Lessons from Moscow: Manchester should focus on what it does best – and what it could do better

The old fish market in Manchester's Northern Quarter. Image: Getty.

The first in a series of articles in which Nesta focuses on how Northern Powerhouse city regions are working to catalyse growth, and explores what lessons soon-to-be devolved metro governments could learn from looking beyond the much heralded model of London to other cities around the world. The series draws on the innovation charity's recent report CITIE Northern Powerhouse Analysis.

The Greater Manchester digital startup scene is undoubtedly thriving. Between 2010 and 2014, the city region recorded the largest increase in UK digital sector GVA (Gross Value Added) and employment of anywhere outside of London.

Nowhere is this growth more apparent than in the buzzing Northern Quarter. Forget the Silicon Roundabout: this collection of warehouse-lined streets feels like the beating heart of hipsterfied techdom.

But the nerve centre of this digital and creative revolution is actually some way west of the city centre at MediaCityUK. There, on the banks of the historic Manchester Ship Canal, there is another industrial revolution taking place.

Opened in 2011 this towering development of commercial and work spaces dominates not only the Salford skyline but also Greater Manchester’s tech scene. MediaCityUK is the base of the BBC’s vast northern operation, and houses the dock10 TV post-production studios. But it’s also home to the Greenhouse – a digital SME co-working space – and interactive entertainment hub the Landing.

This range of digital and tech spaces has proven increasingly attractive to start-ups, with leading accelerators and incubators such as Entrepreneurial Spark & Ignite also setting up shop. Like the Graphene for which the city is becoming world-renowned, the future for Manchester’s tech sector is looking very robust.

Central to the successful growth of the tech industry in Manchester has been the long history of cooperation between its ten local councils. The government’s devolution agenda – which will allow city hall to set its own budgets in areas like business support spending – should provide even more opportunities for a new Greater Manchester Authority to nurture further expansion of digital industries in the city.

When the time comes, the newly-minted mayor of the region could make use of the city’s digital pedigree, and demonstrate some its newfound freedom from a detached Westminster government, by using tech tools to engage its citizens much more in policymaking.

They could follow the example of city hall in Moscow, which since 2014 has used an app called “Active Citizen” to ask Muscovites to give their opinions on a variety of city issues, including transport, healthcare and education. The resulting feedback is then aggregated, with the city government committing within two weeks to respond as to how it will look to implement the suggestions. When citizens vote, they receive points which can be cashed in for credit towards bike rental, car parking and theatre tickets.

From the Chartists to Emmeline Pankhurst, there is a storied history of politically engaged Mancunians. Whatever the final makeup of the city region government, they should honour this legacy and look to foster citizen engagement as enthusiastically as they have tech startups.

David Altabev is Senior Programme Manager in Government Innovation at Nesta.


On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.

He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.