Welcome to Bristol: A world-leading creative ‘digital city’


6 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Insights


Mobile Technology

Bristol – Calvium’s birthplace and home – is crammed with innovation and creativity. Brilliantly unorthodox, future-focused and endlessly inspiring, the city is part of our DNA.

It’s one of the UK’s most significant places for tech innovation outside London, and given its history, this is no surprise. It has a long-held reputation for cultivating success in ground-breaking sectors, with a rich heritage in high-tech micrroprocessing, digital industries and advanced engineering.

In 1985, for instance, HP Labs (where many of the Calvium team cut their teeth) set up their European R&D lab in the city – the first based outside of the US. Sun Microsystems – now a wholly owned subsidiary of Oracle – chose Bristol as its UK home in 1989.

A thriving industrial community also resides here, including aerospace giants Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems who can both trace their history in Bristol back to 1910, while the Airbus site just outside the city is the birthplace of Concorde.

These businesses laid the foundations for a sprawling hotbed of innovation; from large corporate powerhouses to nimble, agile startups.

From universities….

The city benefits from having two world class universities, which attract students from all over the globe (including several members of the Calvium team, who’ve gained everything from undergraduate degrees to doctorates here). And with good reason – the pioneering initiatives from both universities, as well as neighbouring Bath University, make Bristol an inspirational city for young digital creatives.

The Bristol Robotics Lab – a joint venture between University of Bristol and The University of the West of England (UWE) – is an internationally recognised centre of academic excellence for robotics research. And earlier this year, Bristol University announced plans to build the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus – a £300m development in the heart of the inner-city enterprise zone dedicated to digital technology-focused research.

With such fierce emphasis placed on innovation, it’s no wonder that 20% of Bristol University graduates set up their own businesses. And Bristol is a ‘sticky city’ meaning that many – 42% of students choose to live and work here after graduating. For students that stay, there’s a lot of support for their new businesses and startups, too.

To incubators…

The growing number of incubators emerging in the city has formed a breeding ground for new, innovative startups. Aptly located in revolutionary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s original station, incubator and office space, Engine Shed, is home to a network of startup support facilities, including SETSquared – voted the world’s best university business accelerator in 2016.

Engine Shed added £8m to the local economy in its first year of operation, and it’s birthed some brilliant new businesses. YellowDog – a SETSquared graduate whose trailblazing software speeds up rendering for 3D and VFX artists – secured £1.2m in funding over 18 months, and gained 600 customers in their first year of trading.

Ultrahaptics, meanwhile – which has created cutting-edge haptic technology which uses ultrasound to enable people to feel virtual objects in mid-air with their hands – has grown 500% year on year. They’ve just received B round investment of £17.9m to fund their continuing global expansion.

Success breeds success, of course, and earlier this year, Oracle announced the expansion of its Startup Cloud Accelerator programme into the UK at Engine Shed from the 1st August.

Pervasive Media Studio another incubator and Calviums original home – is perhaps the most compelling example of the mix of technology, creativity and ambition that almost defines this city; housing film directors, writers, content creators, designers, roboticists and uber techie folk. Based at Bristol’s Watershed, residents include Jono Sandilands – a graphic artist who created Playable Prints, a crossover of traditional printmaking with embedded digital technology, interactivity and gaming – and Hazel Grian – a science fiction writer who collaborates with movie makers, technologists and researchers to bring her stories to life using AI (check out her project A Tendency to Spill).

One of Pervasive Media Studio’s most successful alumni is Playable City – a company with a vision to put people and play at the heart of the city. By using existing urban infrastructure and smart technologies, their experimental installations create unusual user exeperiences and connections for visitors. The ‘Hello Lamppost’ project saw people ‘wake up’ the city’s street furniture by engaging in conversations with familiar objects using a simple text message system. Since its conception, Playable City has reached 1.1m people over 5 continents.

To businesses…

This vibrant scene has proved to be a magnet for technology firms. According to TechCity UK, the tech cluster of Bristol and Bath has the highest turnover per worker in digital tech firms across the UK, 88% tech sector growth potential and £1.7 billion in digital GVA (gross value added). These stats have convinced global businesses like Huawei, Cray and Strava to invest in the city.

As well as engineering and high-tech sectors, Bristol has extensive strength in the creative and digital industries. Dozens of creative agencies are located in the city. The BBC’s respected Natural History Unit is based here. Production companies like Films @59, Omni Productions and Tiger Aspect have studios in the area. And, of course, world renowned animation studio Aardman – creators of timeless classics, Shaun the Sheep and Wallace and Gromit – base their operations here.

And the ecosystem…

The industrial, independent spirit of this city fuels a collaborative ecosystem that makes for an illustrious programme of cutting edge projects. Each sector feeds off and inspires others, generating a multi-disciplined hub of revolutionary innovation.

Named as the smartest city outside of London, Bristol is at the forefront of connectivity. The Bristol Is Open project is accelerating this further, creating an infrastructure of high-speed networks and Internet of Things technology to capture environmental data on things like traffic and pollution to inform policy and improve the sustainability of the city.

Additionally, the University of Bristol recently announced its upcoming participation in a 5G test project which will provide the platform for projects in areas such as connected cars, autonomous driving, VR/AR and remote surgery.

And the cycle looks set to continue. More venture capital money is piling into the city and bleeding edge technology like quantum computing at the University of Bristol will usher in a new wave of technological and creative advancement.

You’ll have gathered by now that we’re pretty proud of our Bristol heritage. Not only is our home a hotbed of innovation and creativity – it’s also the coolest city in Britain. There’s plenty to love, plenty to inspire us and, we’re sure, plenty more still to come.

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