this creative destruction, a post-digital creative class is beginning to capitalise on the collapse to innovate and invent what comes next

  • In 2009 Leeds was selected as one of The Guardian’s charter cities for its “beatblogger” experiment, rebooting local news for a networked culture, to great acclaim. 
  • Since 2007, the University of Leeds has spun out 18 ventures worth £160m, ranging from oil exploration and embryology, to cancer treatment and transport software.
  • During the 1980s, Jimi Heselden, a former miner, used his redundancy payment to invent a patented flood control and military fortification device, deployed in disaster and conflict zones including New Orleans and Afghanistan. By 2009, Heselden had grown into a philanthropist and found new success in acquiring the iconic Segway company.
  • Rockstar Games has brought videogame franchises such as Max Payne, LA Noire and Grand Theft Auto to millions around the world. Elsewhere, Double Eleven will be developing some of the first titles for Sony’s new Playstation Vita handheld.

Multiple creative hubs are emerging around the city – Old Broadcasting House, The Round Foundry and Duke Studios are all enabling technologists, activists, investors, artists, entrepreneurs and the curious to find loci of serendipity.

Innovative works that cross artistic, cultural, technological and industrial boundaries are emerging as a result, from the ground breaking Our City Our Music project, to urban games such as 2.8 Hours Later and a network of festivals that act as living labs for prototyping new ideas, including Leeds in Barcelona, PhotoCamp, Live at Leeds, LSx and Thought Bubble.

 

Leeds Keeps Inventing…

Amongst the economic and political turbulence of the crash, Leeds is surfacing new opportunities to invent. The era of large industries as temples and guardians of innovation has passed and the monopoly of civic services concentrated in local government is also receding.

What remains is a city thriving on synthesising ideas and inventions from a culture that demands architectures of participation. Crafting new experiences that nurture collaboration — across music, technology, fashion, sport, literature and commerce — is enabling Leeds to creatively assemble the future from pieces of its past. Any city with a giant-walking suburban robot called Oddball, has one eye on the future.

Leeds is a city of hackers and makers… a city of inventors.

A friend of a friend he got beaten
He looked the wrong way at a policeman
Would never of happened to Smeaton
An old leodensian
I predict a riot
Kaiser Chiefs

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