Bournemouth is shedding its reputation for blue rinses and slot machines to become the fastest growing digital economy in the UK. Joe Shute meets the faces of Silicon Beach
On Bournemouth pier arcade, ten pence pieces tinkle down into the slot machines. Gaggles of day-trippers stand idly by, slurping ice creams; others play the claw games in pursuit of stuffed SpongeBob SquarePants toys.
Ever since the Victorians first developed its golden sands into a bustling resort, Bournemouth has been a byword for such typically English seaside scenes. The town is supposedly where the elderly retire to breathe deep the restorative air and – in summer – where families head to paddle in the sea. The only thing breaking any ground is the steady thump of lawn bowls.
Yet this peaceful stretch of the South Coast is now the unlikely setting for Britain’s very own version of Silicon Beach. A recently published report revealed Bournemouth has the fastest-growing tech economy in the entire country, with new digital start-ups rising by 212 per cent between 2010 and 2013.
Away from the tea rooms and arcades there is currently estimated to be a staggering 450 creative agencies that have set up shop in Bournemouth in recent years – a rise from 300 in 2011. Last month, a delegation of 21 tech entrepreneurs from the city – led by 41-year-old digital consultant Matt Desmier – was invited to California’s Silicon Beach Festival, alongside top executives from Facebook and Google.
“This is coming organically out of what people are doing,” says Tom Quay, the managing director of tech firm Base, which is working on developing apps specialising in transport. His firm is situated on a shopping street in Bournemouth’s Westbourne suburb. Once home to author Robert Louis Stevenson, the area is now dotted with branches of Bang&Olufsen and (favourite of Victoria Beckham and the Duchess of Cambridge) Jojo Maman Bebe.
Quay’s firm is straight out of Shoreditch, with a Lego version of the Star Wars Death Star and Millennium Falcon in the boardroom, and racing bikes suspended on the walls. “There is something quite nice about having people looking in through the window and asking what is going on here,” he says.
For the 34 year-old, who grew up in Dorset, the perception of “blue rinses and slot machines” persists. “When you get in a cab from the airport and the driver is banging on about how amazing the tech scene is here, that is when you know you’ve made it. We’re not there yet.”
Presently, the cabbies are only talking about one thing – Bournemouth’s remarkable ascent to the Premier League which kicks off next weekend. That has helped fuel the feeling of optimism running through the city. Key to this new lease of life, so the tech experts say, is the 27,000 students from Bournemouth University and Arts University Bournemouth.
Jonathan Ginn, 25, who works as a “developer evangelist” at Base, is one such student who has never left. “I’m originally from Essex. I came down here for university and afterwards didn’t want to move anywhere else. Increasingly graduates are not immediately gravitating towards London.You can build those working relationships here. As far as lifestyle goes, the beach does it for me. I was there on Saturday topping up my tan.”
There is, of course, potential for tension between the hip young things who skateboard to work and host barbecues and volleyball matches on the beach in their spare time, and the elderly residents who have moved here for a quiet life. House prices, while not on the London scale, are now well above the national average – around £220,000 for a two-bedroom flat – and as with the trendy parts of London, there are fears some residents will be squeezed out.
Yet many of those working in the tech industry are seeking to develop products which can bridge generational gaps and benefit Bournemouth as a whole. Nuno Almeida, 38, the founder of tech firm Nourish, has over recent months released a succession of apps designed for families and carers looking after elderly relatives.
It is proving such a success that in less than two years his business has rocketed from three to 16 employees and is next year expected to exceed £1 million in turnover. “Ten years down the line I don’t think we will recognise this place for what it is now,” he says. “I think we will see some very big companies moving here.”
The re-invention of Bournemouth, so say those involved, is a sign that London’s stranglehold on the country’s economy is lessening in the digital age, and is something that can be replicated all over Britain.
Tom Quay speaks for many here when he describes his (occasional) trips to the capital: “London is amazing; it’s a really great place. I always enjoy going up there, but I enjoy coming back even more.”