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The importance of learning from history

Written by Liz Copeland, Head of Customer Insight at Knowledge Hub

How privileged we were at Digital Leaders North West last week to welcome our nominated Digital Leaders Local Champion of the year for the region, Dave Carter, Honorary Research Fellow at Manchester University, MadLab Chair and formerly of the Manchester Digital Development Agency. Liz Copeland of Knowledge Hub tells us more…

Dave came to speak to us about building digital DNA in the region and how his work has contributed to doing that over the years. Indeed, it was a fascinating session that taught us, not only so much about how the North West, and Manchester in particular, had emerged as a key player in UK technological development, but also prepared us for what the region – and the country generally – may face in the future.

Three key things came out of the session for me:

  • how we have so much to learn from what has gone before;
  • how digital development and economic development have been inextricably linked in the North West’s progress over the years;
  • and how we need to be ready for some key challenges just around the corner.

Lessons learnt

Dave Carter began by giving us a synopsis of some of the key moments throughout his career working in digital development for Manchester City Council. He emphasised that often the city had made bold decisions and on many occasions these had really paid off. For example, through real engagement with local communities and groups to support the development of digital work, or the commitment to a science park and proper link between the city, its people and the universities.

He cited learning lessons from other areas of Europe – and not always from regions you would consider similar to Manchester in any way. He mentioned learning from rural areas of Denmark, because of a realisation that the issues of an ageing population, outdated technology and how to manage the space were the same. In fact, when asked, Dave said he felt that without funding through the European Union and the cooperation and learning from across Europe, much of what had been achieved in Manchester – and many regions outside London – would not have happened.

Of course, Dave also said that for every success, there were probably 10 failures, but learning from the failures as well as the successes is so important. There has often been a tendency to think that everything technologically advanced is a good thing, when in fact, it’s imperative to listen to the critics too and weigh up the pros and cons.

The crucial link between digital and regeneration

One important part of Manchester’s digital success has been the recognition of the link between the digital economy and economic development in the region. For example, the city’s bid to become the country’s first internet exchange outside London, which immediately drew in a huge range of companies all wanting to be ‘near’ the exchange. Or the understanding that the development of a 24-hour economy and bringing in large external events would rely on a strong digital infrastructure to support them.

Dave talked about the Manchester Olympic bids and how a visit to Barcelona (who hosted the 1992 Olympics) was inspirational. The two cities seemed to share a sort of entrepreneurial spirit and creativity that was a key driver to the development of the digital economy. The important point here was that Manchester’s creative community understood the need to embrace the digital agenda; they weren’t digital people trying to be creative. This made a great difference to how companies and the local economy evolved. For example, one of the first ever music download sites was based in the North West.

Dave believes that Manchester has become one of the most advanced and influential second cities globally because of the way it has developed digitally and creatively, and because it has always learnt from, and shared back with, other cities.

The future of our digital DNA

Much of our questioning and discussion during the session focused on the future. Dave talked of a conference he’d been to in Shanghai where the automotive industry was dominant. They predicted that within the next few years, they would only need to retain about 10% of their workforce due to digital developments and the idea of the ‘connected car as a platform’.

While advanced technological developments like this are welcome, we also need to make sure we engage with those whose lives are affected. We must not bury our heads in the sand in terms of what is likely to happen, but instead rise to the challenge of what lies before us. Understanding how digital developments impact on us and how we can ensure they have positive effects is crucial. This will include recognising where skills gaps are, and will be, and how they can be filled – the politics of digital is just around the corner.

Manchester has always benefited from strong digital leadership. This is also where the right leadership is essential.  This was something that the Digital Development Agencies did really well, as they pulled people out of their different industry silos to talk openly across the digital landscape. This engagement-based approach has been tried and tested in Manchester and needs to continue. Indeed it has also worked well in other forward-thinking cities such as Bristol, where a mixture of strong leadership and good engagement has enabled them to take great leaps as a digital city.

In conclusion, Dave talked about Manchester’s great sustainability and resilience and the fantastic new digital creative projects growing up out of companies like MadLab and Manchester FabLab as well as the universities. He was also asked about the Smart Cities projects and said he believes they while they are relatively small, they have the potential to influence, particularly in the areas of energy and health and social care.

It was a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion, but what was obvious is that Manchester has always been, and is still keen to be, at the forefront of digital development. And it’s clear that with such passionate people as the Digital Leaders North West group involved, the city and indeed the whole region, is blessed with some amazing talent and skills to move forward with digital in its DNA.

A short word of thanks

Knowledge Hub has been pleased and proud to support the Digital Leaders North West group for the last two years. While it’s now time for us to move on and for someone else to support the group, we’d like to extend our thanks to everyone who has got involved and contributed their time and their expertise so generously. It’s been an absolute pleasure to meet everyone and share ideas and learning with you all. Special thanks go also to Kevin Harrington for his marvellous chairing of the group. We wish him the very best as he moves on to pastures new at this point too.

We’re certain that Digital Leaders North West will go from strength to strength. We’ve always believed that the sessions should be practical and useful and we were thrilled to hear from one member last week, who after the April meeting on gamification, took loads of ideas back to his company and developed a really successful competition to encourage employees to get involved in raising the profile of the company via social media. This is just one example, but we know there are many more, so please continue to use the Digital Leaders North West group on Knowledge Hub to share your experiences. We’d love to keep in touch and hear how things are going.

The next Digital Leaders North West meeting will be on Tuesday 28 June at the Business Growth Hub in Manchester and will cover digital transformation and SMEs. The date for the July meeting will follow soon, but will be at the BBC in Media City and will look at creativity in the digital industries. Keep an eye on our website for future events and how to book your place.

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