Manchester – Next Generation Digital City

A packed auditorium at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on Friday 15 January 2010 was greeted by an enthusiastic launch by Insider of Manchester – Next Generation Digital City.

An initiative that aims to put Manchester at the forefront of UK business competitiveness by laying the foundations for exciting, innovative digital and technology-based businesses to flourish.  This will be achieved by leading the pack (well, a close second behind North Wales) in laying state-of-the-art fibre networks to deliver blistering broadband speed for businesses (and residential users).  To put things in perspective, the example was given by Geo, Chief Executive, Chris Smedley (the company that will lay the cables) of a residential user seeking to download a typical 4GB movie  – today this would practically take all day to download whereas this could be downloaded in just 46 seconds once the new networks are laid!

Dave Carter (Head of Manchester Digital Development Agency) in particular roused the audience with an impassioned plea for Manchester to lead the charge, citing frustration over push-backs and retorts such as:

  1. “There is no market for this otherwise the market would have invested in and built it themselves” – how about the importance of the Manchester Ship Canal to Manchester’s economic prominence in the early industrial age as a counter to this….?
  2. “This is too fast for most existing applications – why do we want this now?” – because businesses will find ways to utilise it to its full potential once it is there to be used – the burgeoning Manchester creative and film industry needs this now as explained by Dave Mousley of Red Vision
  3. “Let’s wait and see how other cities get on before we invest” – Dave Carter likened this to sitting out the next Olympics to see how other countries fared in the hope that we could steal a march next time – it just doesn’t work this way!

References to “iPhone to iManc” and the quest to follow the likes of Stockholm and Amsterdam to become Smart Cities were also crowd-pleasers.

I sensed that the excitement was mixed with a little frustration when the test-bed area was shown as a disappointingly small pocket of North Manchester – before being extended across Manchester in due course.  Equally, the innovative idea of using existing sewerage and tram line systems to lay the networks rather than causing the disruption of digging up roads etc was tinged with concern when a throw-away comment was made by Chris Smedley that they still needed to reach agreement with United Utilities plc who own the sewerage systems …. a point that was picked up by a member of the audience during the Q&A.

Brendan Dawes (Creative Director of Magnetic North) made the poigniant point that he looked forward to the day when he could move on from living in what sometimes appears to be a Victorian Age and enjoy the advancements of living in a digital 21st Century  e.g. he currently wakes up in a Victorian town to travel to work on a Victorian tramline to admire the Victorian Manchester architechture  – “if only the wireless 3G network would allow Spotify to work properly whilst sitting on the tram!”

Another discussion which sparked interest was the notion that truly opening up to the potential of the digital age could allow individuals (young and old) to make game-changing products and services.  Digital business is a leveller in providing a level playing field for both small and BIG corporate businesses.   Reference was made by Brendan to a young guy who he met at SXSW who said he was leaving Apple to set up a new business with Jack Dorsey (co-founder of Twitter).  This business turns out to be the recently launched Square – a game-changing business that is set to blow credit card providers and potentially even cash into the dark ages:

“and this was created by a kid and NOT some corporate team in suits working for one of the major banking institutions.”

A great point well made.

If you’ve yet to see the potential of Square – here’s a taster:

I had to leave the event promptly for a client meeting so I was unable to hang around to chat, however, I couldn’t help but feel that this was the right sentiment and that things are going in the right direction but we need to see the test-bed site rolled out as soon as possible before a) there is the risk of loss of momentum and / or b) the nay-sayers sense weakness and put the brakes on.  There is also a potential change in government that could derail this ambitious project given public and fiscal tightening.

Let’s hope that the first fibre networks are laid as soon as possible as I believe that what might seem like a bold move now is likely to be viewed as one of the best things that Manchester ever did in years to come (like the Manchester Ship Canal).

Please share your views.

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