Digital Dreams: Tinkering with Technology at Uni

The Northwest is home to a vibrant collaborative scene for start-ups, game developers, and tinkerers of all stripes

Feature by Natasha Bissett | 15 Sep 2014
  • MadLab

If you’re heading to uni with dreams of start-ups, games, gadgets and coding, the Northwest offers loads of great opportunities to get involved with digital technology, and a vibrant networking scene based on the concept of collaborative spaces. While some of these spaces cater to those looking to succeed as developers, others exist primarily as social networks. There's a wealth of groups to be found on Meetup.co.uk, Facebook, Twitter and Eventbrite.co.uk, and memberships tend to overlap, building a local community of familiar faces.

The Manchester Digital Laboratory, or MadLab, is Manchester's premier networking space. It was established in 2009 and offers three floors hosting various workshops, seminars and courses, and collaborates on university-led projects across the Northwest. Community is top priority, and MadLab offers space for whatever people want to do; director Rachael Turner describes it as “a village hall in the middle of the city.” The diverse range of groups that meet at MadLab makes it the first place to look. There’s a variety of geek-culture groups available, including for tabletop games and comic books, but for those more interested in digital development some of the offerings include: North West Playtesters, who invite local developers and interested gamers to playtest each other’s creations (video game and tabletop), collaborate and have a good time; the Manchester Space Programme, which brings together people interested in space or space technology; and dedicated platform and tool groups like the North West Drupal User Group and the Manchester Unity User Group.

TechHub came to Manchester in 2012 to offer another site for collaborative start-ups. Members can utilise drop-in spaces alongside the resident tenants at permanent desks, and participate in networking events. As TechHub is located around the UK and internationally, including in Bangalore and Riga, membership offers access to a wide network of start-ups and creative types to work with or alongside. As with MadLab, TechHub’s calendar should be a first stop when looking for events and networking circles to join. Groups include Lean Agile Manchester, Manc.js (Javascript), Python User Group, and Sharepoint User Group. Events include the monthly TechHub Startup 101, which offers important information for start-ups; and the Geek Pride lead-up to the annual Manchester Pride Parade.

Just Northeast of Manchester city centre, the former Sharp regional distribution warehouse was completely transformed in 2010-2011 into the digital content production and broadcast (television, film and advertising) space The Sharp Project. Although the site plays host to companies big and small, it aims to build a collaborative space for joint innovation and sustainable growth for Manchester. Small start-ups can rent the refitted shipping container offices in The Sharp Project’s High Street Red Offices, or, for a more flexible open-plan option, can work alongside others in the two-level Gold Offices. To support the development of tenants' growth, The Sharp Project invites companies who can offer advice and support on legal issues, venture capital funding, or industry development. Non-tenants who want to get in on the networking, special events and access to tenants can also sign up with The Campus and use the site as they need.

For the other side of the fence, from software and app design to the actual fabrication of physical products, there are two great opportunities in Liverpool and Manchester. DoES Liverpool and Fab Lab offer a space for people to bring their ideas and designs to life in a cheap, accessible and collaborative way. At both, visitors can design and fabricate their ideas using tools such as 3D printers, vinyl cutters (for decals), and embroidery machines. DoES Liverpool has a regular Maker Night and Maker Day event, also free of charge and sometimes with presentations, held regularly throughout the month. Fab Lab welcomes visitors to use their machines (after safety induction) free of charge on Fridays and Saturdays, where visitors pay only for the cost of materials, and share their designs, machine settings and ideas with others. 

You can rent the workshop machines at both DoES and Fab Lab for a fee, and DoES has a fee-paying hot-desk or permanent desk service for people looking for a co-working office environment. There’s an online Google Group to keep the community together even out of the office or workshop. Meanwhile, Fab Lab offers a bespoke prototype fabrication service, allowing you to have a prototype created based on your own designs.

Finally, there is a great range of meet-ups and events in both Liverpool and Manchester. For game developers, look out for GameDevNorth from Liverpool (but across the Northwest), Game Hub for the Northwest, and Manchester Indie Games Group. As well as events, these groups often have regular social catch-ups at local pubs. You might also like to check out Liverpool Girl Geeks and Gay Gamers Manchester, who get involved in the local geek and gamer/developer scenes. For those who like diversity in their social calendar, Niche Nights promotes geeky gigs across Manchester with quizzes, cosplay contests and gaming competitions. It’s guaranteed that once you get your foot in the social door, a whole world of online and offline networking and events will become available to you. So get out there!