Greater Manchester Digital and Tech Summit

Loz Kaye Politics, Technology

Greater Manchester has laid out its ambitions to harness the power of technology and spark a new digital revolution which will connect people, businesses and communities – firmly establishing the city-region as the UK’s number one digital city.

One core pledge that Andy Burnham made during the election campaign for the new Greater Manchester city region mayor post was to hold a digital and tech summit to announce the ambition to be a world-leading digital city. “Tech and digital has got to be a core part of our story as a city region going forward,” he said.

“Tech and digital has got to be a core part of our story as a city region going forward,” - Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester.
This is a field where the new metro mayor can make a concrete difference. In terms of devolved powers, business development, skills and capital spending all need to be informed by the needs and opportunities of the digital economy. Equally the soft power of the mayor can help to profile the city-region internationally, and pull together the right people at a high enough level to make real progress.

The mayor delivered on the promise within 3 months, with an event held at the Museum of Science and Industry bringing together a wide range of key players in the sector from business, education, local authorities, grass-roots and innovators. I attended on behalf of Open Intelligence to help contribute to the debate.

Andy Burnham talking about Manchester as a Digital City

Manchester certainly has clout in the sector, it has the 4th highest digital turnover in the UK at £2.9 billion. Even so, introducing the event Andy Burnham did point out some challenges. Overall Manchester lies 16th out of 60 in the European Digital City Index, with both Oxford and Cambridge ahead. Much potential still needs to be tapped.

He also framed the purpose in a social context. Being a well connected city is not just about connectivity, it is connecting young people to job opportunities, it is connecting citizens together to combat loneliness and access services.

The debate

Panel debates helped to frame the approach of the day and bring contributions from thought leaders.  These divided in to 3 key areas:

  • Creating globally successful Greater Manchester business
  • Making a difference with digital
  • Disruptive and emerging innovations

The aim of the day was to arrive at action points to further the goal of a establish an ambitious digital and tech plan for the city-region. Participants generated suggestions for workshops and debate using the Meetoo app, allowing for a fluid evolving agenda. There was much lively discussion in the workshops and a well facilitated process to focusing in the natural enthusiasm of rooms full of innovators and disruptors!

There was something of a tension between wanting to concentrate on very concrete issues to be addressed such as infrastructure (which was dubbed by one participant as “the BT problem”), and a desire to address “soft” values, such as promoting a particular Manchester creative / entrepreneurial spirit. In our view both have their place.

Some dominant themes were:

Connectivity and infrastructure

A key area to address was the ongoing frustration that connectivity is not sufficient for business’ needs and that assets aren’t coordinated. On the European Digital City Index Manchester lies 35 out of 60 on digital infrastructure. Strategic planning should be taking digital infrastructure in to account. An overall mapping of digital resources and assets is needed for joined up thinking.

Skills Gap

Many (though not all) businesses cited difficulty in recruitment and enough candidates with the right skills as a problem for growth. To address this the mayor announced a £2 million digital skills fund, and challenged business to contribute.

Routes to employment and start-ups

To address recruitment and growing the start-up ecosystem action on getting advice to young people about routes in to the sector. This was even on a basic level of knowing that for example the gaming industry is a viable career option.

Agile businesses

There was much emphasis that digital and tech tools are enablers for all businesses, and that constant innovation and awareness of a wide ranges of developments are necessary. Manchester City football gave the example that they never launched a TV station as it is too slow moving as a platform for their needs.

Trust and engagement in local authorities

In terms of the public sector the innovate use of digital communication was highlighted to increase trust and engagement. The nature of digital tools can and should allow local authorities to move beyond a broadcasting mode to real dialogue with residents. With programmes such as health and social care data sharing an ethical approach and informed citizens is needed for trust and consent.

Mentoring the community to use digital tools

There was concern that more action was needed to make sure that everyone has access to the benefits and opportunities of the digital economy and society. Peer to peer and mentoring in digital skills sharing were flagged up as the most effective and trusted ways forward.

The next steps are the forming of a digital and tech action plan out of the discussion points of the day, and a new summit in December to move it on.

At a point in the UK where there is much uncertainty and not a little pessimism about the future, it was refreshing to be at event where the participants are excited about the future and keen to address challenges. In concluding remarks the mayor emphasised the potential for the plan to be a “game changing”.

 

The game may well be indeed changing in the city-regions.

Loz Kaye
Loz is a sought after media commentator, debater and campaigner.
His interest areas are surveillance, the digital economy, culture, city devolution, Nordic countries.

His media appearances and writing range from BBC radio and television, CNN, The Guardian, Le Monde, The Big Issue, Attitude, Wired to FHM.
His talk and debate credits include for the LSE, The Dublin Philosophical Society, The Adam Smith Institute, the Financial Times ‘Rethinking the Internet Conference’, Trinity College Engineering department, Discuss Manchester.

He leads on Open Intelligence Future Scoping and Media offers.