In the late 90s, around the first dot-com boom, talented tech types who didn't want to pay steep London rents, moved south to Brighton, England. There, they set up digital agencies and studios, hired computer scientist graduates from Sussex University and graphic designers from University of Brighton, and the place became a geek haven, particularly for UX and informatics firms.
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It wasn't always this way. Historically in the late 1700s, my hometown was known for the eccentric Royal Pavilion, a Far East palace-pastiche built by the hard-living playboy Prince Regent, who wanted to escap his father—"Mad" King George III.
During the 80s, the beach (moody, rainy, pebbly) was still the scene of bloody battles between the Mods and the Rockers (as seen on screen in Quadrophenia), nefarious underworld crime lords (Brighton Rock) and pinball wizards frittering away pay packets on the Pier.
Now the tech/geek scene is fully integrated into the town. Barclays Bank hosts an Eagle Lab digital skills space, New England House is home to Wired Sussex, and innovation hub FuseBox is nearby. The newer double-decker buses have free Wi-Fi and USB charging onboard. Popular hangouts are named after characters in the cult British film Withnail and I (Marwood Bar & Coffeehouse; Presuming Ed's) and you can even find an operational Bitcoin ATM at BeFries.
The quirky Duke of Yorks art cinema has been massively renovated since my day, with a huge pair of fiberglass legs kicking up a storm on the roof. Locals still have more ink and piercings than up in the Big Smoke (London) and Star Wars street art abounds. A deeply strange new addition is the seemingly alien spaceship on a 450-foot pole (i360, the vertical pier). Not entirely sure about that one.
This is nothing like Silicon Valley. This Silicon Seaside is a lot grittier, with a side of anarchy (they still sell anti-capitalist, revolutionary reading material near the Churchill Square shopping center). There's also a DIY entrepreneurial zeal in local characters, such as the musician known as Doe, who took over some makeshift industrial-sized storage containers and converted them into BADA, a music academy and artist performance platform startup.
Paging Dr. Howland
Silicon Seaside is also a place where some interesting digital IoT trials take place. One of the area's foremost researchers is Dr. Kate Howland, Senior Lecturer in Interaction Design at Sussex University. She's also one of the organizers of Nerd Nite Brighton, a popular gathering of like-minded folks who appreciate "evidence-based entertainment." We grabbed a cup of (milky) tea at C:Side Quest among the cafe's vintage consoles and board games, where I asked her how she ended up in Brighton.
"I grew up a short way down the coast in Worthing, and Brighton was always the place where exciting things were happening. After a few years away at University of Warwick, I came back to do a master's degree in artificial intelligence at Sussex, and have been here ever since, doing my PhD and working on various research projects, before becoming a member of faculty five years ago."
Dr. Howland's current academic research at Sussex University explores how end-users can be more involved in the design and programming of emerging technologies—especially with those who are not necessarily tech-savvy, or who face age/ability barriers when engaging with new IoT devices.
"We're also designing tools that let people with no programming background carry out programming-like tasks," said Dr. Howland. "One of my current projects is called 'CONVER-SE' where we're looking at end-user programming for home automation, using voice user interfaces to help such users understand and debug the rules defining automated behaviors in their homes."
Alongside her day job as a academic, Dr. Howland hangs out at Nerd Nite Brighton, which now packs the gothic Rialto Theatre. The South Coast's thinking geeks answer to TED Talks was founded in 2013 by healthcare researcher Partha Das. He'd visited Nerd Nite Philadelphia and decided something similar would go down well in Brighton. Dr. Howland went along and quickly got more involved, becoming one of the main organizers, alongside Anna Downie and Mick Taylor, soon after.
"Each month we have three talks from speakers who are 'nerdishly passionate' about a topic," she explained. "Often academics being entertaining/accessible about their research, alongside speakers from local businesses, and memorable hobbyists with fascinating niche interests. For example, last week we had a talk on crowd behaviour from a Professor of Social Psychology at Sussex, a talk on Islamic architecture from a local chartered building surveyor, and a talk on taxidermy from someone who, without setting out to do so, ended up accumulating a private taxidermy museum in her home."
Aside from regular Nerd Nite Brighton, Dr. Howland recommends annual events UX Brighton and UX Camp Brighton; the newly relaunched monthly Brighton Tech for Good meetup, and suggests geeks check out Wired Sussex's calendar of digital, media and technology events in the area.
Question & Answer
While in Brighton, I also emailed back and forth with Mat Walker, a user experience design and research consultant, and Chris How, Principal UX Consultant at Clearleft, an agency with clients including Virgin Holidays and utilities company Southern Water, who both answered a few questions about the region.
What brought you to Silicon Seaside?
"I moved to Brighton from Bristol nearly 20 years ago for work and never left. I'm currently a freelance UX designer working in Brighton and London."—Mat Walker
"I moved to Brighton nearly 20 years ago to live with my now-wife. At the time I was also looking for a career change from being a filmmaker and there was this exciting new medium called the internet that blended craft skills, collaboration, and creativity. Brighton is the type of city that gets under your skin. The longer you stay the harder it is to leave. Currently, I'm a Principal UX Consultant at Clearleft. It's an agency that uses design thinking and digital delivery to tackle important challenges for interesting clients around the world."—Chris How
Why is Silicon Seaside a great place to start a tech company?
"The majority of digital businesses in Brighton are small in size, diverse in nature, and growing year on year. It sounds [like a] cliche but there really is a sense of community here and people are generally more than happy to offer advice and pass work around. I think that's what makes it special here as everyone is in a similar position."—Mat Walker
"There are three key reasons why the digital and tech companies flourish here: The place attracts interesting and interested people; the landscape (sea on one side and the South Downs to the north) provides a beautiful playground for outdoor activities; and a rich tradition of free-thinking, creative independence and celebrating diversity and difference.—Chris How
Where's the tech side of town?
"The majority of digital businesses are based in the center of Brighton especially in the North Laine, near the train station, where there are fast trains to Gatwick Airport and to London. There are several large coworking spaces like The Skiff and Platform9 that have opened up to support the growing number of freelancers and startups and numerous coffee shops in the area where you'll also find people either hard at work, laptops open or deep in conversation with each other."—Mat Walker
"As a small and walkable city, you can't go far without bumping into a designer, developer, or digital entrepreneur. The numerous coffee shops and co-worker spaces positively glow with MacBooks. There are so many convivial places to aid creativity. The frivolous decor of the Marwood coffee shop is a reminder to add some extra joy into your work. The Croque Shop's halloumi, avocado, and chilli toasted sandwich is a power lunch fit for any digital superhero. And when you need to think through a tricky problem then a fresh mackerel bap from Jack and Linda Mills Fish Smokers followed by a walk on the beach always unlocks innovative ideas."—Chris How
Are Digital Meetups worth visiting?
"If you're a digital freelancer and want to meet others, the Brighton Farm have a weekly meetup in a local pub. UX Brighton is an annual UX conference which is also worth checking out, as is the Digital Festival which is an annual, month-long series of events around digital culture."—Mat Walker
"Brightonians have a love of talking and sharing. As one of the organizers, I'd highly recommend UX Camp Brighton, an annual one-day unconference which mixes sessions from conference pros and first-time speakers alike. But, whatever your flavor of digital, a friendly welcome awaits at UX Brighton, SheSays, Codebar, Brighton CRO and ProductTank."—Chris How
Finally, Silicon Seaside in three words?
Vibrant, free-thinking, optimistic—Chris How
Better than London!—Mat Walker