More needs to be done on improving mobility in tech, says Leeds Digital Festival co-founder Stuart Clarke

Leeds Digital Festival director Stuart Clarke.
Leeds Digital Festival director Stuart Clarke.
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The technology sector needs to do more to help improve social mobility, according to the co-founder of a leading digital festival.

Stuart Clarke, co-founder and director of Leeds Digital Festival, believes the tech sector needs to do more to break down class barriers.

He told The Yorkshire Post: “Leeds is a prosperous city in many areas, less prosperous in others. As a sector we need to be reaching out to those areas that don’t have the advantages of others.”

The industry needs to reach out and show young people from disadvantaged areas role models, who have come from similar backgrounds, Mr Clarke said.

He added: “This is where apprenticeships come into play. Sometimes apprenticeships seem more accessible than degrees and higher degrees to many people.

“But that only works if the tech sector makes a more positive effort of reaching out to some of these areas.

“We’ve seen lots of examples where companies are creating outreach programmes – going into schools, taking role models in and encouraging people to apply for roles. It is improving but I think it can be a lot better.”

This year will mark the fourth edition of the Leeds Digital Festival. The festival will continue with the open platform format from previous years. Mr Clarke says the festival has two ends.

“One is about celebration and how we make more noise about Leeds,” he said. “The other is collaboration.”

Leeds Digital Festival will run from April 23 to May 3. Organisers are hoping the open platform festival will surpass the 170 events that took place in 2018, bringing together 400 companies, 660 speakers and welcoming 20,000 attendees.

The tech sector in Leeds is growing, says Mr Clarke. “Every company that I know of and see is succeeding and doing really well,” he added.

The recent ‘Tech Cities’ report compiled by global real estate adviser CBRE saw Leeds move up from tenth to sixth in the rankings as a major destination for the technology industry outside of London.

Access to skills is still a challenge for the industry, Mr Clarke said, however there have been some “great” initiatives bringing the education and tech sectors together.

“We’re in a much better shape for bringing home grown talent into the sector plus keeping the talent from the city’s universities once they’ve graduated,” he added.

While the sector is concerned by the uncertainty around Britain’s relationship with the European Union, it has proven resilient.

Leeds’s tech sector is also likely to enjoy a boost from Channel 4’s national headquarters moving here, Mr Clarke believes, with the relocation putting the city in the spotlight.

“We’ve already seen companies move in from the TV sector but I think many more companies in different sectors will start looking at Leeds in a different way,” he said.

A hard Brexit would have an adverse impact on access to talent. Mr Clarke said: “Most companies I know of have got at least one, and some many more, EU27 citizens working for them.

“We could lose those who are already working here and it’ll be even harder to attract new talent to come over.

“Companies are growing. We need that talent and we need them from wherever they are.”

More women also need to be encouraged into the sector, Mr Clarke says.

The reason why the numbers aren’t high enough is because many women don’t return after career breaks and enough schoolgirls aren’t taking up enough tech-related subjects.

Mr Clarke said this was something that tech companies were actively looking to address.

More than just a digital Festival

The region has a rich tapestry of technology businesses ranging from healthtech and fintech to gaming and data.

This year’s Leeds Digital Festival will provide a wide range of different events, according to Stuart Clarke.

He said: “We’ve got stand-up comedy. We’ve got music so Martyn Ware, of Heaven 17, is featuring in a sonic symposium. We’ve got a festival run. We’ve got a book launch. There’s many different things.

“It’s a great way for people to come along, learn, be inspired and collaborate with their peers.”

For more information visit: https://leedsdigitalfestival.org/