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Headline Sponsor Spotlight: Sheffield City Council

By Sheffield Digital Festival

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Edward Highfield, Director of City Growth

We are delighted to have Sheffield City Council on board as headline sponsor for our 2021 virtual festival. We caught up with Edward Highfield, Director of City Growth, to hear more about the support available for Sheffield’s digital tech industries, and to find out what he is looking forward to seeing at the Festival.

Why are you a fan of Sheffield Digital Festival?

This event is a fantastic opportunity for the city to showcase the strengths of our digital scene. There is so much to find out and celebrate; it’s a great way of informing each other, as well as the rest of the world, what we are doing, how we are innovating and leading in cutting edge technology.  

How would you sum up Sheffield’s digital tech scene?

Exciting, fascinating, welcoming, open and growing. I would also say sometimes overlooked, but determined to prove people wrong.

How is Sheffield City Council supporting the tech sector to grow, and to raise its profile beyond the city?

The City Council recognises the integral role creative and digital plays in the economic and cultural fabric of the city – and the fallout from the pandemic only underlines that further. We believe the best approach to help the sector grow and raise its profile is to work collaboratively with and through partners like Sheffield Digital and others.

We are doing so in a number of ways, for example:

Leading and facilitating: The council facilitates strategic discussions with key partners at a group called economy.SHF.  This enables us all to share information, work towards a shared vision and set of priorities for the sector as well as check and challenge each other on work we are delivering or planning to deliver.

Profile raising: We have been working together to help define and promote the sector, including by ensuring the profile and key messages of the sector are woven into our city marketing and branding – and vice versa.  This includes funding events like the Digital Festival and other activity.  

Acceleration and incubation: We are working with partners in the Sheffield Incubation and Acceleration Network such as The Cooper Project, Kollider, both universities and Twinkl Hive to share expertise and ideas and to collaborate on projects such as a series of tech focused workshops by our specialist advisors (delivered in the Cooper Project).  

Funding specialist support: We have expanded the Business Sheffield offer to include specialist Tech Advisors, who are using their expertise to help businesses to grow across the city. Our Tech Scale Up Advisors are also excited to be working with TEAM SY (Tech Ecosystem Acceleration and Market-Making South Yorkshire)* and we are already seeing the benefits, with new accelerator and investment readiness programmes that are coming into the city region as a result, which will help our tech cluster grow.

Leading and influencing: We take every opportunity to influence the city region and national government, including by leading on the tech priority of the SCR’s Recovery Action Plan. This involves looking at the future direction of tech investment across the region and our first priority is having a Scale Up Tech Advisor who will provide a knowledge network for tech companies and tech adopters. We are also developing a ‘soft landing’ programme to support the costs of accommodation for new tech companies moving into the city region. And, we are providing support to enhance the promotion of the tech sector and its engagement as an inward investment tool for the city region.

That’s a fair amount of work, but there is always more to do and I look forward to sharing these developments with you as they happen.

* TEAM SY is delivered by Capital Enterprise and Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council and is part-funded through the European Regional Development Fund.  

What do you want to see at this year’s virtual Festival?

I will be on the lookout for the home grown stories that haven’t been told yet; of innovations, products and services that are world leading and unique so we can shout about them more.

The theme of the festival is Remote Control, exploring the technologies, lessons and impacts we have experienced throughout the pandemic. What is the best digital innovation you’ve seen coming out of Sheffield City Region, in response to COVID-19?

There have been many technological innovations and these I’m sure have had a significant impact, but one thing that particularly impressed me wasn’t actually a digital innovation but was a decision taken by Twinkl to open up their resources to the many parents, not just in Sheffield but across the world, who were struggling with home education. I have no doubt that this had a profoundly positive impact, particularly in those early days of the pandemic when there was no real online learning and parents were figuring out what to do almost by themselves.

Taking place in May, the Festival comes at a time when we’ll (hopefully) be seeing a bit of normality return to our lives, but to what extent do you think the creative and technology based adaptations are here to stay?

From my perspective, some of the changes we have seen – such as working from home and an increase in online retail – were longer term trends that have been accelerated and exposed by Covid and we see the ongoing impact of that across the city.  These have all been enabled by existing technologies and I think to a large extent they are here to stay. Few people I talk to want to go back to being in the office full time – however, few really want to be fully home based either. The trick will be to hit the right balance for individuals while making it work for organisations. A more difficult issue is what happens to retail and how these changes play out. I will be focused on the role of the city centre, our district and local centres and how we continue to support them through this crisis.

Cutting across all of this though is inequality and in the same way Covid has highlighted longer term trends, it has also exacerbated and brought into sharp relief the deep inequalities in the city.  Significant numbers of people have not been able to access even the most basic of technologies and adaptations most of us have taken for granted in this period – many have suffered greatly and been left further behind as a result.

Whatever happens, we must all work to ensure that all of our citizens can share in the growth of the creative and tech sector in daily life and in employment and skills opportunities. No one organisation can do that alone and the sector can play its part here as well, through innovation and new ways of engaging people, especially young people.

There are different ways to contribute to the Festival this year, like hosting a virtual event or submitting a product, service or solution to the Showcase. Why would you encourage local businesses, creatives and makers to get involved?

I think it’s a great opportunity to share knowledge, put a spotlight on our achievements and discuss relevant issues.  There aren’t many times in the year, certainly not in the past year, that you can step back from the day job, lift your gaze and take stock of what’s going on around you and outside of your personal or organisational bubble. We all need and benefit from this; it inspires, makes new connections and focuses minds, that’s reason enough for me.

Posted by Sheffield Digital Festival on 20.04.2021