Having just spent the day at ‘The Impact of MediaCityUK‘, I am left feeling slightly disheartened as to the way in which those in charge of it’s development are orientating themselves. If you know nothing of the MediaCityUK development, then this will all come as a surprise to you, but you can read some background to it on their website, and you can see the headline figures expertly captured by Sarah Hartley (you can also read her thoughts from the Guardian blog, and look, there’s me in the middle of the picture!)
Essentially, The Peel Group own over 200 hectares of land in the Salford Quays area, and have built ‘MediaCityUK’ on part of it. The area now consists of gleaming shimmering skyscrapers that will house a universe of creative industry activity as well as the University of Salford, spearheaded (and part funded) by the relocation of around half of the BBC’s departments (including CBeebies, 5Live and Match of the Day to name but a few). The seminar today was an attempt to create an arena to ‘discuss’ the impact that MediaCityUK is likely to have on the local area, the Northwest region, nationally and perhaps internationally. The speakers were a mix of stakeholders (the BBC, Peel, etc) and were very keen to point out the perceived benefits of the development to the wider creative industry community and the city of Salford more generally. As usual at these events, much of the talks consisted of veneer with little penetration into the topics in-depth, but then that was not really the point of the day. What was the point, or at least, what felt like the point, was an attempt on behalf of the majority stakeholders to convince interested parties (current incumbent companies, other locally-based creative industry companies, academics and third party institutions) that MediaCityUK is on track, on budget and focused on the development of the social, cultural and economic virtues of the local region.
Sadly (from my point of view at least), there was a prevailing sense that the bastions of the gleaming new creative palaces value commercial and short-term success too much over the development of a sustainable creative community. Thoughts are still circulating, but I’ll try to condense why I came to this conclusion in 3 reasons:
First, there seems to be very little enthusiasm for providing spaces that would be available for unstructured, idiosyncratic and crucially, non-paying people or companies. The rhetoric being spun seemed to extol the virtues of the organic, unplanned creative milieu that can develop with the lack of a top-down developer, yet paradoxically, this is exactly the kind of spaces that are unavailable in MediaCityUK. Public space, which the developers were keen to label the ‘Piazza’ as (even though it is nowhere near ‘public’), is at best, closely guarded. Creative communities need ‘beta’ spaces – unoccupied buildings, derelict space, unfinished and unused ‘in-between’ spaces – these are the kinds of places were individuals or small groups ‘create’. Not perhaps in a creative industry sense, but this grass roots ‘play’ is essential to stimulate and develop the creative buzz of an area. MediaCityUK is a tightly regulated, white-washed area were this kind of activity would be marginalized extremely rapidly.
Second, the Peel Group were very proud to announce the presence of a number of food and drink outlets – Prezzo, Costa Coffee and the rest. This was particularly disappointing as there is nothing more conducive to ‘generica‘ development that bringing in chain stores – they create a blandness which is unappealing to creative industry communities. The ancillary developments are crucial to the sustainability and buzz of an area and by having these bland, sterile, generic, high-street replicating, not to mention un-local service providers, is not the way to go about it. Much was made of attracting talent to the area, but this is not the way to do it. Uniqueness and heterogeneity will be absolutely crucial to the success of MediaCityUK, but by inviting these providers over more independent and dare I say it, quirky providers would be a much better fit for a small creative industry community. Perhaps there is the opportunity to do something very innovate here – perhaps a competition (played out in the media?) for the best local chefs or coffee makers – the prize of which is their own shop or space in the complex. But then, they probably wouldn’t pay as much as Costa.
Third, what was particularly disappointing was the talk of ‘branding’. MediaCityUK as a brand was a message that came over loud and clear, but one which smacks of a commercialisation-trumping-all mantra which feeds into the unsustainable short-termism that could be the downfall of MediaCityUK. The very term ‘Media City’ is a new and contemporary lexeme which has been used to brand developments in Seoul and Dubai, but one which is a fad and will not last. Branding, by its very definition is based on prevailing fashions and trends, and there was a real sense from the talks that the marketing of MediaCityUK has been vociferous. The argument was that it helped global competitiveness. It is not a clear cut as this. Global competitiveness comes from having a tangible USP, which is a mix of competent, technological and spatial facilities, the right global economic conditions (interest rates, exchange rates and so on) and even more important, a qualified, flexible and talented labour market. MediaCityUK has the first of these in spades, but the second it has no control over, and the third only comes about after points 1 and 2 above have been addressed.
When asked, in 1949 what he thought about the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai is believed to have said, “it’s too early to say”. In an era of short term political cycles, the pressure of instant impact and profit, everyone wants the answers now. The truth is, MediaCityUK’s success will not be measured by next year, maybe not even next decade. It might not ever be ‘measurable’ by traditional evaluative measures. The creative industry leaders and development heroes of the future find their inspiration from places that one would not expect, and who knows what the collaborations yielded by MediaCityUK will produce. Salford City Council, the BBC and yes, even the Peel Group must be commended for their bold decisions and the development, but to micro-manage it and expect instant results in the form of a creative community development is foolhardy. Yes, there will be economic returns in the short-term (hopefully), but people want more than that. They want a thriving cultural, social and economic hub that has tangible and intangible benefits in the local region and beyond. So it’s far too early to tell, and I suspect this will still be the case long after this generation’s attention span will allow….