Levelling down & the K shaped recovery

As we make faltering steps out of peak pandemic a theme which has been an underlying constant has come sharply to the foreground – reflected in differing public actions and attitudes. The asymmetric impact of Covid draws very fine lines between indifferent, inconvenient and catastrophic. On a personal level this tends to revolve around vulnerability of people in close orbit, age or age of children, structure of employment, and even access to outside space; on a commercial level, seen starkly in the ability to produce and distribute digitally versus the requirement for proximity or audience.

In recent weeks this has been embodied in the emergence of discussion around a K shaped economic recovery – as distinct from V (fast return), U (slow return) or L (no return)…

The K shaped graph indicates that some sectors, particularly white collar professional services, have rebounded strongly as the economy restarts. But others, especially blue collar manufacturing and retail/hospitality services, are struggling and increasingly threatened. Simplified it appears that employments which are digital in nature or can adapt easily to remote working can reinvent themselves, activity which is physical and/or requires human contact at scale does not have that flexibility.

These impacts are being visibly played out in our larger cities.

A couple of months back an Economist article on the “levelling down” of London took a different take on the desire to balance the economy away from the capital, suggesting that the pandemic would level London down rather than out-of-London up.

An enforced shift to working from home and limited travel has by definition created a huge emphasis on the local. In a larger city where the centre has become much less mixed use and dominated by retail and workplace – as London – the tangible visible impact models the K, where any positive economic returns have been shifted from a now denuded urban landscape.

As mentioned in a previous blog there is a sense that Covid has accelerated underlying trends. The vision of reinventing Paris as “the 15 minute city”, launched at the beginning of 2020 with an emphasis on hyper-locality, was driven by climate change not the pandemic – but the strategy towards live / work / shop / leisure all within a 15 minute radius has gained huge resonance during lockdown. If the “new normal” marks a shift from mass commuting then the centre of the city must be reinvented again to become a more culturally driven social space.

But, a reversion to smaller geographies must not act as a counter to global cultural connectivity.

This week saw the publication by Watershed of a report on their Creative Producers International programme. This project grew out of the success of Playable City and thought about the role of culture in citizen engagement and the design of the future city. Working with 15 producers across the globe Creative Producers International has created an active, and activist, network of creatives building projects which foresight positive city change – dynamically sharing insight, experience and learning across very different localities, with remarkably similar human problems.

As we emerge from an extraordinary global experience of fundamental economic and societal shutdowns the long term effects will not be universal but asymmetric. And whilst there are strategic gains from an increased focus on locality and community, the cultural positives of global connectivity, the network of human networks effect, must be protected and stimulated by proactive collaborations like Creative Producers International in order to share (remotely) solutions to differentiated international challenges.

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Virtual production & the accelerating impact of Covid

A clear impact of Covid is that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of new technologies, especially those which emphasise digital production and distribution whilst reducing physical proximity.

In LA late last year I was shown an interesting new production technique combining games engine tech and LED volume production spaces. In the period since then the demand for these emergent virtual production processes and tools, bringing real time rendering and visual effects onto set, has increased rapidly – condensing transformative change into a matter of months, driven in part by the opportunity afforded by virtual production but also because of a match to the new necessities post-Covid.

I hosted a panel of the leading proponents of virtual production to explore the technology, discuss the pros and cons of this shift and foresight what it means for the production sector in the years to come. And one advantage of lockdowns is that I could get access to panellists in London, Leeds, LA and San Francisco from Bristol…

Vicky Wharton – Exec Producer, Sky Innovation Lab
Chris Ferriter – CEO, Halon
Ian Milham – Virtual Production Supervisor, ILM
Ben Lumsden – Business Development Manager, Epic Games / Unreal Labs London

They were asked to define “virtual production”, identify the technology advances and explain how it impacts both content development and production.

And in discussion the answer to my question “fundamental change or agile tool?” quickly became fundamental change AND agile tool.

Image credit: Industrial Light & Magic / Lucasfilm Ltd.

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CogX / Createch – innovation challenges of emerging technologies

Createch is an annual event with a remit to look across the creative sector at emerging technology and interesting content. This year it was merged into the Virtual CogX London event.

I chaired a panel, broadcast earlier, exploring the innovation challenges and opportunities of emerging technologies; the push & pull of tech potential vs audience demand; and the UK position in a global R&D ecosystem.

Thanks to:

Fiona Kilkelly – Immersive Tech specialist, Founder Immerse UK

James Bennett – Director, StoryFutures

Adnan Abu Khadra – Director, Innovation & New Ventures, Warner Media

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My last post here was two months ago – reflecting on economic growth, international travel and globalisation. And then everything changed, in the most fundamental and extraordinary way.

I’m delivering part of a Creative Scale Up programme in the West of England, originally intended to generate a peer network of growing creative businesses it has now become a self help network focused on resilience. When we *meet* there is both the curious sense of a need for external connection, just seeing and talking to a group of people, and an immediate default to trying to discuss the big conceptual implications of Covid – in part to explore thinking and in part to avoid the painful minutiae.

A session on managing turbulence delivered a series of prompts in the same vein:

Think forward and think reinvention – the market will undoubtably be different and therefore any company must seek to adapt ahead of a new future (stand still is not an option, and neither is your previous version of what the future looked like)

Build a vision of the environment in 12 months time (soon enough to be tangible, but far enough to allow change to settle) and generate a plan matched to that vision. The plan may turn out to be wrong but it will give you something to measure progress against, evaluate actions and iterate decision making.

Change is difficult, especially when it involves others’ livelihoods. Be human and considerate, but remember you are not completely responsible.

Confidence is key. Create a clear belief system in the values and potential for the business. You have to be able to articulate and persuade others (and believe it yourself). 

This Deloitte future scenarios document is a useful way of framing the unknown: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/About-Deloitte/COVID-19/Thrive-scenarios-for-resilient-leaders.pdf

I’m similarly trying to think of the new future, and the opportunities or impacts which will positively endure from this period, because the international business landscape will emerge altered significantly.

And whilst I’m used to working remotely I have always taken that to be wherever I am, rather than the exactly same place…. as the picture above I have collected every lockdown cliché.

Stay safe.

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10 years (2)

Following on from the above. The landmark of 10 years by definition makes you reflective. It’s been a period where the “new media” of the new millennium matured and embedded itself into every part of our lives. So some reflections on changes as they apply to my area of work – content / innovation / international:

Creative economy
The last decade has in particular reinforced the position of the creative industries as a serious economic driver. The ability of the industry to grow faster than the rest of the economy out of a global recession, and adapt and thrive in the face of changing consumer behaviours, has embedded the importance of the sector in economic policy terms – a value far beyond the previously limited view as entertainment and cultural soft power.

And where the intangibility of creativity was previously seen as an industrial weakness (the challenge of art vs commerce) this growth trajectory has generated a new understanding on investability and scale, and the fundamental role of narrative, design and UX across a much wider spectrum.

Having deliberately positioned my practice at the intersection of public sector intervention and private sector development I’ve been fortunate to see this area of activity and political attention expand to match. As the importance of the creative economy has become clearer each year, industrial strategy has adapted to support a now £101.5Bn UK success story.

The world has to some extent got smaller, advances in digital infrastructure and a more international corporate world view have driven an increase in global investment flows and in particular a porosity of borders. Projects and supply chains transfer seamlessly between territories and economies, new services leap country through the shared values of specific demographics (not culture or language), especially for younger generations.

And yet the positive contradiction of this increase in connectivity and levelling of platforms is the simultaneous enabling of content and services which are more niche and culturally specific – distribution at scale is a solved problem.

In this light the decision of the UK to sabotage its own economic growth and global reach is an extraordinary act of self-harm.

Challenges (repeat)
Despite the positivity implied in the above the creative industries seems to continually repeat structural challenges and issues – e.g. the diversity and inclusion programme I just co-authored was effectively an update of one I was involved with a decade ago, same systemic problem.

The change this time is related to disintermediation, content is not longer “broadcast” one to many, but one to one many times. In this world a communications industry cannot afford to be monocultural, diversity is not a social nice to have but a commercial imperative for relevance and granular engagement.

So the perennial challenge of creating compelling content and stories remains, but the relationship with the consumer has changed entirely. The changes in technology platforms over the decade, and the delivery of personal agency through that, have generated a huge fragmentation of audiences. The pulse of major consolidation deals in the US, seeking to generate the scale which can fund and make the business modelling of multiple streaming services work, is an example of a creative industry trying to keep up with audience demand – because if it doesn’t they look elsewhere.

And the above is because the most remarkable change over the decade is in consumer behaviour and audience interactions, driven by the leaps in connectivity and especially personal computing power (in our pockets).

The personalisation of services and communications has driven the emergence of significant, entirely new business sectors (social, apps, digital advertising etc). For the individual this explosion of choice and convenience has genuinely changed how we live our lives – in every aspect – what is interesting now is the emergence of the debate on positives and negatives now the novelty has worn off.

Questions on data ownership, privacy, ethics, personal responsibility, platform liability, monopoly positions, legislation in a global context etc are the valid interrogation of the shape of a still maturing industry – although potentially we should have paid attention to them a little earlier…

The most striking aspect of this change for me is the generation gap (partly responsible for the above?). Young people use personal technology and social platforms in an entirely different way, and have vastly different expectations on service and models on interactions. The focus of their attention is fast and fickle and shifting (c.f. the rise of TikTok or Snap), and to older generations impenetrable and confusing.

But there appears to be a structural positive in that, it feels to me that young people now are in general informed, committed, values driven, tolerant and international – in part because of their extraordinary access to information and opinion. They are driving conversations with a legislature which does not (cannot?) reflect their world experience.

Over the past decade it has been my great privilege to travel very widely for my work – to 54 individual cities across four continents, and to some of those cities many times. I’ve mentioned before my habit of taking a photo out of every hotel window – a wide array of views here:

I have approached every place I’ve been in a spirit of curiosity and interest and openness, keen to understand creative and cultural expression, and in every place have had that attitude reflected back.

And whilst we are all products of place, across ten years of amazing experiences I am completely convinced that there is such a phenomenon as global citizenship.


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10 years (1)

And so, unexpectedly, Mark Leaver Consulting is 10. At the very beginning a neighbour, a highly clubbable international consultant, described the key to self-employment as to “keep moving the cliff”. I thought rather a bleak view at the time…

What it does is overstate the key disadvantage – that of certainty – and ignores the major advantages of a change in work profile and lifestyle which delivers huge possibilities and opportunities and flexibility and stimulation.

A couple of recent conversations prompted me to think about what I’d learned, the techniques for sustained consultancy. Some generalisations below (admittedly slightly contradictory in places):

10 lessons (apart from “keep moving the cliff”)

Value your relationships – Work comes from commissions, invites, conversations, recommendations not generally cold tenders or applications. Stay in touch with people, cultivate your connections.

Never disappear – When very busy, but also particularly when not, it can be easy to disappear – don’t. Be seen, go to launches and openings and meet ups, you have to engineer serendipity, put yourself in the way of opportunity.

Find your anchors – If everything is fluid then it can be beneficial to find some points of consistency. If you can nurture an ongoing base level contract then do, it can underpin your income. Similarly find a place to work where you can drop in to a “social” environment or hotdesk.

Value your freedom – There is a huge upside in the ability to define your own work model and time management, you only have to justify your actions to yourself (enjoy your ability to bunk off once in a while). And in defiance of logic I have found it can feel “safer” to have multiple clients rather than one employer.

Hide your stress – There is an inherent level of stress, from lack of future visibility of work to fluctuating cashflows. It’s just part of the territory, it comes and goes – and people are not generally sympathetic.

Be available, but be sensible – Always be available, but balance that against unnecessary travelling, meetings are often how people fill time so use other tools. Always be on top of things, especially if you are working across multiple time zones, but remember you have to switch off sometimes – you will forget this lesson often.

Be professional – Sounds obvious but turn up, be on time, be prepared, know the detail, know why you are there / what you are contributing – you are your own brand. I ignored this once in 2012 and I’m still irritated with myself.

Stretch – Say no to things that are boring and yes to things that are scary. Part of the joy is being able to embrace new challenges, and in developing new skills and profile open new avenues of work – the ability to change and evolve and choose is the point.

Generate your own platform – A job comes with a clever title and validated platform to build profile from. But as a consultant you need to define your own coherent and credible area of expertise – simply understandable to others, and defined enough to afford a position of thought leadership

Identify the win moments – You are often in a position of providing external advice (for an invoice) with no ongoing stake in the beginning or end of a project. It’s important to recognise the moments, even just for your own benefit, where input generated positive impact. Even better, find side projects where you are invested in development from concept to completion.

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Three new initiatives to start the year in Bristol.

Channel 4 – Channel 4 officially launched its Creative Hub in the city last night (15th Jan). Looking back it was early 2017 when I first met DCMS at the beginning of the process to put Bristol forward as an out-of-London location. The benefit to Bristol is twofold, both the presence of the broadcaster within the city’s ecosystem and also the validation of the city as a significant media hub, already attracting new companies.

Creative Workforce for the Future – Part of the narrative of the C4 pitch was a strong desire to improve diversity and inclusion within the media sector. I co-authored a skills development programme, also launched yesterday, Creative Workforce for the Future. This initiative looks to both generate pathways for underrepresented groups into the industry, and crucially also to improve HR and recruitment practice for the participating businesses – seeking to generate a sustained positive impact on company behaviours in the West of England.

Creative Scale Up – Creative businesses often struggle to access traditional business support and investment. Creative Scale Up (also linked to similar initiatives in West Midlands and Manchester) aims to take a series of cohorts of companies, all at a particular inflection point of growth and expansion, through a multi-layered programme of assistance. For Watershed I’ll be facilitating a peer-to-peer network, allowing the participants to learn from the experiences and insights of others who have encountered similar issues and opportunities.

The media sector in Bristol is currently booming, particularly in natural history / wildlife / environmental content (e.g. BBC just announced 150 more jobs at NHU), and the interventions above by national, regional and local government are positive exemplars of strategic policy in support of that growth. I’m delighted to have been part of defining both the opportunity and the public sector response (and nice to have some projects closer to home too).

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Slush again. Disappointingly not as cold as usual in Helsinki, felt wrong somehow.

The show retains its idiosyncrasies – indoor waterfall area anyone? – and it is always interesting to see what the tech trends are across the show. Looking back to last year’s blog a couple of key themes seem to have consolidated – lot’s of personal healthcare and very specific AI applications which seek to add an optimisation layer to existing practices, in data processing or logistics for example.

Less immersive technology visible at Slush itself but in focused side events hosted by DIT and the Helsinki XR Centre an echo of an observation from the Los Angeles trip (below). VR/AR products presented were dominated by enterprise training and brand/marketing activations, rather than creative content.

The other notable was the next wave of VR conferencing – but as someone who travels constantly and will always seek to meet virtually where possible, I just can’t see how these avatar driven iterations improve on available (fast improving) video tools. Maybe just me….

And finally a disappointing change to note. In the US Brexit was rarely mentioned, it was a commercial risk factor worth noting but with the market strength and devalued £ mitigating. In Europe however people have now stopped engaging in trying to understand the detail, just stepped back to regard our politics as “absurd entertainment” (unfortunately a direct quote).

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Los Angeles

Across a sparkling visit to Los Angeles I met with the innovation leads of three major studios and a number of interesting digital production services businesses.

What was striking was the significant strategic focus on the use of real time rendering techniques as a major production step change in the next 1 to 3 years. The ability to use games engine tools to generate CGI assets and effects in the words of one studio “moves the focus of decision making back to the heart of the production process rather than concentrated at the end in post”.

The creation of highly flexible production worlds at high quality generates massive efficiencies, with extended additional opportunities to reuse these assets in multiple secondary environments, for example next generation mixed reality uses or games.

Whilst I’ve discussed these techniques with others, the level of attention and investment was really notable.

Also of note was that not one conversation across the week was about VR as home entertainment. Where immersive tech did come up it was primarily a location based format – there has been a clear shift of energies.

In that vein I was delighted to experience the Bride of Frankenstein Holoride at Universal Pictures. I was part of brokering the collaboration between Universal, Holoride and Rewind – and the combination of a VR experience locked to the movement of a real vehicle driving around the site was both interesting and effective. Clearly this innovation was a first step in a future vision of entertainment in autonomous vehicles with “elastic” content delivered over 5G connectivity.

Jet lag means always seeing the sun rise – there are worse things….

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To Frankfurt for Me Convention, “a ‘future lab’ for exploring major issues and promising ideas for society, business, science and our planet.”

Within the convention SxSW produces a “start up cities” strand with a focus on places where there is something interesting happening, they share my belief that innovation clusters away from the capital city often have the most dynamism.

Bristol was approached to be the UK representative (other cities included Atlanta, Bangkok, Brussels, Fukuoka, Tampere, St Petersburg, Rotterdam) and in keeping with the theming of the main event I focused on values, culture and collaborative innovation, rather than solely on accelerators or investment.

The wider programme roamed widely from architecture to process design, healthcare to environmentalism. In that last aspect in particular there was an interesting tension played out between those advocating radical disruptive change immediately, and those taking a more pragmatic and persuasive incremental approach.

The convention being part of Frankfurt Motor Show only highlighted this tension. As protestors sought to disrupt, the car companies tried to highlight that all of the new models shown were electric. An industry at a clear and challenging inflection point.

(Interestingly there was almost zero presence of autonomous vehicle technologies, the thousands of men (all men) attending unlikely to be the audience… Plus it always feels to me like a Silicon Valley solution looking for a problem solved elsewhere by public transport systems, let’s hope the associated innovation has secondary uses).

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