Brighton Fuse 2: The freelance factor in the digital economy

A new research study looks at the role of freelancers in the digital economy.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 08.14.39A new research study - funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council – looks at the role of freelancers in the digital economy of Brighton and Hove. The 67-page study, led by Dr Jonathan Sapsed, is the result of “Brighton Fuse 2”, a co-operation between Wired Sussex, Brighton University, and Sussex University. This is an edited version of the report’s executive summary.

An effect of the recession and subsequent signs of recovery has been a growth in self-employment over the last decade. This development has been interpreted in various ways. Many in the policy arena raise concerns that this is an economic illusion: that these many individuals represent displaced employment, possibly the residual that is left after the essential workforce is identified. It is suspected that the self-employed are keeping up appearances with occasional odd jobs, struggling by and would prefer the securities of a “real job”.

This report enters the debate focusing on the self-employed - more commonly referred to as freelancers and contractors - in the Creative-Digital-IT (CDIT) industries in one its concentrated clusters in Brighton and Hove. It has become clear that these are high-growth sectors and which tend to organise in specific places.

The report follows a previous study published last year, The Brighton Fuse, which developed a robust and rigorous set of data collection and analysis methods to examine the phenomenon of a creative-digital cluster from the bottom-up. The study showed systematically the impressive economic contribution and growth of CDIT firms, the networked ways in which they work, their extraordinary levels of innovation, and the importance of fusion to their activities- that is the combined effects of Arts, Humanities and Design skillsets together with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The Brighton Fuse showed that those firms with high levels of this effect - the superfused - enjoy business performance three times greater than those that specialise. These insights brought new subtleties to the knowledge and skills agenda, which can often be oversimplified on the need for more STEM graduates.

Beyond the firms in the first Brighton Fuse study it was apparent there was more happening below the surface in terms of trade and contracting in the cluster, in that an essential proportion of the new value was being created by individual freelancers.

This report, Brighton Fuse 2, analyses their contribution and role, which has been hidden thus far. With any hidden population, data collection must be both pragmatic and creative and the research design draws on the memberships of various associations, co-working spaces and meet-up groups in the city to build a sample of over 300 freelancers, a 25% response rate, with their motivations and behaviour researched through over 30 interviews and two focus groups.

The results show that the CDIT freelancers in Brighton are prosperous, and use a range of different business models in their work, many exploiting cutting-edge technologies.

Moreover, they diversify their offer, and promote themselves in different ways to different markets. This professionalism belies the image of creative freelancers as less than business-like, favouring the products rather than the management process of their work. We find that their income derives not only from local and London clients, but also the rest of the United Kingdom and a substantial proportion from international markets. Like Brighton’s CDIT firms, they display unusually high levels of innovation.

For a copy of the full report, visit:

All graphics in the report were produced by Puree Design, a Brighton-based “micro-design” agency in Brighton. For more information, visit