A dynamic mix of innovative technology companies and cutting edge cultural and artistic organisations, fuelled by the talent emerging from the area’s educational institutions, is fast transforming Derry into a centre of excellence in cultural technology.
It’s an outcome that Mark Nagurski and his CultureTECH colleagues are hastening by showcasing local talent, hosting industry experts and major technological companies and facilitating networking in what is quickly developing into one of Ireland’s major festivals.
“Technology and culture are often distinct in people’s minds,” Mark says, “which is absurd. There’s very few cultural industries which don’t have a tech element these days. For instance, music is made, distributed and consumed digitally. What we’re doing in Derry is bringing it all together.”
“For 2015 we’re turning Millennium Forum into a huge outdoor games arcade, ” Mark says, “where people can play the latest games on the market including the rather well-know and favourite among kids young and old MineCraft. This will provide fun and activity for all the family including costumes, youtubers and video games fun.”
The biggest new addition to this year’s programme, Maker City is a 2-day celebration of innovation and having fun with technology. Expect dozens of interactive technology exhibits, free workshops, science shows, food, live music, video games, drones, robots, racecars and lots of crazy things that we can’t even describe.
The festival is also about showcasing Derry as a great place to do business. Previously in charge of delivering the Digital Derry project, which supports and promotes the city and region as a bastion of innovative digital technology, Mark is well placed to see the advantages this brings to the city.
“Companies don’t just pick places to do business on price per square foot,” he says. “They’re looking for talent and quality of life and that’s what we are promoting through the festival.”
The festival content tends to be media focused – film, TV and gaming with a strong web component with the emphasis on areas of crossover, such as games with a visual art element. Much of the programme is made up of seminars, workshops and screenings but there’s a vital social dimension too.
“As well as this confluence of arts, technology and culture, Derry has so many other attributes too – it’s intimate, within a couple of months you will know everyone and be part of the fabric, something that doesn’t happen in cities like London and Dublin. As a result, companies can be both competitive and collaborative.”
“It’s about getting the local community comfortable with technology and thinking about its implications,” Mark says. “So there’s lots of social events that bring people together. The hub will be the CultureTECH Village, around Guildhall Square and the Craft Village, supported by music events, film screenings, exhibitions and family-friendly activities throughout the city centre.”
Mark also highlights the contribution of the region’s educational institutions to the fusion of academic trailblazing, such as the University of Ulster’s Intelligent Systems Research Centre at Magee, with technology. He also cites the importance of companies such as Seagate and Allstate developing computer science degrees with the University of Ulster and Letterkenny Institute of Technology respectively.
“The universities don’t just produce high end research,” he says, “but such is the quality of the courses in areas such as computer science that students are in high demand when they graduate.”
Working with Derry City Council, the University of Ulster and a wealth of commercial organisations, they bring culture and technology together in an exciting cross platform programme of events.
“We showcase the wonderful local talent here,” Mark says, “whether it’s a new start up company, recent graduates, film and TV companies or animation or gaming companies.”
“We have great arts and music scenes in Derry and a really burgeoning tech scene. They all work in the same kind of projects, the creative instincts are common, whether it’s guitars or gaming.”
One important aim is to bring children into the world of technology, developing their skills and introducing them to the possibilities of working in the industry. Over 8,000 kids went through that process last year at CultureTECH. In 2015 it will be over 15,000.
Mark takes a long term view of the future of technology in Derry. “How do we get thousands of local students doing computer science degrees? It doesn’t begin at university. It starts at five or six with kids getting excited about building a robot. That’s why we’re organising a festival not a conference, to bring in the kids. ”
“A five-year-old grows up liking technology, does a computer engineering degree and comes back and starts an awesome tech company. That ties in with CultureTECH’s twenty year vision – working with enacting young talent and helping them achieve their goals.”
The CultureTECH team remains busy throughout the idea. One key element of their work is developing education programmes in the cultural technology area and taking them around the local schools. “That’s why we have so many kids taking part in the festival,” Mark says, “we’re constantly building relationships.”
This November sees the first CultureTECH outside Derry, when they organise a small scale version in Brooklyn. A similar event is planned for London in February, 2015. The idea is to promote ‘Brand Derry’ and signpost people to the main festival.
“There’s an ethos of people working together to bat for ‘Team Derry’. And there’s all the other things you need to attract talent – fantastic music and visual arts scenes and great bars and restaurants.”