Brighton Digital Festival – taking stock and moving forward

Tom BaileyUncategorized

With the dust now settled on this year’s Brighton Digital Festival, and before things get too Christmas crazy, it feels like an good time to provide an update on where things stand with the festival, and the plans for next year.

This years festival was the most successful to date with 174 events taking place over a month of digital culture. Showcasing the energy, talent and enthusiasm of the City with a rich variety of programme, the festival saw audiences flowing across a huge programme which included world class conferences, experimental performances, gaming events, hacks and meet-ups, electronic music, geeky comedy, and a wide range of hand-on workshops.

All the key metrics back this up, with the highest ever levels of festival awareness across the City, helped by new festival identity and a coherent  marketing campaign. The largest ever number of independent organisers took part in the festival this year, delivering a programme which enjoyed the most media coverage the festival has ever had. Finally, and most importantly, the festival’s events engaged the largest combined audiences to date, with over 40,000 people getting their digital fix in September.

There’s lots to celebrate, with the festival largely delivering on it’s intended goals of providing a platform on which to showcase Brighton & Hove’s rich and varied digital activity, of provoking conversations across traditionally disparate spheres of activity, and of cross-pollinating audiences across different, but often complementary, areas.

Finally, the festival itself is also in a better place, with a better developed process and timeframe, some important key organising tools in the form of the festival website, identity and brand resources, communications channels, as well as a number of important stakeholder relationships with sponsors and local media partnerships including American Express, RAP Office Interiors and the Brighton & Hove Independent.


So where are we now?

September’s festival was the second year of a two-year funding cycle, generously supported by the Arts Council and Brighton & Hove City Council. As a result, the festivals’ volunteer steering group is currently taking the opportunity to look at the shape and sustainability of the festival, and whether what’s in place is now the most appropriate moving forward. At this juncture, it’s also a good time to examine some of the festival’s challenges.

A central challenge is that whilst the rapid growth of the festival has been fantastic for organisers, audiences, and the City at large, it has also meant that meeting the demands of managing and delivering the festival has become a much larger undertaking for the two lead organisations; Wired Sussex and Lighthouse. The festival is now demanding a disproportionate amount of resource for two organisations who both have year-round programmes of other activity to deliver.

The end of the cycle is also opportunity to have a think about the festival’s programming policy, which has always had an open-source, community led programme, backed-up by a policy of presumed acceptance for all activities. This strategy has been hugely successful, and the festival could not have grown as it has without it. However, a significant strand of feedback (from both organisers and audiences) this year was that the programme is, perhaps, a bit too big. There is a feeling that some events are forced to compete with each other for audiences and that the parameters may be too broad. These issues are not easily answered, but the questions need to be asked.

Finally, on a personal note, the end of the year also marks the end of my contract with Wired Sussex and BDF and, in the short-term at least, the stewardship of the festival will be returning to the volunteer steering group. I’ll be moving on to new challenges with Shy Camera, taking with me an enormous amount of satisfaction about the progression of a festival this year, and which is now making a real mark on the annual events calendar in our City.


What’s next then?

There is a strong consensus within the steering group, and echoed in the festival feedback at large, that what makes BDF unique is the broader community-led programme of activity which takes place. Building the festival as a platform which offers the best exposure, connections, and support to that network of organisers seems to be what the festival should be focusing on.

There is also a feeling that the festival needs to address the challenges presented by the current structure of management by developing a new model. The plan is now to draw together a broader consortium of individuals and organisations who can steer the festival going forward. To this end the steering group are currently in discussion with a range of such individuals and organisations across the City.

The idea underpinning this new consortium approach is to put some of the key findings of the recent Brighton Fuse report at the heart of the festival by building a core festival committee with representation from a number of our nationally recognised arts and cultural organisations (including Lighthouse, Fabrica, South East Dance and others), right alongside members from the City’s vibrant digital, media and tech sector. The hope is that embedding these relationships at the centre of the festival will not only better reflect what the festival is all about, but also provide a more sustainable core on which to move forward.

The consortium will shortly be seeking funding from Arts Council England, and although in this time of squeezed budgets and funding cuts we can never be complacent, we must also have confidence in our collective success and good work over the last two years.  If funding is secured (and we probably won’t know that until after Easter), a festival manager will then be sought.

In the interim, and prior to funding, the steering group will coordinate the activities necessary to maintain the fantastic momentum generated this year – kicking off with a town hall meeting on Tuesday 28th January 2014 at Emporium. So mark the date in your diary, and let us know if you’re coming on the EventBrite page here.

Many thanks, and wishing everyone a chilled Christmas.

Tom Bailey, @bomtailey, 5.12.13