How Brighton Digital Festival grew into Britain's brightest digital event

Jon Pratty is chair of Brighton Digital Festival
Jon Pratty is chair of Brighton Digital Festival

Gateshead Digital Summer was the seed from which Brighton Digital Festival grew.

Not a lot of people know this: Gateshead Digital Summer, a successful 10-week long festival in the northeast, was the seed from which Brighton Digital Festival grew.

Working at Arts Council England in summer 2010, I could see the nature of the digital industry changing. Digital curators were moving from one-off activity to programmes that went deeper, longer, and had an effect on regional economies.

Up in Newcastle and Gateshead, that regeneration influence came from the failed bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2008. Though the bid failed, it sparked a flourishing creative economy, typified by Herb Kim and the Thinking Digital conference.

Back to Brighton in 2010. Funds from the Arts Council England Digital Opportunities Programme were waiting to be spent on a straightforward digital arts conference. Seeing the Tyneside activity, I wanted the money to be used to build a citywide audience, develop the digital community, and to sustain emerging creatives. That meant a season, not a one-off conference, so I wrote proposals and briefings to win over management before I was let loose with the money.

Because of its strategic purpose, the money had to go to an Arts Council regularly-funded organisation, so first discussions were with Honor Harger, director of Lighthouse, who was also keen to develop a festival or season. Having worked in digital publishing for 10 years by then, I wanted to bridge the chasm from the arts to digital business, and conversations with Honor turned to dConstruct, the massively-successful Brighton digital/design/developer conference.

Looking at the way Thinking Digital was kickstarting Gateshead Digital Summer, we turned to the idea of a binary festival: two key conferences bookending a month of smaller-scale digital arts and creative industry activity. One of the events would be design- and developer-led, the other would be arts-led.

Honor and I approached Andy Budd at Clearleft, the brilliant Brighton agency that runs dConstruct; Andy began firing ideas into the conversation immediately. The arts conference, the other bookend for the season, eventually took shape as the Lighthouse event, Improving Reality.

That's how Brighton Digital Festival (BDF) started: A failed EU funding bid for Capital of Culture status by a city 350 miles away spawned a digital summer season, which we took and turned into September's ambitious multi-sector autumn BDF2015 extravaganza of creativity, entrepreneurship, community development, smart thinking, weird digital culture, and cool educational stuff.

Nothing should stay the same for long: Improving Reality has become The Long Progress Bar, an amazing two-day festival of radical imagination that explores new methods of empowerment through collective action, art, culture and technology. Brighton Digital Festival doesn't need to stay the same either. Check out the website, see what's going on, and bring your ideas to help us develop Britain's brightest digital event.

Jon Pratty is the fist chair of Brighton Digital Festival. For more information: visit: See the special 12-page festival guide in this week's newspaper.