Sharp Project: “a remarkable portal of opportunity” says Peter Saville
Great cities don’t thrive by constantly dredging up the exploits of their past inhabitants; they just let their esteemed reputations act as catalysts to the waves of citizens choosing live and work in them. And so the process continues. That’s why Manchester didn’t cease to be relevant once the Industrial Revolution went viral; the city merely shifted its focus, remained industrious and became a centre for enterprise, entertainment and education.
Design icon Peter Saville has carried this vibe with him on his journey from Factory Records to London and LA and back again to Manchester, where he now works with the City Council as consultant creative director. Saville is behind Manchester’s “Original Modern” concept that has provided a starting point for some of the city’s great endeavours of late. By being the first industrial city, Manchester is the archetype of the modern city, the blueprint, the original – but Original Modern was never intended as a two-word history lesson; it’s a concept that goes on feeding the current generation. Its most recent manifestation is the Sharp Project.
It’s impossible not to let the imagination wander a little as Peter Saville’s every utterance on the Sharp Project launches you on a tangent of possibilities. His enthusiasm for Sharp is unquestionable; yet he knows that its potential will be fully realised only when it becomes a functional “district”, when it is a part of people’s lives and when they start to communicate. Things will be happening at Sharp and their waves will be picked up by the rest of the planet. Similarly, people within Sharp’s walls will be plugged into the ideas shaping the new online world.
“Digital culture is by its very nature universal. The internet is universal,” says Saville. “People who communicate via the net and who connect via the net have transcended all regions, territories and distances. If you are aware online, you’re not locally aware online; you’re globally aware online. So people contributing creatively to new media are automatically contributing to a world scene and a world culture. It is by its very nature globally competitive.”
Provided with a stunningly powerful physical link to the online realm and surprisingly inexpensive rates, it’s the most fertile possible environment for digital success. Just as importantly, it’s also an environment where experimentation and failure do not come at such a cost that it shreds the confidence and ambition of those who attempt innovative things. Think of it as a laboratory where digital business ideas can be tested to destruction before being let loose on the public. Great successes will happen not at the cost of failure but because of the lessons learnt from it.
Sharp and Original Modern are ways of projecting the ambition of Manchester to the world, and of making the city world class. “It is evident that being world class is what you give the world, not what you bring from it. Our football teams here make Manchester world class. It’s what you put to the world that sets a benchmark, sets the pace. That’s what makes you a world class city. So it doesn’t matter how pretty the city is. It doesn’t matter if it’s warm or cold or rainy; the conditions of the place don’t matter. It’s just what the place gives to the world. That’s what makes somewhere matter.”
The community aspect of Sharp is its reason for being. And it’s not in the woolly sense of the word; there is strength in communities to get things done that benefit its members and others. The pooling of talents and opinions and the resolution of potential conflicts drives the process along.
“One of the key things about a project like Sharp is that ability to aggregate people together. Some are like-minded; some have … contrary points of view,” he smiles, no doubt wryly recalling a few epic disagreements. “There are opportunities for people to talk about business or finance and become part of something that can help you move on. There are some ideas that come out of isolation.
“But many of the most effective ideas come out of a community of some sort. They come as a result of interaction and dialogue with other people. A lot of the digital innovations such as Google and Facebook have come out of colleges and communities that were already committed to that new technology – and of course there are the famous cafes in Silicon Valley where business deals were done.
“Building an environment where a community can interact with itself, where you can come and be part of something and activate your thinking and make a contribution to that tangible community – that obviously helps.”
But there still needs to be a deeper identification with the physical space, the people within it and what it represents for a place to start being an idea mill and not just a partitioned office block or anonymous media centre (if that isn’t an oxymoron).
“Sharp is not so much a place of work; it’s more of a way of life. We’ve said this from the beginning. You need to live in these places. Initiatives will happen as the project begins to take shape. It’s impossible to say at this stage what Sharp will have about itself in two or three years’ time. Natural selection and natural evolution will determine the real nature of Sharp in the future. The good thing about it is that is does have a scale. It has a scale to be almost like a district, a small district unto itself.”
Never does Saville hint at dictats about the project’s future direction. This trust in natural selection and the cross-fertilisation that will happen when disparate industries start to share the project’s space is refreshing and quite unusual, considering the box-ticking constraints of the taxpayer pounds and euros behind it. But looked at in the context of its egalitarian ideals, and not forgetting the enormous potential to shift the digital centre of gravity Manchester’s way, Europe’s way, it looks less controversial.
Peter Saville’s understanding of Manchester’s cultural heritage comes partly from being one of the city’s children and partly from playing a major part in its story. His love for the city is obvious, but his appreciation never lapses into that tiresome, unfounded civic pride that only really chimes with a city’s inhabitants; that feeling is definitely imprinted onto the Sharp Project. In other words, he knows what is great about Manchester and what things make it a global city, and from this knowledge comes his confidence that Sharp will be part of Manchester’s success continuum.
“I know that in the future, the moment I walk into Sharp I will be connected to the things going on in the world. I’ll be shown examples of things that are going on in the world. And the people sitting here working and thinking and talking will be thinking about the world. Now this is a big, big step forward.
“Sharp is an opportunity to engage with, interact with and contribute to the world for those people. There’s a lot of talent here. Manchester is a great entertainer. When I look at Manchester now I realise that it’s one of the cities that entertains the world – with music, with sport, drama and comedy.
“Sharp provides an entry-level, accessible doorway to that world for individuals, small companies, young people. It’s a remarkable portal of opportunity.”
With vision and enthusiasm like this behind it, the Sharp Project is well worth watching. City authorities from around the world will no doubt be taking notes already.