Highlights from Venturefest WM 2022: Using the Commonwealth Games and Future Regional Events to Stimulate Innovation


  • Nicola Turner (Chair): Director of Legacy, Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games 
  • Emma Riley: HBTI Director, Birmingham 2022 at Sunset + Vine 
  • Spencer Welch: Commercial Director, Holosphere 
  • Karen Newman: Director, BOM (Birmingham Open Media) 
  • Joel Lavery: Strategic Lead Major Sporting Events, WM Growth Company 

Birmingham will host the Commonwealth Games in 2022 with the ambition to be the world’s first carbon-neutral Games. Birmingham was the second city named as host of the 2022 Games, and the bid was won in part because the West Midlands already had much of the infrastructure required to host the Games. This existing infrastructure, Nicola Turner explained, removed the need for major construction projects and prompted the Games’ carbon-neutral ambitions. 

By the end of the summer, the Games will have brought 35K jobs and £350m in supplier contracts to the West Midlands. The procurement process has included new standards for sustainability and social value, and these have been an essential part of each bid. With 1.5 billion projected TV viewers and 1 million tickets already sold, this is the fastest-selling ticket ballot in Commonwealth Games history, and it has created a very visible platform to show the world what this city is about. 

The Games’ teams are guided by three core values: Inclusion. Creativity. Sustainability. Turner explained that these three values shape every decision made about the Games and its intended legacy, including the team’s decisions to work with local and regional suppliers. The team sees the Games as an opportunity to give Birmingham an image makeover on the global stage, and they are committed to leveraging the Games to facilitate inclusive innovation, creativity, and sustainability. 

This panel session focused on how Birmingham—and the entirety of the West Midlands—can leverage Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games and other future regional events to stimulate sustainable and inclusive innovation. 

An Overview of the Panellists’ Work with Commonwealth Games: 

Karen Newman, Founder / CEO of Birmingham Open Media (BOM), shared about BOM’s expertise in neurodiversity, as well as their identity as a space where “art, technology, and science collide”. She spoke about a recent project that explores autistic perceptions of beauty and about another, an augmented reality (AR) app that allows people to take selfies then see particulate matter (a type of air pollution) around them.  

BOM won the bid to design the world’s first smart baton for Commonwealth Games. As BOM’s website states, ”this baton was conceived in an innovative West Midlands collaboration that fuses art, technology, and science”. The team’s vision included a desire for the baton to say something about each bearer. It includes a 360-degree camera for eyes, a colour-changing sensor for its heart, and, as lungs, an air quality monitor that sends data to the cloud as it travels around the Commonwealth.  

Newman and Turner shared a highlight of the Baton Relay thus far: On St Helena, an island in the Pacific, people hadn’t seen anyone arrive on the island during the pandemic. When the baton arrived, people ran to the beach. There were many tears and much celebration.  

Emma Riley, Production Executive at Sunset + Vine, shared about the Host Broadcast Training Initiative (HBTI), a Commonwealth Games TV Bootcamp Sunset + Vine are running in partnership with Birmingham City University, Create Central, and Solihull College. Sunset + Vine are an independent TV production company specialising in sport. They hold the contract for all live Commonwealth Games pictures, including two daily highlights programmes and a large amount of digital content. 

The HBTI programme is designed to train 250 local people to eventually fill 150 jobs on the Games. Riley shared about Sunset + Vine’s past work with training programmes, which were much smaller. They decided to scale up their approach and to offer paid jobs to 150 people who complete the training programme. These jobs will give programme graduates essential professional experience to work in the TV production industry.  

Spencer Welch, Commercial Director at Holosphere, shared about Holosphere’s work as an Immersive and XR company that has, historically, built digital twins for large enterprises. For Commonwealth Games, they have partnered with Second Home Studios, a storytelling company, to apply AR to statues around Birmingham. The team’s vision is to engage people with things they walk past every day without noticing. The project is geolocated, so it will show people where to go in Birmingham City Centre to engage with the AR statues. 

This project has been a major innovation for Holosphere; it marks the first time the company has ventured into the arts and culture sectors and brought these together with their technical expertise. Additionally, Holosphere does not typically create phone-based or geolocated products. The training side of their work often involved VR and is brought together in large projected spaces. Welch said that this project has opened the company to new streams of activity and expertise. This sparked discussion about the post-Games legacy for this project and other arts / culture activity. 

Joel Lavery, the West Midlands Growth Company’s Strategic Lead Major Sporting Events, spoke about WMGC’s work to build a major sporting events strategy, both for the Games and for the post-Games legacy. WMGC was awarded £25m from Government for the Business and Tourism programme. This programme focuses on developing local skills, creating local jobs, and promoting Birmingham and the West Midlands as a fantastic place to live, work, and visit. 

Lavery’s focus is on building a Legacy programme that’s rooted in an ambition to boost trade, investment, skills, and business prosperity across the region. Every element of the strategy is about driving innovation in business. 


Did working in innovation / innovative ways cause any challenges? 

Spencer Welch: Holosphere don’t normally work with phone-based or cultural contexts, so this was a major step out of their comfort zone. They also had to look at the innovation side of geolocating so they could put the product into people’s hands. This contrasted with their usual way of working with large corporates and required them to develop an innovation mindset. 

Joel Lavery: “The way we went into Covid is the way we’re going to come out in reverse” (quoted from an unnamed colleague). Large events were one of the first things to go during Covid. Large events are coming back now, but they’re looking a bit different two years after the start of the pandemic. This is where the innovations come in. Joel is currently writing a 10-year major events strategy with innovation as one of the key drivers. Sports are going through a transformation and experimenting with formats as they look to attract new audiences. Netball, for example, is looking to blend fashion with sport. The Commonwealth Games eSports Championships are another example of this; they’ll engage with a younger audience and will take place in the sporting arena. There is also talk of making this an annual competition. 

Emma Riley: Games’ social value charter influenced every decision Sunset + Vine have made. They have endeavoured to create circular economies within everything they’re doing in the Games. They’ve focused on small changes that, together, create a big impact. This has meant changing their usual ways of working and adopting an innovative mindset. Riley shared the following as examples:  

  • Uniforms have been sourced from a local supplier 
  • All catering is beef-free; vegetarian option is the main option 
  • No pre-production flights 
  • HBTI training initiative (described above) creates local jobs for local people, addresses regional skills gaps, and provides employment opportunities to 150 people 

Karen Newman: BOM is a creative social enterprise that is diverse-led and diverse-driven. BOM have been closely involved in procurement process for product design contracts, which was an entirely new area of expertise for the organisation. Newman suggested that those looking to enter the innovation ecosystem might benefit from looking for alternative organisations and creative enterprises that bring different lived experience. Creative innovation that happens in creative social enterprise that isn’t part of the traditional product design world, but that doesn’t make it any less innovative. 

Has CG offered you opportunities to work with different sectors or work with new partners? 

Spencer Welch: Yes! Welch encouraged attendees to step out of comfort zones and diversify portfolios of work. Holosphere have added a stream to their business as a result of their work with Commonwealth Games. They’re enjoying working with the arts rather than exclusively in corporate environments. Due to their lack of experience in the arts, they did not believe they would win the bid when they applied for it. Nor had they fully considered the benefits of the project before they applied. But Welch highlighted that this is part of innovation: Moving solutions from one setting to another. 

Karen Newman: The Queens Baton project marked the first time BOM worked with a product designer, so they got to explore an entirely new area of work. The pandemic caused major disruptions to their procurement process, and, ultimately, they had only 6 months to work with the product designer. A major takeaway is that, ideally, technology and product should be designed in tandem, which requires good planning and logistics. This means that neither the technology nor the product has to be redesigned once the two are introduced.  

Emma Riley: Sunset + Vine have worked closely with industry bodies and public sector, including universities, as part of training scheme. This represents a new area of work for them, and it has helped Sunset + Vine better understand how to work across sectors on a more in-depth basis from their usual engagement. Riley’s main advice for working across sectors is to identify the shared goal quickly. This should be distilled to a few words and kept as the focus of each meeting and conversation to avoid scope creep.  

Levelling Up: What do you think the future holds? What’s our story in 10 years? How will people look back at the Games? What will we be proud of? How will people look at Brum differently? 

Joel Laverty: Laverty began by describing Commonwealth Games as a TV advert to the world about Birmingham. The city’s spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship will be on display during the Games. The West Midlands Growth Company’s Business and Tourism Programme is here to promote trade, industry, and imports / exports. As an example of this, Gold Coast are bringing 60 businesses to Birmingham during the Games to explore collaborative opportunities in future mobility, creative technologies, and others. 

Emma Riley: The Games announcement has been a huge catalyst for the TV industry in Birmingham and the West Midlands, including the BCC regional charter. The industry is starting to buzz in Birmingham and across the West Midlands, which is exciting for TV professionals who want access to opportunity outside London.  

Karen Newman: This is an opportunity to showcase the region’s creativity. The West Midlands has always been the “workshop of the world,” and it’s exciting to share this on a global stage. Newman expressed desire for the region to build on the moment that showcases creativity and to use this time to reflect on and explore what future residents and citizens will need in the coming decades.  

Spencer Welch: Welch expressed excitement that he has been working in Birmingham rather than London recently. More than just saving time on his daily commute, Welch view this as a sign that Birmingham and the West Midlands are becoming a major hub for creative technologies. Holosphere’s founder has always wanted the company to be an immersive Tech Hub, and the team is now considering whether Birmingham could be the ideal location for this.  

Audience Q&A 

How can more traditional sectors beyond the creative industry absorb creative talent to drive business growth in other areas? 

Emma Riley suggested that CreateCentral, as the region’s Cluster body for the Creative sector, can be the bridge between TV production, gaming, digital, and traditional industries that have media departments. Additionally, Sunset + Vine designed a new application process for the HBTI programme; applicants were asked 5 simple questions and were not required to submit a CV or covering letter. The opportunity was advertised at sports clubs, community centres, and Jobcentres with the goal of reaching as many populations as possible. The Sunset + Vine team has found sport to be a leveller that has cut across communities and created a staff and volunteer population that looks like the West Midlands as a whole. 

What has been the emotional journey of innovating and working in new ways and sectors?  

Karen Newman the process has required a lot of energy, but it has also been exhilarating. It has been challenging for BOM to work with a massive institution that has only recently formed and that has varying degrees of working with Tech. The direct team BOM worked with had not put together a bespoke Tech product before. This has required BOM to think differently about the coding, especially because they have not been able to send a Tech team around the globe with the baton. 

Joel Laverty described the process as encouraging and shared that, from his perspective, everyone involved in Commonwealth Games is committed to doing things differently and to bringing people together.  

Innovation is about creating beauty. With that in mind, are the garden and parks people going to be involved in making the city more beautiful during the Games and while people are here 

Nicola Turner: Yes. It will take approximately 35 years for the tress that are being planted now for the Games to grow. Sport England have invested money to make sure people feel like they can access blue and green spaces post-pandemic. And the Canal and River Trust is investing into places and spaces so citizens can enjoy them for years to come. 

Final Thoughts 

This session gave attendees the opportunity to hear about some of the innovative projects that have been happening as part of Commonwealth Games. Birmingham 2022 aspires to be the world’s first carbon-neutral Games, which means that innovation is built into the Games’ design. Readers who are interested to learn more about the projects referenced in this panel session are welcome to contact the Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands Core Executive team for more information / introductions. 

Author, Devon Geary

Network and Partnerships Manager, Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands