So, the recent release of Tech City's 'Tech Nation' report has thrown the nation into a bit of a debate - especially those with a keen interest in the sector. Being smack bang in the middle of Manchester's digital community, it's something I've been following closely.
Now here's the part that really grasped my interest. Alongside the report, it was announced that Manchester's Northern Quarter will be the home of regional hub TechNorth - the project which will apparently co-ordinate the existing digital technology expertise of Northern tech clusters. TechNorth claims it will create new jobs; develop and nurture talent; and lead to the North's digital businesses providing a more apparent contribution to the UK's wider economy.
I do think all the positivity and debate drummed up around the whole initiative is great and any additional focus and support given towards this is fantastic. I do, however, have concerns that the Government aren't seeing the whole Northern picture and do not fully appreciate the scale and scope of what is already happening here. For instance, the Tech Nation report really downplays the strengths of the Greater Manchester tech cluster.
And here's where I think the brunt of this issue lies: decisions are ultimately coming from the top - and enforcing a top down structure is the worst thing we could do. Those making judgements on the current state of the industry aren't entrenched in the everyday happenings of the sector, and aren't aware of what's going on beneath the surface. The only way this initiative will be a success will be if it works seamlessly with the business associations already established across the North. TechNorth's goals need to be transparent and it must ensure accountability to our existing digital community.
Another gripe for me is that it looks like TechNorth will be reporting into Tech City UK in London. While I have no doubts that links with the capital will prove beneficial - they already do - we don't want to create a situation where decisions which will set the direction of how the North's digital and tech sectors will develop are ultimately being overseen by bodies in London. If power is going to be devolved to the regions, it needs to be done properly. Almost three quarters of the UK's 470,000 digital technology businesses are based outside London, so it seems silly for decisions to be coming from the capital. I'm sure others would agree?
Decision makers need to fully understand the issues faced by the North's digital sector and realise that each cluster is at a different stage of development and has individual strengths and weaknesses. Unless we recognise what makes each city a unique and valuable contributor there is a risk of homogenising the Northern tech industry. We must have separate strategies in place which focus on harnessing the skills and capabilities of each city.
I don't want this post to sound like a rant. I'd rather call it a passionate assessment of the situation. I do think it's a great move, just not as well thought out as it could have been. Of course, increased collaboration across can only be a positive thing. I want to make this work as much as anyone else - and probably more than many in fact. So here's what I think is needed in order to facilitate success. TechNorth must:
a) Engage more effectively with the North's digital community and work with existing infrastructure: When resource is sparse, it makes no sense to waste it, so we should be using the delivery mechanisms already in place and making the most of the work we're already doing across multiple cities.
b) Gain trust amongst the rest of the sector: Be transparent about TechNorth's progress and ensure accountability to existing industry. The sector should be given honest, regular updates and be able to give feedback.
c) Look at the wider picture: Upgrading current transport links and technical infrastructure will be key elements of the initiative's success.
By considering these suggestions, I have no doubt that the TechNorth initiative could be a roaring success and I'm hugely excited at the prospect of our already buzzing tech sector becoming even more dynamic.