A note from Nick Sturge, Engine Shed Director: A reflection on our first five years

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In June 2012, Stephen Hilton, James Lancaster, and I pitched up at a LEP Board meeting to present a vision for what was to become Engine Shed.

There were two sides in the room – the business side and the local authority side. One side asked some helpful questions. The other side looked at me with incredulity. I nearly gave up at that point. What kept me going was a torrent of moral support from colleagues, friends, and connections within the ecosystem. This set the tone going forward – Engine Shed was borne out of collaboration and partnership, and inspired by provocation. While the original vision was grandiose and ill thought through, there was a common understanding that the SETsquared Bristol Centre needed a new home that was more visible, more accessible, and could make a bigger impact on the Bristol & Bath city region.

From business plan to opening in 11 months, Engine Shed was launched in December 2013. We took what we had learned incubating SETsquared businesses and sought to apply that to the ecosystem. It was an experiment. Five years on we are starting to understand what we’ve done, how we do it, why we do it, and what more we could do. We have moved at a pace which scares many who work with us and for us – and perhaps too fast for ourselves sometimes.

Over the last few months we have finally articulated our vision: that our region is a growing economy that is inclusive, sustainable, that benefits everyone who lives here, and is recognised internationally as innovative and dynamic. We have a model whereby we operate the building that generates cash which, with our spaces, allows us to innovate, seed activity, and connect people to drive inclusive economic activity across sectors. We hope and expect to expand this model across multiple locations over the next five years – each site with a different focus, that suits the environment and opportunity that it operates in, but with the common ethos of Collaboration, Openness, Facilitation, Fearlessness, and Excellence.

People we engage with locally, nationally, and increasingly internationally have different perspectives on what Engine Shed is and has achieved, so we created a Yearbook (available at all good bookshops soon!) to capture some of those perspectives in a way that we hope reflects our impact and informs our future. We titled the booklet “Engineering Serendipity”, as that is a strong ethos of the University of Bristol: creating an environment where exciting, creative collisions and connections happen.

It’s been a tremendous journey for us so far and many people deserve significant credit for adding fuel to our engine – stoking our fire – along the way, and I hope many more will help us electrify our continued journey. This was an experiment back in 2013. None of us really had any idea where we were headed but the moral, practical, and in some cases financial support provided by many, many people, either at the very beginning or over the past five years, have made it happen and I’m grateful to all of you who have supported us, for that.

I have learned an awful lot over the last five years: about what is possible, about what one can get away with, and what you can’t, about managing stakeholders, and about how to make an impact. It’s been hard work.

I remember when my kids were born, how I was able to draw on energy reserves I didn’t realise I had, when I hadn’t had any sleep and my respective sons demanded my full attention. Giving birth to this beast was a bit like that. It feels like I’ve had triplets but they’re still toddlers. I still have sleepless nights. I still get pulled in all directions but I still love it to bits. There’s not much I would have done differently, and I hope that we’ve made a positive impact on the city region, not just with those irritating short term metrics, but in the way the city region behaves and thinks about itself, which will have a real impact for the long term.

I am very conscious that I talk about myself too much, and it’s my team who really make this happen and who will push it forward to the next phase. There is a lot ahead of us and I feel there’s quite a responsibility to make the next moves very carefully, whether that’s with Engine Shed 2, 3, 4, or more – or perhaps we just stick to the project work and forget about the bricks and mortar?

Brunel built Temple Meads as a staging post from London to New York. A really special moment for me was being interviewed in our grand boardroom by Brunel’s great-great-great-grandson. There’s a real sense of history here – and of course there’s responsibility that comes with it. That heritage will inform our future. Do you want to come with us?

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