MIPIM blog: Bristol aims to stand out as Europe's cities sell themselves to investors
A delegation of public and private sector representatives from the former Avon area is in the French resort of Cannes to promote investment in the Bristol region. The Post's editor, Mike Norton, is with them.
The MIPIM property show is a surreal, almost unreal, indulgence of capitalist extravagance.
While much of Europe staggers out of recession, many of its major cities have come to Cannes’ Palais des Festivals and, unabashed, spent hundreds of thousands of euros on space and technology to sell themselves to potential investors.
And, in the fight to get noticed, never has so much neon or white plastic been moulded together in one place. The carpeted aisles lead an impervious, teeming throng of delegates around what feels almost like a small town of free nibbles and drinks and of cities unashamedly selling themselves.
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Stockholm and Copenhagen have built stands around huge bars, where lager flows freely while visitors hear marketing messages. And it works. Both stands are packed.
Brussels declares itself the "Capital of Europe" and invites visitors to use its iPads to create an extraordinary virtual world of its potential developments. It is hard not to be impressed as you hold the tablet over a circular area covered in drawings of hearts, and the drawings give way to moving, 3D images of buildings.
The Russian Federation's Krasnoder region goes one technological step further - projecting images of its visitors on to huge screens next to rotating 3D models of buildings, complete with moving cars on the roads next to them.
And everyone has a tagline. Calais pronounces - in English - that it is a "gateway to Europe", alongside "Only Lyon" and "So Toulouse".
Paris, meanwhile, "Is Business" - and has two huge marquees to prove it. Not to be outdone, London ("the winning city") has its own beach, serving drinks and snacks right on the shore of the Mediterranean.
And then there is the Bristol region, represented by a stand put together by Invest in Bristol and Bath (IIBB) - an organisation created by the former Avon authorities, the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and supported by businesses from the area.
Bristol and Bath have eschewed neon and white plastic. Instead, the region's stand is being "created" every day by Bath artist Simon Spilsbury. And it looks much the better for it. In fact, because it is different, it is simply more memorable than any of the UK city stands.
They all look good. But Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stoke-on-Trent are also somewhat unapproachably corporate. Birmingham’s could be a TV set for a politics programme. Leeds’ looks like it might also be selling Lego. Cardiff’s minimalist message is confusing. Derby and Nottingham’s design has the hint of a museum display.
Bristol and Bath’s stand is genuinely different - it looks professional but is fun, too.
But do all these cities really need to spend money to be here? Is MIPIM really about business investment or is it a huge - and expensive - marketing conspiracy?
This trip will cost IIBB, the local authorities and the LEP almost £110,000 of public money, after the cost has been partly offset by private-sector sponsors.
IIBB's chairman Joe McGeehan is adamant that it’s money well spent. And he should know. Professor McGeehan is a technology pioneer. His work with spectrum-efficient mobile radio technology makes him one of the most important scientists of his generation. His research is responsible for much of the radio and wireless technology that connects our smartphones - and the software that controls it.
Having helped to develop one communications revolution, Professor McGeehan feels that Bristol is perfectly placed to create another - and he says getting noticed at MIPIM is key to the foreign direct investment that will drive it.
Prof McGeehan wants Bristol to be a test centre for the next generation of broadband networks.
“Whether they saw the potential of it or not,” he told The Post, “Bristol City Council bought a lot of fibre cabling when Rediffusion went. That could become the vehicle for a real-world development of 5G or 6G communications. Both wired and wireless.”
And Prof McGeehan is talking about speeds of 100 gigabits per second - more than a thousand times faster than current broadband speeds.
“If we can create this in Bristol, major suppliers will want to test their new kit on the network. Industries and academics will come and that will bring engineers. Radio frequency engineers are very highly sought-after. They will come and they will find Bristol sticky.
“But we can't do any of that without getting Bristol known on the international stage. That’s why we have to be at places like this.”
Prof McGeehan’s own experience has driven home to him the importance of building relationships with foreign companies. When he was looking to manufacture a radio antenna, he was approached by a small offshoot of a Finnish paper company. It was called Nokia.
One of the stand’s commercial sponsors is also sure that Bristol and Bath should be at MIPIM. Bonnie Dean, chief executive of the fast-growing Bristol & Bath Science Park at Emersons Green, said: “I know we're not going to get new tenants for the science park by being here. But I am more interested in the confidence our presence gives to investors who back companies in the park.
“I was worried that we would look to small or penny-pinching. But I am very pleased with the way we stand out.”
Bristol Mayor George Ferguson agrees.
“Our presence here says that Bristol is open for business,” he said. “But it takes time. I was talking to the mayor of Malmo. Malmo has been coming here for 19 years and the city has made some major, important deals as a result of being here.
“I think an average of just over £25,000 per local authority is a good investment. But, next year, I would like to see more partnerships with private companies to spread the cost. And they don't necessarily have to be local companies.”
Mr Ferguson has reiterated the same message to everyone - that Bristol is open for business. The repetition has been unrelenting - at the launch of the Temple Quarter enterprise zone, to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, to every potential developer, investor and architect here. So much so, he says, that other people are already saying it back to him.
“We need to become the most welcoming city region - and there is clearly a perception that we’re not that at the moment. Because first impressions really matter.”