How Creative Industries In Belfast Are Reviving The City

Known historically as being home to the shipyard that gave birth to The Titanic, and more recently as one of the primary filming locations for the fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, Belfast is a city that is constantly being reinvented. Perhaps that is why, as you stroll through the Titanic Quarter’s waterfront, cranes and construction sites abound.

With a population of a little over 280,000 people, Belfast developed around trade in Belfast Harbor and was once famed for aerospace engineering, shipbuilding, and linen production. Today, the city has the highest density of fibre in Europe, making it a leading cluster for cyber security.

In 2017, real estate services and investment organization CBRE ranked Belfast the eleventh most creative city in the UK in their UK Regional Top 25. The city scored high on the index for factors like creative employment growth in the next five years, projected employment growth in the next five years, cost of living, educational attainment, and proximity to other locations.

According to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, around 40,000 people were employed in the creative industries in Belfast in 2012, which accounts for five percent of Northern Ireland’s total employment.

As it vies with the slick and tech-savvy nearby Dublin, Belfast has had to up its game to stay relevant in an increasingly competitive market. It has also had to overcome years of domestic turmoil birthed from The Troubles to find a niche for itself in industries like tech, making, and film production.

Raising A Production Industry In The Titanic Shipyard

The Titanic Quarter, a waterfront regeneration project by Harcourt Developments, is built on the site of the Harland and Wolff Shipyard where the Titanic was built. Part construction site, part regenerated quarter; it is dotted with shiny, plexiglass-clad buildings like the Titanic Hotel. The Quarter is also home to maritime landmarks, film studios, apartments, an entertainment district, and Belfast Harbor.

The Titanic Quarter is also home to the Titanic Studios, which is built on parts of the old Titanic shipyard, and acts as the main studio and post-production facility for HBO’s fantasy TV series Game of Thrones. NI Screen, Northern Ireland’s national screen agency, which works to “accelerate the development of a dynamic and sustainable screen industry and culture in Northern Ireland,” according to their website, has leveraged on the fact that the city was the primary filming location for the show. 

Over its six seasons of production, Game of Thrones has brought an estimated GBP 150 million to Northern Ireland, according to NI Screen Chief Executive Richard Williams, who claims that that money has been spent on people and services in Northern Ireland.

Beyond just offering tax incentives and supporting the building of studios, NI Screen aims create one of the most successful screen and digital technologies education provisions in Europe, with the aim of creating jobs and offering opportunities to the socially disadvantaged. NI Screen aims to make Northern Ireland home the strongest screen industry outside of London in the UK and Ireland within the next 10 years, according to their website.

Game of Thrones experience tours include visits to sites like the Dark Hedges – a location used frequently in the hit TV series. Photo courtesy of Visit Belfast.

Tourism NI has capitalized on interest from fans to visit the real-life locations used to film the series as well, although they have no figures on just how much fans spend on visits. Some operators offer Game of Thrones experience tours, which allow visitors to stroll down locations like the Dark Hedges, which has been featured heavily on the show. Today, there are 25 operators offering Game of Thrones experience tours.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway of being the primary filming location for Game of Thrones is the infrastructure that will be left behind once the show has concluded, which is already being picked up for new productions. In 2019, for example, the city’s Paint Hall Studio in the Titanic Quarter will become a filming site for George Lucas’ latest Star Wars spinoff.

Belfast: Energy Unleashed

Another, perhaps subtler takeaway from the boom in the city’s production industry is the repositioning of Belfast as a creative city. According to Glenn Stewart, Managing Director of McCadden, one of the key players in city re-branding project Belfast brand: “The creative industries feature heavily in lots of websites and communications material aimed at attracting talent and investment to Belfast. We’re part of those industries so we always promote and project our city’s creative skills as much as possible – it is one of our genuine selling points.”

Stewart, who has been working on Belfast’s rebranding project for the past year and a half, is clear that not only are the creative industries essential to rebranding the city – they are a key part of the city’s identity.

Belfast brand uses the Starburst and, which borrows from the city's shape as seen on Google Earth. The brand emphasizes the creative industries in Belfast. Photo courtesy of McCadden.
Belfast brand uses the Starburst, which borrows from the city’s shape as seen on Google Earth. Photo courtesy of McCadden.

In the midst of attempts to reposition Belfast as a space for innovative alternative tech and production know-how is a city branding project by McCadden, which has been developed in partnership with Belfast City Council, Visit Belfast, public transport body Translink, Invest NI, ICC Belfast, two of the city’s universities and a host of private sector companies. Dramatic and dynamic, the brand has adopted the creative expression “Belfast: Energy Unleashed,” in an attempt to capture the essence of the city’s bold, cheeky character.

Stewart explains that the brand was developed by Heavenly – an agency based in Cardiff, who “…arrived at this positioning following their site visits and extensive research,” he tells Progrss. “They felt that Belfast is on the cusp of a real up-turn, brimming with enthusiasm and ambition for the future,” he adds.

The brand has been paired with the Starburst – a visualization that draws on the city’s shape as seen on Google Earth.

The project, which started in March 2017, “aims to develop a genuinely appreciated place brand that locals and visitors alike come to recognize and respect as an authentic reflection of all that’s best about Belfast,” says Stewart. He explains that the branding exercise is a long-term project, with the biggest challenge being convincing the public and private sectors to integrate the brand into their own marketing activities. To truly reach the tipping point, however, they still need to get more partners to get on board.

But Stewart is clear that the branding process wants to remain honest to the city, and that the legacy of The Troubles remains a big part of what Belfast is about. “We don’t try to airbrush The Troubles away. We feature imagery of the paramilitary murals that are still evident around the city, but it’s not about re-living the past. It’s about realizing that we have come through terrible times together and it is only by sticking together that we will realize the exciting potential of our future,” he says.

Branding Belfast has also created sub-brands, Invest in Belfast and Visit Belfast, targeting investors and tourists, respectively.

The Creative Industries in Belfast

On Malone Road, in Ulster, is Blick Studios – a coworking space that was set up by Christine James in2007. On the ground floor, the space offers an oasis of tranquility, replete with skylight, green succulents, and lounges; ironically, the road delineates what has traditionally been considered Protestant territory from Catholic territory.

The creative industries in Belfast are booming, with coworking becoming one of the most popular industries in the city.
Inside Blick Studio. Photo by Yasmine Nazmy. 

Founder and CEO Christine James grew up in Belfast before moving to South Africa and then Italy during the years of turmoil in the city; James back to Belfast after the Troubles concluded. In 2007, she developed a business course with the University of Ulster around art for creative entrepreneurs, with funding from UnLtd, a foundation for social entrepreneurs.

The University of Ulster wanted to grow the program, and granted the group GBP 20,000 (USD 25,200),which allowed them to set up Blick Studios’ first location on Malone Road in 2008. In 2012, Blick opened two premises the Cathedral Quarter, as well as a Creative Hub in London Derry. Today, Blick acts primarily as a coworking space for software and tech companies.

James explains that one of their biggest limitations in terms of expanding is finding buildings that are affordable and in the right location. Because of the way that houses have been traditionally built in Belfast, oftentimes, offices tend to be too small, with the largest office accommodating just 10 people.

Perhaps that is why larger coworking spaces like Innovation Factory, Ormeau Baths, The Foundry, and Catalyst Inc. Science Park have opted to locate themselves in newer buildings, making big promises to offer a space for innovation.

But not everyone believes that the large, shiny buildings on the fringes of the city or in its recently redeveloped Titanic Quarter can stand the test of time. Just off of Sandy Row Street in Weavers Court in the South Belfast – an area traditionally known for its loyalist (read: Protestant) affiliations, and with a long Ulster Defence Association (UDA) presence, sits Farset Labs.

The city’s famous linen industry boomed in and around Sandy Row, which prompted many to dub Belfast Linenopolis. Relics from The Troubles still pepper the neighborhood, with flags hoisted above homes loudly proclaiming the affiliations of their residents, offering just a glimpse of what Belfast’s Troubles-era landscape must have looked like. Here, in an old weaving warehouse, is where the city’s Farset Labs – a hackerspace and coworking space – set up shop six years ago.

Creative industries in Belfast like tech, production, and coworking are attempting to overcome the divisions wrought by The Troubles.
A U.F.F. (Ulster Freedom Fighters) and U.D.A. (Ulster Defence Association) mural in Weavers Court. The U.D.A. was the largest Ulster loyalist paramilitary and vigilante group in Northern Ireland. Photo by Hatem El Salem. 

Farset Labs, which brings together a progressive, forward-looking community of makers and hackers, is named after one of the city’s oldest features: The River Farset, which Belfast itself was named after.

Co-founded and managed by Andrew Bolster, a data scientist specialized in cloud security with a PhD in Electrical Engineering, Farset Labs is a voluntary charity group that has evolved into a playground for experimentation. As Bolster takes us on a tour of the space, he shows us boxes of development kits, prototyping kits, sensors for IoT, and web-enabled hardware packed tightly together in the string of rooms that make up Farset.

“This is basically all stuff that we’ve begged, borrowed, and stolen over the years,” he says. “We don’t have any external funding, so it means that we are fiercely independent. But it also means that we don’t have a budget for buying loads of stuff, so it’s about sharing experiences.”

At Farset Labs in Sandy Row, where tech and the creative industries in Belfast are taking flight.
At Farset Labs in Sandy Row, Belfast.

Established in 2012, Farset Labs was set up by Bolster and his colleagues when they were just students; today, they are aware that they need to stay relevant – and remain independent. Today, the space has 50-60 members, in addition to 200-300 people that attend events regularly. The Labs’ inclusive philosophy has made it a magnet for techies, coworkers, drop-ins, artists, designers, and illustrators, he explains. One of the hallmarks of their inclusivity, he notes, is the percentage of LGBTQ community that frequents the space. 

According to him, the community came before the physical space. In fact, the first event that they organized evolved out of a need to find a space to host an event. Having just acquired the space, they invited the community to come in, paint the space, and transform one of the labs’ walls into a giant blackboard, which he jokes “may well be Northern Ireland’s biggest blackboard.”

Bolster notes that one of “Northern Ireland’ best worst-kept secrets” is that the tech and design community have their own slack, which connects everyone in the tech community in the country. 

“I tell people that if this place burned down, Farset Labs would still be absolutely fine, because the building is an enabling factor for the community, not the other way around. This is one of the reasons I don’t like the [approach of airdropping coworking spaces],” he says, referencing some of the larger coworking spaces that have developed, mostly on the fringes of the city. 

A Brighter Future?

Artists and culture operators in the city that we speak to are quick to point out that overcoming the legacy of The Troubles is still central to their work. “This place is 25 years away from conflict, but we have conflicts of bubbles beneath the surface,” Executive Director of CAP Arts Center in Belfast tells progrss. 

In rebranding the city and creating an economic impact through the creative industries, others are trying to find new ways to deal with old wounds. Very well aware of the challenges that the city presents, people like Christine James of Blick Studios believe that only by looking to the future can the city begin to heal. 

In growing fast-moving, forward-looking industries like tech and film production, and creating spaces for innovation in coworking and making to create an economic impact in the city, perhaps Belfast can create a new vision for its future.  

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