Youth innovation brings life back to the high street

Jim -smallLast week, Back on the High Street became the first £10,000 UK champions of the TestTown young innovation challenge.

TestTown, a concept devised and supported by the Carnegie UK Trust, encourages young entrepreneurs aged 16 to 30 to create innovative new businesses to bring energy back to flagging town centres.

For many years urban communities have faced more challenges than opportunities and we have spent the last two years trying to understand those challenges as the economy, public sector capacity and consumer habits all undergo drastic change.

TestTown was developed in response to our own original research into youth enterprise and towns regeneration. The Trust identified that the innovative, entrepreneurial spirit of young people will be key to rejuvenating Britain’s hard-pressed town centres: attracting other young people, consumers and citizens, back into our key commercial and social spaces.

Over 550 young people applied to the 2013 pilot scheme using an online entry system. This was narrowed down to a shortlist of eleven teams taking part in the national finals. Over six weeks, the teams were each given development funding, vacant shop space, basic equipment, training and mentoring. They had just two days on-site to set up fully operating businesses, which opened and traded to the public for three days over a weekend.

The finalists were incredibly varied: from an Exeter-based team offering a music and fashion fusion brand featuring audible clothing tags using QR codes to a Tottenham-based team with a clothing and alteration service forming a social enterprise, and a Wrexham-based team with a cupcake café-cum-art gallery offering adult craft workshops and cake decorating for children.

All the businesses collaborated closely, and a festival trail of the pop-up businesses was marketed across eastern Scotland to consumers.

Jenna Fairgreave (left) and Emma Pauley in their winning shop Back on the High Street

Jenna Fairgreave (left) and Emma Pauley in their winning shop Back on the High Street. Photo: ASM Media & PR

A team of judges led by Sir Tom Farmer, founder of Kwit-Fit, chose their winners using a list of criteria including innovation, presentation and customer service. The winning team, Back on the High Street, was run by Jenna Fairgrieve (25) from Falkirk and Emma Pauley (26) from Dunfermline. They created a low rent retail space for local crafters and an interactive atmosphere of crafting workshops.

Due to the outstanding achievements of all the finalists, an additional two prizes were introduced on the judging day. In second place winning £5,000 was Dunfermline Soup Kitchen: an innovative local fresh produce shop selling pre-prepped soup ingredients. The third prize of £2,500 was awarded to Functional Fitness Express, who offer high-impact 15 minute work-outs along with a shower and protein shake as a speedy and affordable ‘keep-fit’ package in a high street location.

The incredible success of the festival has meant huge gains for every one of the 11 teams, and the host town, Dunfermline. TestTown finalists smashed previous pop-up records in terms of takings – early figures showing that at least £8,000 was taken collectively in just three days of trading. The one business that was not trading but demonstrating a new product secured orders from Scotland and Wales. Nine of the 11 finalists have confirmed that they are planning to set up permanent, job-creating town centre businesses as a result of their TestTown experience; the champions and runners up were offered trading units in Dunfermline; and one of the teams has already secured start-up bank funding through TestTown networking.

There was a huge injection of excitement and positivity around the town. Four of the 11 vacant units we traded from have now been let or sold to business people who came and saw them in action in TestTown. One of our biggest surprises was the impact of a youth group run by the local council who provided ‘TestTown Ambassadors’. They were stationed around the town all weekend, handing out flyers, interviewing customers for feedback, and inventing their own musical methods of promotion. Local businesses caught the TestTown bug and supported the project – window cleaners offering their services for free, cafes offering to deliver lunch to TestTown units.

Test Town Awards_small

TestTown finalists under a statue of Andrew Carnegie. Photo: ASM Media & PR

One of our assumptions about TestTown was that young innovators would take the challenge and opportunity of rapidly developing technology and create units that were gadgetry showrooms. Any emphasis on technology was completely set aside as we discovered an emerging emphasis on community. Nearly all of our finalists had an element of the business which focused on bringing people together to spend time in a social and interactive environment – whether that be learning to sew at B’Spoke, taking your children to decorate a cupcake at Emzcakes or going to hire an outfit and start your party at Through the Looking Glass.

We will be doing a lot of work in the coming months to build on the strong foundations of TestTown. We believe that replicating TestTown in other areas of the country will provide a catalyst for regeneration on British high streets. We’ll be sharing our experience and learnings across the UK to help spark some fresh ideas and thinking. We would be delighted to hear from anyone interested on becoming part of the TestTown journey.

  • You can watch our 7-minute TestTown Festival 2013 video, read about all the finalists on our website, and find us on Facebook and Twitter.


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Mike Stevenson
Mike Stevenson
11 years ago

This is great and fits with my vision of a nation which values and embraces the creativity and unfettered imagination of our young people. As winner of last year’s New Start private sector award for our involvement of young people in civic affairs this is music to my ears. The entrenched view that young people lack the wisdom to be involved in shaping the future is at best questionable. But, when we realise that they see the world afresh, lack cynicism, are open minded and understand the technologies of the future it is an absurd view. Why do we expect each generation to inherit what we have created? Test Town is innovative and on the button. Shout about it from the rooftops until your throat hurts and very well done.

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