John McLellan: They’ve cracked the code

Stephen Coleman. Picture: Jane Barlow
Stephen Coleman. Picture: Jane Barlow
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It’s one of Edinburgh’s most unloved buildings yet it could hold the key to the city’s future prosperity.

Most passers-by will be forgiven for thinking, or indeed hoping, Argyle House on the West Port is due to go the same way as its ugly counterpart at the St James Quarter, but the former home to hundreds of DSS civil servants is now at the heart of Edinburgh’s technology revolution. But you’d never know it.

Opened by former first minister Alex Salmond only a year ago on the top levels of the ten-storey block, Codebase is now home to around 400 people in 50 companies, from one-man bands to app developer Kotikan which employs around 80 people.

Entering from Lady Lawson Street, it’s not difficult to see why it’s one of Edinburgh’s best-kept secrets. The unwelcoming foyer to what is a typical 1970s government block has little to commend it, with a terse, central-casting concierge and scruffy lifts draped with blue tarpaulin and paint-stained boards on the floor.

The tenth-floor reception is in a rather shabby foyer with no seats for waiting visitors and, amazingly for a technology centre, a blackboard where announcements are posted. Even schoolchildren struggle to believe teachers once used to write in chalk, so my guess is it’s a bit of a techy self-deprecation.

A Leith media hub this is not and the only sign that something might be different about this place is a glass chess set on the reception desk.

The building has capacity for 2000 people and as Europe’s fastest-growing technology “incubator” there is every chance the place could be full in a couple of years.

It might even be sooner; a new wing has been opened every four months as more companies move in and it’s already the biggest in the UK. Work is already under way to turn the next set of offices into usable space.

Codebase is the brainchild of brothers Stephen and Jamie Coleman, both driven by a belief that as the core of all modern businesses, technology is no longer a sector but an essential component of economic growth.

In Willie Fairhurst of Edinburgh Computer Services they found the perfect partner; not only did the company specialise in kitting out offices with the latest infrastructure essential to modern digital businesses, but he worked on the building 25 years ago when it was being refitted for Social Security staff so he knew his way around the structure. Now the building is fully equipped with fibre-optic cabling and has been helped by the city council’s superfast broadband scheme.

Cloud technology means the businesses operating from Argyle House can serve markets around the world in their own time, so a firm like analytic specialists Plan for Cloud can stay in Edinburgh despite being bought by Santa Barbara-based Rightscale and now operates as Rightscale Scotland. EO Surgical is one of the most unusual companies here, developing software to help train medics in new techniques with a staff of just three. Not just three computer geeks though, they are three neurosurgeons who come in after their day jobs.

It’s not so much an incubator as a hot-house; companies are not born in Codebase to see whether ideas thrive but selected on the basis of attitude. Failure is not a dirty word here but lack of commitment is likely to be a deal-breaker.

“We curate,” explains Stephen Coleman, a softly-spoken computer animation graduate from Abertay University. “There is a waiting list and we do not want it to be just your average office space. Companies coming here need to be able to make a contribution.”

But how they assess that contribution remains a mystery. “The criteria is a secret,” says Stephen. “That way we are not beholden to anyone about how we operate.”

For those accepted, the basic £200 a month buys a desk in their co-working room, currently occupied by around 30 freelancers, start-up firms and remote companies.

But this is a technology-driven entrepreneurial hub where the desire to innovate and feed off others is what the Colemans are looking for.

What you get is, according to Stephen, “infrastructure and good coffee”. The coffee in the little sparsely-furnished cafe is indeed industrial strength but as well as the cabling and Cloud technology, there are more traditional approaches like regular gatherings and advice sessions, all posted on the blackboards. So too is help available for the more basic essentials of business life like accounts, HR and the law; Skyscanner’s in-house legal team come in for a day a month, for example.

Predominantly, but not exclusively, the people working here are under 35. A few offices have mandatory gimmicks like bar football, but overall the atmosphere is one of impermanence. Stuff lies about everywhere in half-open boxes as if the people are constantly on the move. They probably are.

We have been at the dawn of the new technology age before. First there was Silicon Glen, which was effectively just a set of assembly lines for electronic products conceived elsewhere. As soon as the trading became tough, the factories closed and the jobs vanished.

Then in the late 1990s, US tech giant Cadence arrived and the Alba Centre in Livingston was opened with much aplomb by Donald Dewar.

Fleets of chauffeur-driven limousines ferried American executives to a launch party at the Signet Library of unmatched expense – every guest left with an engraved sliver Tiffany pen.

When Cadence opened, its belief was that Scotland was a good place to do business because of the high number of skilled graduates and the favourable patent laws which would make it easy to register new products.

Somehow it never took off, but those conditions still exist and the Colemans believe they have the answer. You’d be lucky to find a box of biros at Argyle House and keeping costs down while encouraging excellence and co-operation is the name of their game.

Edinburgh itself is as much a key component to their future as anything. Says Stephen: “This is a unique place, there is an entrepreneurial density, we have amazing universities, there is a great lifestyle to be had here and that is something we are trying to push.

“Our location is crucial because we have scope to expand and it’s not a technology park. And this building might be an ugly baby, but it has amazing views out of every window.”

But not everything in Edinburgh’s growing technological garden is rosy and the big problem remains funding. The government, Scottish Enterprise in particular, should be doing more to invest in basic infrastructure to provide bigger and better launchpads for the innovators who represent the real future, Stephen argues.

And then there are the banks. “For £50,000 you can build a company,” he says, “but companies struggle because they are asking people for investment who don’t understand the businesses.”

RBS, with its much-publicised new entrepreneurial hub in Fred Goodwin’s old executive suite at Gogarburn, might not like to hear that. Maybe it should come down to Argyle House and take a look.

‘MONUMENT TO THE WELFARE STATE’

Designed by Edinburgh architect Michael Laird and completed in 1967, Argyle House was once home to the Department of Social Security and Dr Miles Glendinning, director of the Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies, has described it as a monument to the Welfare State.

It then became the base for a number of government functions, including the Transport Commission, and was finally sold off to a property fund earlier this century. The building is now managed and marketed by services company Telereal Trillium.

There have been numerous proposals for the site, including a new home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Filmhouse, but there are now moves to have it listed as one of the last remaining examples of “Brutalist” architecture.

A particular champion is Euan Leitch of the Built Environment Forum Scotland and a former assistant director of the Cockburn Association.

LINEHAN LINE-UP LOOKING GOOD

Edinburgh Festival director Fergus Linehan, below, will be feeling pretty pleased with the reaction to his first programme, revealed on Wednesday.

Critics warmed quickly to a selection with strong Scottish representation throughout, from art school rockers Franz Ferdinand (with 70s pop curios Sparks) marking the opening up of the Festival to popular music, to the stage production of Alasdair Gray’s great novel Lanark.

The return of the acclaimed 2013 Untitled Projects’ Confessions Of A Justified Sinner will be a hit and the opening Harmonium Project event in Festival Square marks a significant departure.

There is intriguing stuff too in the opera programme; The Last Hotel, a brand new opera from leading Irish artists, composer Donnacha Dennehy and writer Enda Walsh, about “life, death, duty and guilt”, is bound to attract global attention.

And Mozart’s Magic Flute from Berlin’s Komische Oper features silent movies and 1920s experimental German cinema techniques. Cool, Adolf, as the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band once said.