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In Spring 2019, two of our team – Charlie Widdows and Rob Sheffield – discussed how to create a network that would focus on innovation across Bristol. They had an intuitive sense that this was needed, but lacked the time and resource to turn the idea into reality. Then in October 2019, we formed our leadership team and planned the first network meeting for the following month. We turned the idea into value, which is a definition of innovation, and created the Bristol Innovators’ Group (BIG)!

We saw that sectors were doing a great job of promoting their members’ interests, but we were missing a cross-fertilisation of insights and ideas across sectors, that might drive collaboration and very different thinking across a whole city. Innovation stories often focus on the glamorous, ‘theatre’ of innovation, such as technology and product advancements. What’s often under-appreciated is the social connections between people that build trust, and help people have conversations and take risks. This is the foundation for ideas to be aired, improved and flourish. And some of these turn into new products, services, business models and technologies.

We were also convinced that many voices were not being heard. We wanted a diverse and inclusive network, and this had to be open to anyone who could bring talent, initiative and imagination, even if they weren’t part of established city institutions.

In November 2019 and March 2020 we ran our opening two meetings at Bristol University, supported by Dave Jarman and Amy McGuinness. These simulated interest and goodwill, and got membership levels rising. What shone through was that people wanted a space to meet, find people with common interests, and apply their talents to Bristol. When COVID-19 hit, we redoubled our efforts, knowing that the need for connecting and inspiring would increase, but that people could easily go into ‘fight-flight’ mode, and focus on the short-term.

We ran seven online meetings and workshops through 2020, and BIG grew rapidly. We invited speakers such as Elvin Turner and Clayton Planter to share their innovation experiences. The network grew to nearly 400 members, and has co-created BIG’s purpose:

“We bring our members together to drive innovation learning, spark great conversations and inspire collaboration, making Bristol a better place to work and live for everyone”.

Currently, our network is helping amplify the work of DigiLocal, which provides laptops for disadvantaged young people and families in Bristol. It’s a region-wide, collaborative effort, involving Avon Fire and Rescue, Bristol Waste, data cleaning volunteers, and community organisations. The amazing BIG network has mobilised new individuals and organisations into tackling digital poverty and supporting their local communities. BIG is also supporting a project based on the Future of Learning and looking at how to engage the next generation of innovators, with graduates and the Bristol Hub.

Bristol and Bath is such an excellent place for a cross-sectoral network. It has a strong proportion of students and skilled graduates. The region has a thriving creative ecosystem, and a higher than average number of freelance makers. The city is number two on the list of best places to launch a start-up outside of London, boasts some of the UK’s largest and best incubators, has two highly-rated universities and a solid selection of established corporations in sectors ranging from Finance to Aerospace. Add in the legendary independent vibe and an enviable place at the forefront of British popular culture, and the result is a perfect melting pot of new thinking and ideas sharing.

For 2021 we aim to expand our membership base and influence, to maximise the network opportunities on its doorstep. And we’re talking with Bristol’s City Office, and other regional partners, to help each other’s work agendas and spread our message beyond Bristol – out into the region as a whole. We’re working at building those conversations across sectors, to spark ideas that turn into new forms of economic and social value.

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