What can Steven Spielberg teach Birmingham about its bright future?
The Twitters erupted this week in #Birmingham, as Hollywood film crews arrived in Digbeth and the Jewellery Quarter. It turns out that Stephen Spielberg, one of the most popular film directors in history, has chosen the city of Birmingham as the backdrop to his next movie. Much excitement! Ordinary Brummies crept around temporary barriers in Gibb Street and Newhall Street trying to get a glimpse of Simon Pegg coming out of his trailer, or a sight of the great director himself.
The film will be called ‘Ready Player One’, an adaptation of a science fiction novel set 30 years in the future. The story is set in a world with a stagnant economy; the protagonist is a boy living in poverty who uses digital networks and MMORPGS to escape to a virtual society which is more interesting than the real one. A reality, perhaps, which is not so far fetched today.
As the action unfolds in Ready Player One (very mild spoiler ahead), the content of 1980s films, songs, TV series and videogames unlock the action. In this, we hit upon the Retro-futuristic theme; in tapping into 1980s nostalgia, Mr Spielberg and Ready Player One’s author Ernest Cline are echoing back a clear beat in the rhythm of the current time.
Looking back to the eighties is a component of the cultural currents of the twenty-teens. From haircuts and fashions, the electro sound in pop/dance music, Netflix runaway success with thriller/horror TV-series ‘Stranger Things’ and the latest “must have” reproduction mini-Nintendo Entertainment System. There’s even a new series of Twin Peaks in the works. In 2016 it is cool and chic to look back and remember 1986.
But in the eighties they didn’t look back. It was their stereoscopic, technology charged, primary coloured vision of the future which shaded their present. Perhaps, apart from the aesthetics of the time, this is what draws us back to that era: hope for the future. The anticipation of a new order and new technology. Retro-futurism is defined as “remembering anticipation”; the eighties was a time when culturally the focus was much more on anticipating the new, rather than remembering the past. This is despite the economic circumstances of the time.
Birmingham hit rock bottom in the eighties
Birmingham was doing much better in 1886 than it was in 1986. In 1886 it was amongst the pre-eminent manufacturing cities in the world, taking raw materials from the Black Country and fabricating for export the most modern technological goods available in the world. The population was growing at a terrifying pace and there was no sign of it slowing down, as people came to the city for the abundant economic opportunities it offered in the factories and workshops.
By the 1980s the city had been in decline for decades. The post-war experimental town-planning had largely failed, leaving hundreds of unsafe and unappealing residential tower blocks, an ugly motorway running through the City and a weird inverted concrete pyramid in the civic centre. The completely outmoded Victorian industrial sites of Bordesley and Digbeth had drifted into urban decay.
Goods were increasingly manufactured abroad for much lower costs and imported back in. Those who could do well for themselves jumped the greenbelt moving to towns and villages beyond. Factories closed and whole industries came to an end in the city. A breakout musical hit from the city was UB40, named after the unemployment form from the Department for Social Security.
By 1980 the population of the city had fallen by 170,000 from its peak before World World Two. In population terms, the 1980s were rock bottom for the city.
What does the future hold?
The more cynical folk on Twitter have not missed the irony that Brummies’ excitable pride at being a tier one Hollywood film location is tempered by having been chosen as a perfect location for a ‘dystopian cyberpunk nightmare’.
And there is no doubt that Birmingham is a city with the experience of shrinking economically, which shows in the urban fabric of Digbeth and the Jewellery Quarter. However, 30 years on from the rock bottom of the eighties, the population and economy are now both growing healthily once again.
But to be fair to the naysayers, it is sometimes hard to see from the vantage point of 2016 what there is to hope for in the future. The Brexit debate dredged up xenophobia and worse. The world economy is stagnant eight years after the financial disaster of 2008. Wealth, innovation and graduates are still seemingly inexorably drawn to the financial and technology sectors in London. Any crumbs from central government or the BBC are showered on Manchester, for no particularly good reasons. It will always be cheaper to manufacture goods in China, Brazil or India where wages are lower.
However, thinking this way is to miss the very real opportunity in the city. It is to get the fictional future of ‘Ready Player One’ confused with the real future anticipated in the 1980s, which today’s retro-futurist fad taps into. It is to forget that in the cyberpunk future, rising from a de-industrialised metropolis, there is opportunity and the hope of a new era for the city. Birmingham has been through the worst of economic stagnation and come out of the other side.
Antoine van Agtmael, the investment strategist who coined the term ‘emerging markets’ (the emerging markets, such as India, China and Brazil which helped solidify Birmingham’s industrial decline), now speaks of ‘The Smartest Places on Earth’. The directionality of globalisation is now being turned on its head as cyberpunk capabilities such as cloud computing, data analytics and 3d printing allow tiny companies to compete with big ones.
Opportunity, innovation and decent incomes are now driven by technology and research and these have clustered in cities, ever since Boulton and Watt at the Soho Foundry. The generation who had to “jump the greenbelt” are now retiring, as Birmingham’s four Universities educate the youngest population of any city in Europe.
Small workshops making things have always been the cornerstone of the City economy. If those ‘things’ are increasingly digital, 3d printed or cultural then that is just the future that 80s culture anticipated. We live in the time when the virtual reality of Tron and Robocop is available for next day delivery. ‘Back to the Future’ style videoconferencing and 3d movies are the norm. ‘Wargames’ style networks are ubiquitous and used for everything but “global thermonuclear war”.
The generation who played Mario on the NES and watched ET at the cinema are coming to the age where they are the movers and decision makers. The asset that attracted Mr Spielberg (i.e. cheap ex-Industrial property) is perfect to provide homes to the people and workshops producing advanced technology and culture.
Sure some of the old industrial streets are grimy and forgotten, in need of investment to see their better days once again. But first you need to see the opportunity — just like Mr Spielberg has.