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The Nottingham Project's Greg Nugent: "We’re a creative city where culture thrives, but when other cities were upping their game, we stood still"

14 August 20 interview: Ashley Carter

With a ten-year vision of turning Nottingham into a globally-recognised cultural heavyweight, and a board including the likes of Shane Meadows and Vicky McClure, last month saw the ambitious launch of The Nottingham Project. Spearheaded by the new Nottingham Board for Culture and Creativity, the project will seek to rejuvenate the city in the wake of a pandemic that has decimated much of the creative industry. As the director of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games Organising Committee, Project chairman Greg Nugent knows what it takes to deliver on the biggest scale. We caught up with the man at the helm to find out more about what the city’s creative community has to look forward to...

It’s been a couple of weeks since The Nottingham Project was launched. What has the response been like so far?
It's been phenomenal on two fronts. Firstly, you can’t launch anything these days without worrying that people will say it’s not a good idea, but the opposite has been true. I think 99.9% of every reaction has said, “This is brilliant, well done”, “Everyone is working together, and it’s the right time to do it” or “We should have done this years ago.” And the only negative response, if you can even call it that, is that people have been asking more questions, but that’s absolutely fine. 

The second thing is that we had over two hundred formal approaches within the first two days. We stopped counting because there were so many. They were all from people who have serious ideas about how to shape the future of Nottingham, and didn’t think there was a place to try and sell them. Simon [Bristow ーCreative Lead on The Nottingham Project] is now the purveyor of so many interesting ideas that are coming from the public. I think we’re becoming a place to go if you think you’ve got an idea and you want an audience. Now, with Thomas Heatherwick’s involvement, we’re becoming a process people feel they can contribute to, which I think is essential for it to be successful. I would say that overall, the reaction has been phenomenal. We all need positivity, now more than ever. 

What are the first steps to determining the short and long term goals for the project?
I think the first thing we need is to have goals, which I mean respectfully. It wouldn’t be the right thing now to pretend we know all the answers. I have ideas, you have ideas, but it doesn’t mean they’re the right ideas. What we need to go through is a process of serious creative thinking and strategising to work through why an idea is one that should be put forward, and what we should try and deliver. 

That can be about a number of things, but at the centre of it it means that the ideas we put forward at the end should be ambitious and really pioneering. I don’t think we should be doing stuff that other cities are doing already, we should do things that other cities haven’t thought of. Most critically, we must have an environment to deliver those ideas. I’m not going to prejudice the outcome by saying “I really like this, I want to do this.” We’ve got an amazing board, and we’ve had thousands of people follow us on social media, so we need to work together to produce a plan. And the ideas we come up with need to be scalable, original and deliverable. 

Then at the end of that process, we'll need to move into a new phase, which is delivering. I've had a lot of experience working in organisations that have big visions and deliver, and I’m confident we can do that.

If it’s true that the first step toward finding a solution is accepting that there’s a problem, I’d assume that there was a process of identifying shortcomings in Nottingham’s creative scene. Can you tell me what that process looked like?
I don't think I count them as shortcomings, but I would see them as opportunities missed. Nottingham is a bloody amazing, vibrant city. Even though we’re in the middle of the COVID pandemic, you can see that the city still has a bit of attitude. You can see people in the community are diverse and creative, and we’ve been asking community groups to come and talk to us all day, and all of them have the confidence you need to make big things happen. 

But I would say that over the last decade or two, other cities have upped their game when it comes to leadership in a creative economy and Nottingham might not have kept up the pace. As a result of that, other cities might have overtaken Nottingham at a time when we should have been ahead. We’re a creative city where culture thrives, but when other cities were upping their game, we stood still. Channel 4 is a good example. How amazing would it have been if that came to Nottingham? It would have transformed the city. What that means is others advance more quickly than you, and I think that is something we're all acutely aware of, but it is the reason we set up The Nottingham Project.

We’re a creative city where culture thrives, but when other cities were upping their game, we stood still

How do you think your experience as one of the directors of London 2012 will help you with the Nottingham Project?
Yeah, with everything! London 2012 was a big dream – they replayed some of it recently and I can't watch it because it's too emotional. But my wife was watching it and she was crying her eyes out with happiness, because 2012 was a dream. Any big idea is a dream. The reasons that dreams come true is because you learn how to deliver them and that's what 2012 taught me. You can craft a perfectly constructed dream, but you've got to actually deliver it.

I think in 2012 I had about 700 people working for me just looking at spreadsheets every day. They weren’t thinking of the wider dream, they just looked at spreadsheets, gantt charts and risk matrices, holding us true to “are we going to deliver this?” every day. So London 2012 taught me that if you can match the dream to the delivery, you’re in business. 

So that's what we have to do: in the first instance we have to dream the dream and then after that we have to decide how to deliver it. You can’t think they're the same thing because they’re not. Before 2012 I was involved in the redevelopment of Kings Cross St. Pancras – which is obviously very important to Nottingham – and again it was about the dream and the delivery. I think at the moment Nottingham needs a dream, and after that we need to deliver it.

How big of an impact has the COVID pandemic had on your plans?
Originally I thought it would take about a year to think through what our role would be in the growth of the city. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, you've got to get the stakeholders and everyone in the same room and you've got to agree on the same stuff. Because of COVID, the logic might say you need to delay. But I don’t believe that's strategic, the right thing is to do it more quickly, because the city needs it more than ever. Having walked around the city recently, you can see the early signs of COVID in the city centre. There are more shops with nothing in them and you can see that some of them won't recover.

It's the old adage "never waste a crisis" – that's the game we're in. COVID is terrifying and it's terrorising our city, but what we're doing is trying to get Nottingham into a leadership position in terms of creative economy and culture. So actually it's intensified, Nottingham needs it more now and by September we're going to have a plan. This is an unprecedented crisis and we can’t afford to waste it.

How do you see the project coinciding with the Creative Quarter, which was launched as a scheme for creative change in Nottingham in 2012?
You'll see that the Creative Quarter integrated into what we're doing, and they’re a brilliant example of people coming together, having an idea and delivering it. You can now see the development around the CQ that wouldn’t be there without them. And Steven [Barker - CEO of the Creative Quarter] has been fantastically helpful in allowing me to navigate some of the shadows in the project that come with doing something so ambitious.

Our remit is different from looking at a piece of land and seeing what we can do with it. Our remit is about the culture of the city. And so one of the first things we did when we couldn’t do what we wanted to is set up the Robin Hood Fund. I think it's important that we don’t define ourselves as a single piece of land, or a single building, I think we should borrow from more ambitious cities and look at how we can rejuvenate our city through its culture. The example that I use endlessly is Austin, Texas. It's not about a piece of land, it's about the whole city, and they rejuvenated themselves and their creative economy. Now, Austin has one of the biggest festivals in the world in South by Southwest and is one of the coolest places on the planet to go.

You’ve assembled a board of people from really eclectic backgrounds, including Vicky McClure, Shane Meadows, Marcellus Baz, Sandeep Mahal and Richard Whitehead. How did you go about selecting who you wanted to include?
Firstly, we needed financial support. Without the support and bravery of both universities, the City Council and the Arts Council, we wouldn’t exist. Once you’ve got the institutions behind you, you turn to the people of Nottingham and say “We need a big, diverse group of people who, in their own way, do something brilliant.” Then we put them together and work toward the same goal, which is why it’s so similar to London 2012. We needed the right people to get things done, but who could also work together. 

In effect, The Nottingham Project will be a bidding company. If, for example, we wanted to get someone to relocate to Nottingham in the culture and creative sector, it would be our job to put that bid together. We weren’t part of the Channel 4 process, but what Leeds did was put it through a proper bid. So one of the advantages is that we can coordinate the whole creative sector in Nottingham to go to bigger things.

Can you tell me a bit more about Project Fothergill and how Heatherwick Studios will help you create a vision for the city?
The reason we called it Project Fothergill was because it had to be a really serious piece of work that has a chance of being delivered, and then has the chance to change the city. Thomas Heatherwick was someone who I was lucky enough to work with and get to know during London 2012, and he's someone who has worked on a lot of cities. What I hoped he would do was provide balance and ensure our perspective was original. I don’t want to do something that we've tried to do before. I want to think of something new. So Thomas' role is to help us think through this as someone who is a world-leading, visual, creative architect. I want him to bring an energy to it that comes from knowing how other cities work. The fusion of those things means we'll come up with ideas that are original yet deliverable.

The Nottingham Project website

Twitter: @TheNottmProject
Facebook: /TheNottinghamProject
Instagram: @TheNottinghamProject

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