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.