Derby, a city in the East Midlands region of England, has a history of punching above its weight. In the 18th century, when the city had fewer than 15,000 residents, it became a hotbed of the industrial revolution. It was the site of the UK's first water-powered silk mill, and it emerged as an engineering and railway centre. A century later, its history of firsts continued when the city built the world's first roundhouse – to facilitate the servicing of locomotives – now described by locals as the “NASA of its time”.

Growing exports and Derby's significance in the rail sector not only led the city to grow in size and wealth, but it also served as testament to the fact that local residents had a knack for engineering and innovation. The city maintained this reputation throughout the 20th century, by attracting a host of multinational engineering companies, including Rolls-Royce, Bombardier, Toyota Motors and JCB, to locate to the area. 


Towards the end of the century, Derby also managed to jump on the digital innovation bandwagon when, in the mid-1990s, a local video game developer Core Design released Tomb Raider. The video game went on to become a cross-platform franchise worth millions of dollars, with the game's protagonist, Lara Croft, becoming one of the most iconic video game heroes of all times.

Behind the times

With a pool of engineering brainpower, big international investors and a central location (it takes only 30 minutes to get from Derby to Nottingham, 50 minutes to Birmingham and 90 minutes to London), it is natural to assume that this success has carried over into the 21st century. But, according to the CEO of Derby City Council, Adam Wilkinson, economic development is not as simple as that.

“The challenge is to keep that wealth in Derby, so people not only work here but also spend their free time here,” he says.

The problem, according to John Forkin, the managing director of Marketing Derby, a public-private partnership promoting inward investments to the city, is that Derby does not have the leisure facilities that other key UK cities boast. ”During the 1980s and 1990s a lot of cities in the UK lost their core industrial base. Because of that they started redesigning their city concepts. Derby did not, as there was no imperative for that,” he says.

Regeneration effort

What Derby missed out on in the past, it is fixing now. In the mid-2000s, local authorities established a £2bn ($3bn) 'regeneration master plan', aimed at giving the city a new lease of life, and it has already secured investments worth an estimated $1.5bn.

Among the completed projects are the Quad, a film and arts centre worth $16.6m, the Roundhouse, a performing arts venue which underwent a $72.4m refurbishment, and the Council House, a local authorities headquarters given a $45.2m renovation and consequently nominated in the Royal Institute of British Architects East Midlands awards. On top of that, in 2007 Derby attracted Australian shopping giant Westfield Group, which opened its first UK operation in the city, worth $512.8m.

Another success came in 2011, when Derby secured a $60m Regional Growth Fund, a governmental grant aimed at boosting the UK's business competitiveness. Half of the grant was awarded to fund the infrastructure needed to realise the Global Technology Campus (GTC), a new high-tech business park. The remaining capital will be awarded to local manufacturers operating in high-tech sectors such as aerospace, automotives, and software and IT.

“We had wanted to build [the GTC] for a while; now we can get it done plus our supply chain will gain financial support as well,” says Mr Wilkinson. “If someone has been to Derby but did not manage to visit us in the past five years, it is almost like that person has not been to Derby at all, because we have changed so much.” 

The redevelopment is not over yet. Currently under development are a sports arena and an Olympic-size swimming pool. “Young, knowledgeable workers used to look at the job and the company, and then the city. Now they look at the city first, so we made a conscious decision to adapt to attract them to Derby,” says Mr Forkin.

What makes it tick

As Derby, a city with a long tradition of out-of-the box thinking, adapts to changing realities of the modern world, so too do local companies. The best example of this is Smith of Derby, a bespoke clockmaker founded in the city in 1856. Clocks made by the company adorn some of the world's biggest landmarks, including Grand Central Station in New York and St Paul's Cathedral in London. But a slow economy and a changing market means that Smith of Derby's long history has come under threat.

“Everybody has watches and mobile phones now and public clocks almost went out of fashion,” says Bob Betts, managing director of the company and chairman of Marketing Derby. “It is our job to tell architects and designers to include them in their projects."

This proactive attitude has resulted in a multitude of successes for the company. In 2009, it supplied the mechanical clock for the world's largest clock tower built in Guangzhou, China. And in 2011 it entered the record books again, when the company made the world's smallest mechanical clock to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the United Arab Emirates.

Despite these far-flung successes, the company has kept its roots firmly in Derby. According to Mr Betts, this is not just nostalgia, there is a rationale behind staying in the city.

“In this city we can find an understanding about what we do and people that pride themselves on creating and innovating,” he says. “We would not stay here for all these years if there was no economic sense in it. Engineering skills have been passed down here from generation to generation. From aerospace, through to automotives and contemporary clocks. I do not think you can find any other city in the world with that sort of talent pool."

The cost of this report was underwritten by Marketing Derby. Reporting and editing were carried out independently by fDi Magazine.