Vibrant Sheffield

I recently attended Grant Thornton’s Sheffield “Vibrant Economy” Live Lab at the Millennium Galleries.

This day-long workshop was intended to “bring together key leaders and influencers … to co-create a visionary identity for Sheffield and the wider city region”, posing the question “How can Sheffield become the innovation and creativity capital of Europe?”

It’s easy to by cynical (many of my friends are) about a swish event, laid on by a big financial consultancy firm, around a woolly, warm, fuzzy-sounding topic. But I like to approach things with an open mind. I have heard good things about Sacha Romanovitch, Grant Thornton’s new CEO, and the kind of right-thinking policies she’s implementing. I was sure it would at least be an interesting day.

It was. And it was inspiring. It generated reams of ideas — good, bad, intermediate, and plain silly — for the betterment of Sheffield. And, coming to it fresh from Thinking Digital conference in Newcastle/Gateshead, my mind was fully fired-up for some brainstorming and refining of big audacious plans.

The Live Lab was not without its problems (more on those below) but I felt that the good far outweighed the bad. If only 1% of the ideas generated are ever implemented, the effect on Sheffield will be profound.

The day was split up into several sessions — from figuring out what the “beating heart of Sheffield” is through to voting on ideas which sustain and amplify that heartbeat. But my favourite part was envisaging what Sheffield could be like in the year 2026.

One of the delegates was 18 years old — in 2026 he will be 28 — and we were instructed to think like him: what will attract the young of the future to come to Sheffield, and to stay here. We pondered this, but also I challenged my team-mates to consider another angle: what would attract you to grow old and die in a city like Sheffield (this is not my own idea: I have spoken a lot to Rupert Wood, a 60-year-old evangelist of city centre living, about this topic, in the context of our discussions about the Alternative Retail Quarter for Sheffield).

Any thriving city needs a mix of ages, and Sheffield needs older people to encourage, mentor, and temper the young. The retirees of 2026 will have been born in 1959 and 1960, and will have come of age in the mid-70s: the original Punk Rock generation. What would an OAP punk look for in a city? I think they will look for city-centre living, with all of the amenities and opportunities that it brings.

(A couple of people said to me that the city centre, with its noisy night-time activity, is no place for residential space, especially not for the elderly. The existence of places like Laycock House, where Rupert and others love to live, disproves this. And if Sadiq Khan can pledge to make London’s residents co-exist with nightclubs, I’m sure that Sheffield can also come up with a solution).

Slightly manic, I spewed a plethora of ideas for Sheffield, at times as though I were speaking in tongues. Three of these ideas really captivated me. I think that all three are practical, possible, and critical to whether Sheffield thrives or declines as a creative metropolis.

  1. The City as an Open-Air University: we have two great universities in this city, plus colleges, university hospitals, and organisations such as Learndirect and the Open College of the Arts. We also have a great tradition of working people bettering themselves, through night schools and the Workers Educational Association. Why not bring all of this learning and thirst for knowledge together, through regular public lectures the city’s many parks plus soap-boxes and speakers’ corners, encouraging everyone to join the debate. Couple this with the pedestrianisation of Sheffield city centre, to create a pavement café culture, and by 2026 we could be living in the most erudite city since ancient Athens; a city where everyone from 1 to 101 has the opportunity to learn each lunchtime, just by sitting eating sandwiches in the park.
  2. The City as a 365-day Festival: over the last ten years Sheffield has staked a claim to be the festival city of the UK, with jewels in the crown such as Tramlines (music) and Doc/Fest (documentary film) complemented by Off The Shelf (literature), Sensoria (music/film), Festival of the Mind (academic research), Art Sheffield, Last Laugh Comedy Festival, Sheffield Food Festival, Sheffield Design Week, Festival of Debate, several community art and music festivals (Peace in the Park, Sharrow Festival, Heeley Festival, Hillsfest…) and no doubt others I’ve forgotten. Wouldn’t it be great if we could fill in the gaps, and say to people from elsewhere in the UK and worldwide “it doesn’t matter when you come to Sheffield, there’ll be a festival on. There’s always a festival on. We really are the festival city.” We could even have Christmas Day Tramlines!
  3. The City Centre as a 21st Century Souk: retail is something that Sheffield has struggled with for years. We’ve had various failed city centre shopping centre schemes. We’ve had the controversial demolition of Castle Market, and its move to the Moor at the other end of town. And we’ve had the niggling fear that the city centre must compete with Meadowhall to attract “footfall”. It’s something we’re still trying, and failing, to work out. In the meantime, retail is changing: more shopping is done online, and uniform brands are losing favour in the dash to mass-customisation and a craft economy. Few people want to hand ownership of the heart of our city over to a soulless property developer who’ll build a huge, privately policed shopping centre, and siphon the profits off to who-knows-where. We’re never going to compete with Meadowhall on their own terms, so why not do something different? If you’ve visited cities in North Africa and the Middle East, you’ll know what a sensory pleasure it is to visit the local souk or bazaar. You can see one-off items being made in the room just behind where they’re sold. Why not turn Sheffield city centre into Marrakesh, only with better beer? Build a covered route from Moorfoot to Castlegate, with clusters of tiny live/make/sell spaces dotted around in alleyways off the side. That would give us a shopping experience that Meadowhall could never reproduce!

We had a lot of fun making a short video promoting the above ideas, with me taking on the role of Apple’s “Si’thee” (Apple having moved their global HQ to Sheffield in 2025, they had renamed Siri to something more Yorkshire-sounding).

Returning to the day’s problems. There was one, big, very obvious one: the lack of diversity.

In a room of two-hundred people, I counted four or five, who weren’t white. About 70% of the room were male, predominantly middle-aged and middle-class (and, where working class, usually self-made men whose effort and luck made them exceptional). Grant Thornton’s stated aim to bring together “key leaders and influencers” of course skewed the demographic of attendees. I find it hard to believe that Sacha Romanovitch intended such a monocultured turnout, with her stated interest in helping others better themselves, and indeed her own experience as the first female CEO of one of a major accountancy firm. Still, that’s how it looked to me, and to many others I spoke to (some of whom left in disgust at the imbalance in the room).

I want to celebrate the small attempts that were made to address this imbalance. Firstly, Grant Thornton cast their net wider than usual in drawing up invites to the event: I saw representatives from small arts, cultural and social organisations who had never before been asked into the company of CEOs and council leaders. Secondly, there was a stirring introductory talk by Sophie Maxwell of the Really Neet Project (referenced by Sacha Romanovich in her closing speech) about Sophie’s experience of homelessness and her subsequent work bringing the homeless back into education. And finally, a group of long-term unemployed people from Our Club were present at the event, joining in the conversation as well as serving lunch to the tables. However, despite these efforts — which I do believe were extremely well-intentioned — the usual suspects were in the majority. And I heard of some tables where radical, provocative or even just slightly “what if” ideas from women and the young were shouted down by I-know-better-than-you authority figures — more than just a real shame: counterproductive and against the spirit of the event.

You can now download all of the ideas generated for a vibrant Sheffield (Excel spreadsheet) – look out for the ones from Table 22, that’s us! Our video will also be up on the 2degrees network soon, and I’ll post a direct link when it is.