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Iain Hamilton: Creativity driving economic growth in the north

Creative industries support 5,500 jobs and contribute £740 million to the Highlands and Islands' economy.

Iain Hamilton.
Iain Hamilton. Image: XpoNorth

The Highlands and Islands is well-known for its rich culture and heritage.

A mix of traditional crafts, cultural knowledge and skills, and cutting-edge technology has created a unique landscape for the creative industries.

Spanning 16 sub-sectors, ranging from art to artificial intelligence, this diverse landscape covers a mosaic of business models, commercial enterprises and community-driven organisations.

These are spread across the length and breadth of the Highlands and Islands.

It is great to see such a positive outlook for creative industries in the Highlands and Islands.”

Not only a cultural hub, the region is economically and socially harnessing the power and potential of creative industries that support 5,500 jobs and contribute £740 million to the local economy.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) recognises their significance and the need for specialised support tailored to the diverse array of organisations and ambitions present.

Grantown-based Wilder Waves is among the creative businesses on XpoNorth Digital's online marketplace.
Grantown-based Wilder Waves makes clothes from sustainable resources. It is among creative businesses on XpoNorth Digital’s online marketplace. Image: Wilder Waves

XpoNorth was created to be a mechanism to provide support from industry specialists, fostering new partnerships and collaborations to propel local talent onto global stages.

Our XpoNorth Digital programme is very much focused on digital adoption and its transformative potential for small and micro businesses in the region.

This innovation is key to empowering businesses to develop new products and services, while also expanding their reach into global markets.

Our XpoNorth Digital programme has reached 400 businesses across the north during the past year alone

XpoNorth Digital acts as a comprehensive platform offering one-to-one advice, access to networks, webinars and workshops, and an extensive content archive addressing the challenges and opportunities raised by businesses in the Highlands and Islands.

This approach provides real flexibility, ensuring the support provided really does align with the specific needs of each enterprise.

Over the past year XpoNorth Digital has engaged with 400 businesses and the current trajectory suggests a similar reach this year.

Creative fashion designer in workshop.
The Highlands and Islands are awash with creative businesses. Image: Shutterstock

Delivered by The Ironworks Venue Limited on behalf of HIE, and funded by the Inverness and Highland City Region Deal and HIE, XpoNorth Digital extends its reach further through larger collaborations.

One such initiative is FutureCreative, a partnership with the University of the Highlands and Islands.  This initiative serves as vital bridge between students and industry, preparing them for the workforce and establishing networks crucial to their careers.

The partnership has enhanced students’ skills and resulted in employment, new businesses and sales of creative products.

Growing international reputation

XpoNorth’s own growing international reputation has garnered interest from influential industry figures, fostering valuable networks beneficial to XpoNorth, the Highlands and Islands and to clients.

FutureCreative, for example, has allowed a year of mentoring and classes with industry heavyweights like Hollywood producer Jason Lust. Jason has worked on major movies and TV series including Pinocchio, Peter Rabbit, The Matrix and The Walking Dead.

Hollywood producer Jason Lust.
Hollywood producer Jason Lust helped launch the FutureCreative programme in Inverness. Image: Sandy McCook/DCThomson

Digital Heritage is another notable area of collaboration, this time with Smartify, the world’s leading heritage app.

This has propelled an initial six small regional museums into the digital realm, alongside global giants like the Louvre, and given them access to Smartify’s 3.5 million users.

However, this partnership goes beyond inclusion on the app and has provided extensive training, allowing museums to rethink their digital strategies and reach new customers.

Inverness Museum and one of its its artifacts .
Inverness Museum and its artifacts are being showcased to the word on the Smatify app. Image: XpoNorth Digital

Early signs show increased customer engagement and, excitingly, 60% of the new audiences are international.

The ripple effect of the work is not only in new revenue opportunities and jobs created, but also elevating the profile of the museums and the communities around them, while upskilling on digital models and content creation. The overall impact is still being assessed, but the early results have already allowed the programme to be opened up to include more museums.

All kinds of businesses in Highlands and Islands seeking digital support

Crucial to all of the work is that it not only addresses the immediate needs of clients, but also addresses future regional skills gaps across a variety of sectors.

Increasingly, enterprises from beyond creative industries – sectors such as health, tourism and food and drink – are looking to XpoNorth Digital for help with the creative skills they need.

These businesses are particularly interested in digital adoption and story-telling, and finding out how to harness the crowd economy more effectively.

Past evaluations consistently underscore the high value clients place on the XpoNorth service, especially its specialised knowledge and access to extensive networks. These evaluations also show clients achieve benefits from the support offered, and that XpoNorth Digital provides good value and high impact support models that can be adopted by other sectors.

Read more: How Hollywood is helping the Highlands go digital

Creative industries a ‘robust’ driver of prosperity in Highlands and Islands

While the future will inevitably hold economic challenges, it is great to see such a positive outlook for creative industries in the Highlands and Islands. They continue to be a robust driver of prosperity for the region.

Seamlessly blending traditional craftsmanship and cultural knowledge with the demands of the digital age, the region stands testament to the power of creativity in fostering economic growth and social vibrancy.

Iain Hamilton is head of creative industries at Highlands and Islands Enterprise. He is also a co-founder of XpoNorth, which is focused on growing the region’s creative economy.