Crowdsourcing cities

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Devolution and leadership could be the key to Britain’s digital future – Richard Angell visits Andy Burnham’s digital summit in Manchester

First published on ProgressOnline

Last week, Andy Burnham opened his second ‘digital summit’ since being elected Greater Manchester mayor in May with a bold vision to make Manchester the United Kingdom’s ‘leading digital city, and top five in Europe’. Burnham did so knowing that his counterparts in other city regions are hot on this heels.

But he set out six reasons why the city that showed such resilience when hit by terrorism earlier in year will win out.

Two have long been in Manchester’s favour. Its creative sector is already established and well-networked in the city and the wider region. It works well with the emerging digitalise tech sector, in many way is the same thing and is what is driving further innovation. In addition, the presence of advanced manufacturing in the region sees companies investing in new tech on an ongoing basis.

Three were around the convening power of the mayoral office and combined authority. At the summit he launched, on recommendation of the first event, a strategic partnership with the national agency Digital Catapult. ‘Joining forces,’ attendees were told, ‘will enable Greater Manchester to improve its digital infrastructure – for example providing better, free public wifi and 5G mobile data provision.’ In addition, the mayor launched ‘a new online system – BridgeGM.co.uk – designed to improve careers experiences for young people, raise their aspirations, and enable them to seize the opportunities available in Greater Manchester’s fast-growing tech sector.’ This, it is hoped, will get young people thinking about new pathways and link young Mancunians from all backgrounds into the employment that the digital and tech sector creates. To date, diversity is lagging in a sector that is so dynamic, supposedly inclusive and at the cutting edge. Burnham also pointed to the health devolution – unique to his city region deal – as an opportunity to really transform public services alongside the private sector.

Finally, the mayor does not want to do this ‘to, but with’ his city. He announced a new approach: ‘By crowdsourcing our plan, Greater Manchester is also doing politics differently and driving real change from the bottom up.’ Time will tell if he is proved right.

Following Burnham’s opening keynote was the Estonian member of parliament Arto Aas. As former minister for public administration, he charted the digital transformation of his home land and caused lots of exciting when he offered his audience a Brexit opt-out: e-citizenship of the former Soviet state. Raising the ambition of everyone, Aas said Estonia believes the ‘internet is a social right’ – making digital inclusive integral not an after thought. This is still not the case in the UK with many assuming their fellow citizen have the same access to fast broadband, iPads and laptops that they have. Public services can be particularly bad at this. Talking to the Progressive Britain podcast – which you can listen to here when it comes out Tuesday morning – I asked Burnham about the change in approach needed: ‘The truth is, we are living in time when society is being more fragmented, more unequal. If people aren’t able to keep up to date with digital skills and knowledge then they potentially will be left behind.’

As important, he argues is that young people need ‘not just the tech skills – programming, coding and the like – but the literacy online to know what’s fake and what’s not’. This is going to be key to the next phase of the strategy. He has convinced the BBC, who recently moved to Salford, to lead on a programme of work in this area.

The mayor of Greater Manchester has no formal powers on digital and tech. It will not appear in the city deal or any devolution arrangement. But, like his work on homelessness, it shows the power of local leader. When public officials use their convening power to bring people together, great down silos and foster collaboration, it is amazing what can happen. Burnham is, once again, leading the way.

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Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets at @RichardAngellbuilding-Manchester5

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