Manchester - time to stop bitching. Time to embrace REAL collaboration.
At our SmartCity event last week there were loads of great ideas to lift our city. Plenty of passion and a real burst of energy. This wasn’t just on the things you’d expect from a business network, but on subjects like food production, waste disposal, street lighting and money.
We also talked about London quite a lot. Manchester’s relationship with the capital is always a slightly thorny one. To be honest, I’m always happier not to. I’d rather talk about Manchester.
As the Tory magazine editor Fraser Nelson said in the Daily Telegraph last week – “Manchester does not behave like it wants to be Britain’s second city: it behaves like it wants to be the first.”
I like it that he says that and I like it because it’s at least partly true. But I actually wish it I wish it were really true.
Since June last year and my life changing visit to Silicon Valley in March, I have been determined to embrace the spirit of partnership and collaboration and help to join up the dots.
There is so much to co-operate on, so many opportunities in the city to do things for the betterment of the city. To simply focus on a narrow short term interest does no-one any favours. It just reinforces the image of the great cities of the North as parochial fiefdoms.
We have introduced businesses to new opportunities, opened the door to politicians of all colours and recommended companies to one another. It’s what we do and is all part of a wider mission to be a more grown-up city.
Yet I have been properly depressed at times to find myself on the other side of a fault line, drifting away from people I genuinely want to work with and share ideas with, but who have fallen back on supposed enmities and rivalries to the exclusion of, well, me. I genuinely thought I’d left that all behind in 1983 when I left school.
I’ve also been caught in the crossfire on some nasty personal battles that really should be beneath those involved.
We all have a duty to our businesses to succeed in a competitive environment. I get that. But what I don’t get is the nastiness. It’s just not necessary and it narrows your horizons.
So, here are the questions I’d like you to ponder.
Do the media do justice to the conversations that take place around the city – the initiatives that require backing, not just the ones they are media partners on?
Do the Universities really want to open their doors to the people of Manchester and share knowledge and expertise – and even to work with one another?
And is there a willingness amongst technology businesses of what they might require from an active financial and professional community, rather than just a slightly grumpy complaint they don’t understand the sector?
I’d like to think the answers to all of the above are “yes”. But I suspect, if we’re honest, they are “no”. I’d like to change all of that. Do you want to work with me?
Why Russell Brand is a little bit right about globalization and politics, but why he is still wrong about pretty much everything else
Florid, flirtatious and fun. But also angry. Russell Brand has this week been elevated to some kind of spokesman for a generation. He guest edited the left-wing current affairs magazine the New Statesman and contributed a long essay about the importance of changing the way we think.
His entertaining interview with a glum and not very serious Jeremy Paxman (above) showed this to more people, via YouTube, than had ever even heard of the New Statesman.
It’s easy to pick holes in his comfortable pontificating from his mansion in LA, and to pick up on everything stupid thing he ever did, as this guy does here. but he has a point. And he may have hit a nerve.
I’m with Simon Kelner in the Independent when he said this: “His call for revolution may be Spartist nonsense, but Brand definitely articulates a strain of thinking among a growing number of young people who feel disenfranchised, disenchanted, disengaged and, most important, disinterested in the idea that politics can change the world.”
A session I went to at the University of Manchester this week saw four white men in suits presenting policy ideas from their respective think tanks. Yet it only really ignited when a member of the audience evoked the spirit of Rusty and asked if he was on to something or was insane. And this was in a room full of people who WANT to talk about policy and politics and all the things that are supposed to be so boring.
So what do we do? How do we engage and entertain and make relevant the things we seek to do?
The first is that we must seek out interesting people with creative solutions to difficult problems. How they talk, how they think and yes, how they look. People like Al Mackin, holder of our Tony Award, who has recently been to Tel Aviv and has a few things to say about what he found. People like Vincent Walsh who is rethinking our whole approach to food production in the city of the future.
Have I got your attention? Anyway, all this and more is on offer at our SmartCity event on the 13th of November.
You see, I don’t think we need a revolution in this country. I don’t think the system is fixed against everyone. I think there are plenty of revolutionary opportunities to make change and do things better and with more fun.
Working smarter, making our city smarter - come and see Emma Jones
Over dinner this week we debated five years of the new austerity. With us was John Young, the Bank of England’s man in the North West, who I’ve known for a decade. John’s job is to listen to businesses in the region, write reports, explain Bank policy and make recommendations about interest rates, money supply and bank regulation.
I can’t go into details because we run such occasions under Chatham House rules, but one guest made the plea that as we emerge out of recession and as businesses loosen he purse strings that old habits don’t creep back in. We hoped that the recession has forced us to work leaner and smarter and we are actually better off for it.
It’s a theme I keep returning too. And one of the consistently enjoyable and enthusiastic thought leaders of new business in this country is Emma Jones. She runs an organization called Enterprise Nation and will is still well known in Manchester from her time here a decade ago when she ran Techlocate after a spell at Arthur Andersen (way before that all went horribly wrong, I should add).
Among many other ideas, Emma first championed the agenda of the kitchen table entrepreneur. People would start a business from home, often working from 5 to 9 in the evening, before they quit their jobs and started a business on lean principles. Some of these businesses remain small, but many explode to be new enterprises employing staff and creating wealth. Helping them is Emma’s mission.
Now she’s also spearheading Start-Up Britain, a movement that supports new businesses and earned an MBE for her efforts.
What lies behind her success is the quiet entrepreneurial revolution that has gone on largely unnoticed. It’s a social trend that economists, journalists and politicians haven’t properly computed yet. The seismic changes in the economy have run in parallel to a massive shift in how people work and use technology.
Interested? Good, because, Emma’s joining us for our Smart City conference on the 13th of November at MOSI. Also talking in the same session will be Futurologist Tom Cheesewright, who I’ve worked with recently on a conference for Daisy Group and is a brilliant speaker and thinker. You might have heard Tom on the BBC whenever there’s a new technology product, but that barely touches the surface of his insights.
Emma has also asked me to say she’ll also be at the O2 Business Show Live the day before, where people will have the chance to play with new devices, see 4G in action and use Office 365 to see how it will benefit their business.
There’s loads more at Smart City, ideas, practical plans to make our city work better and a terrific market place of products and services.
Vikas Shah – Renaissance Man
I presented the Chairman’s Award at the 2013 Mancoolian Awards. It went to Vikas Shah, someone who I’ve got to know over the course of the last year or two.
Vikas is one of those people in business in Manchester who makes things just that little bit more interesting. Though he works in his family business Swiscot, a textiles company, what makes him interesting is the range of different things he does.
He’s been involved in setting up the Greater Manchester Film Festival, has produced a couple of films, he supports a number of different entrepreneurs – many of them with the aim to pushing the agenda of Manchester and making it a great city to do business in.
One of the first things about him that caught my eye was his blog – Thought Economics. It will never win any wards for design but for content it is quite something. Over the course of the last few years Vikas has managed to interview some of the leading thinkers and influencers on the planet., including Nobel Prize winners, business leaders and people who are changing the world through incredible work in Africa and Asia. And then there’s Sir Richard Branson. We may disagree slightly on the bearded one, but Vikas still landed a good interview.
His work with a business school in Portugal and with Manchester Business School reminds us of the need to give in order to get. He has found new opportunities through working with entrepreneurs and start-ups that need that injection of energy, ides and inspiration.
What Vikas reminded me of was the whole essence of the Renaissance Man – the multi-faceted, intellectually curious and enigmatic risk taker. Sometimes people who don’t fit the profile of the straight laced corporate man attract suspicion, rather than admiration. As entrepreneur Luke Johnson says in his book Start It Up – “Centuries ago there were no sharp divisions between state and the private sector, between science and the art. Bring back that enlightened approach!”
To me it represents something important about Manchester as well. Successful Mancunians have always had that streak of curiosity and daring about them. It was therefore an absolute delight to present Vikas with that award and to mark his move into such exalted company.
Is Manchester really a Smart City?
I love Manchester, I talk my city up as much as anyone. But we’ve got to understand what a Smart City is before we can claim to be one.
A Smart City is one that uses information to make better decisions, deploy resources more intelligently, all in the cause of improvement and enhancement.
Here’s what’s going on locally, according to the BIS statement: “Greater Manchester is working to take advantage in development on the use of data, such as mobile phone data, vehicle systems, satellite data and camera data. They are developing an approach to bring all of this data together to create an oversight of the city. This would then be able to be used for things such as seeing where people flows might have an impact on the transport system. This would result in creating more efficient and reliable routes and giving selective priority to buses on certain routes.”
I welcome all of this, but to be honest, some common sense wouldn’t hurt either, before we rely on technology to tell us what to do. It might give everyone pause for thought about what ‘smart’ actually means.
Who thought it ‘smart’ to reduce the traffic flows from the East Lancs Road and the M61 through Salford Crescent, by making Chapel Street a semi-pedestrian walk through? The alternative route offers poor signage that abandons you as you peel off the A6 and try to find a route to the city centre. One problem is solved, another is created by the unintended consequences that followed.
Who manages the people flows on Piccadilly station at peak times when no-one on the station seems to know which train is which, or when the next train is leaving? Then there is the seemingly random nature of Metrolink tram destinations.
Should a modern ‘wired city’ see its citizens have such problems trying to access 3G networks at lunchtime in the city centre, or at a City or United game?
So, personal gripes over. But behind these mundane challenges, if Manchester really is a Smart City then these problems would be solved. But more than that, a really common sense smart city wouldn’t need data to explain the obvious and make decisions for you. Sometimes we have a utopian view that technology will free us from this chaos. But actually greater strides can only be made towards being a smarter city if people start using their brains a bit more.
Here’s another related point. I am always amazed at how ill-informed people are about different cultural and infrastructure developments around the city. News doesn’t travel fast any more, it hardly travels at all. We may know about the top items that trend on Twitter and what’s in the Metro (often the same thing), but beyond that? Confusion reigns. We are not getting our news from social media instead of traditional media channels, we are just getting more and more noise about fewer and fewer things, some of which we actively seek out because they are important to us. But there is very little shared experience. Instead informal back channels of communication are enhancing what we know about our deep personal interests.
All of this comes to us at a time when there has never been a greater energy about the city, yet there has never been a greater level of misunderstanding. Ultimately that worries me, because not understanding often leads to fear and mistrust.
At Downtown we’re actually quite optimistic about all of this. At the risk of sounding elitist and intellectual, smart people will gravitate towards the places where other smart people gather. Ideas will flow, solutions will emerge.
Part of that is this new business I’m involved in called Discuss, where we are holding regular debates that celebrate and stimulate Manchester’s intellectual heritage. Part of that too is our Smart City conference at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry in November. We’ve assembled a sparkling array of speakers. All of them will make you better informed, all of them will make you think about how technology and better use of data can improve our lives.
Where else can we learn from around the world? Well, there’s Tel Aviv, the real entrepreneurial hot spot of a troubled region. Packed full of new technology businesses and a thriving ecosystem. Al Mackin from Manchester business The eWord will be feeding back his findings from there.
Sometimes these type of events are full of confusing nonsense. Trust me this one will be plain speaking and full of good practical ideas.
Let’s have the emotional and excitable case for HS2, please
It’s tempting to say we’d like to see a grown-up, mature and evidence-based case made for High Speed Rail, but to be honest I’d also like to see a quirky, excitable and emotional debate too.
I was at a special event with the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin on Tuesday evening. There he was presented with a well argued case for HS2 from an august group of business leaders from around the North West, notably Jurgen Maier of Siemens, the current chairman of the North West Business Leadership Team. And not for McLaughlin the coded messages about blank cheques transmitted a week earlier by Ed Balls. No, the Tories are determined that HS2 will happen and that the whole country will benefit from a well delivered project.
The case for HS2 has been rather meekly made so far. I speak to many businesses and the biggest gripe is that they fail to see the relevance of a long term project that will get you to London quicker, this from Lawrence Jones of UK Fast is typical: “We don’t need to get to London quicker. It’s a waste of money when we don’t have enough to go around, and it’s not all about London, which already gets the lion’s share of all our taxes.”
Then the argument about capacity on the West Coast main line seems to get confused with how many empty seats there are in First Class during off peak periods. So when Labour’s Andy Burnham met a few of us recently he was slightly taken aback by the lack of enthusiasm for HS2 and the weakening of the supposed cross party consensus.
People also feel that budgets in their billions sound like an awful lot of money. It is a lot of money. But it is still a modestly small proportion of the rail budget if you take a long term view and measure it against all the other transport plans.
And after the dripping of negativity from Ed Balls at Labour conference, it must have been encouraging for city council leaders like Sir Richard Leese in Manchester to see beyond party politics and welcome a Conservative government supporting a project he feels passionately about, because he feels it will benefit Manchester.
Richard has acknowledged too that he’s been criticised in his own party for sharing platforms with Tory ministers: “Today I shared a platform with the Secretary of State for Transport and had no problem whatsoever. We were talking about HS2, something I passionately believe in, and something that like all long-term infrastructure programmes needs cross-party consensus to deliver. Sometimes it’s more difficult but at the end of the day they are the party of government. Every day they make decisions that impact on this city and its citizens. My job involves standing up for Manchester and that means I should take every opportunity to argue Manchester’s case with the decision makers in Whitehall.”
That’s why I want a bit of vision and passion in the debate too. I like trains. I like new technology and I get excited about dramatic advances in how we live. I like a bit of vision and bold thinking. Indeed it was heartening to hear George Osborne evoke the spirit of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the greatest of British engineers.
So in making the case for HS2 it has been important to hear how it cost £10bn to improve the current main line. As prime minister David Cameron said at his conference, why settle for less than the best if improvements are needed anyway?
“The fact is this: the West Coast Mainline is almost full. We have to build a new railway and the choice is between another old style Victorian one or a high speed one. Just imagine if someone had said no, you can’t build the M1 or the Severn Bridge, imagine how that would be hobbling our economy today.
“HS2 is about bringing the north and the south together in the national endeavour. Because think how much more we could do with the pistons firing in all parts of our economy.”
But there’s the rub, if this is a North-South thing, then why not build it from here first? I also share the frustration that the consultation and then the timetable for delivering HS2 is “painfully slow”. Patrick McLoughlin revealed to us on Tuesday that the new chairman of HS2, Sir David Higgins, is keen to quicken the pace too.
As the Birmingham to Manchester dimension is in open consultation at the moment I believe it’s important to make the case for building it sooner and to start the work in Manchester, particularly linking the city centre to the Airport.
I commend the report from the North West Business Leadership Team, which can be downloaded here. The main point is that HS2 has to be part of a range of measures that tackle problems in how road, rail and air transport functions effectively. It requires a fresh way of looking at the economy of the country, it requires a shift in thinking about how we view the country, it requires, as we’ve been saying for a while, a Northern Revolution.
Labour isn’t the party of small business just because it says it is so
Peter Mandelson defined New Labour’s relationship with the City and big business by stating that he was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’. It set the mood music for the boom years of the last decade. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown enjoyed a reasonably good relationship with big business up to, but probably not including, the financial crash of 2008.
But business relations have soured. Both on economic management and red tape, the Tories have secured the high ground. Not a single FTSE 250 chief executive backed Labour at the last election.
Days before Labour’s conference this week Downtown brought a couple of dozen members together for an audience with front bench heavyweight Andy Burnham MP at Manchester Science Park (pictured above, with Rowena Burns from MSP). One of the points I put towards him was the shift going on in our cities and business parks and Labour’s need to engage better with businesses beyond the square mile of the City of London.
The demographic of Britain is changing. The last couple of years has seen record levels of new company formations and new businesses. According to the Start-Up Britain Tracker 382,792 new businesses have been started this year. That enormous figure may mask a multitude of different stories – it includes one-man bands, sole traders, kitchen table eBay traders, shell companies as well as a fully fledged companies with dreams of world domination.
What they all represent is that thread of aspiration through British society. A desire to get on, improve one’s lot and make money.
I wanted to know if there was room for any of that in Andy Burnham’s radical ‘aspirational socialism’ agenda which underpinned his earlier leadership bid. We have been comfortable so far with the soundings we have had with Lord Adonis as he embarks upon his Growth Review.
Too often, Labour’s left leaning rhetoric has betrayed a lack of trust and empathy with the wealth creating classes, focusing firmly on taxes, fat cats and if you close your eyes and listen to Ed Balls spit the word out – “millionaires”.
Many of the 382, 792 will not become the “millionaires” that Ed Balls thinks were undeserving of a tax cut from 50 per cent to 45 per cent once they earned £150,000 a year. But they’re not stupid either. They hear that and think – he’s going to come after me once I make a bit of money for myself. They might not pack it in, but they’ll switch off when Labour come calling.
Ed Miliband was at least right in his instincts this week when he identified an opportunity to make a Labour pitch to be the party of small business. Small companies are often the forgotten and downtrodden underdog in a supply chain, the victims of cartels and stitch ups, shut out from the closed shops of procurement processes by bureaucracy and a high bar for admission to government frameworks.
A policy to cut business rates was a step in the right direction. So too is Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna’s imaginative lifting of the Small Business Saturday project from America, but there is still a great deal more work to be done to convince anyone in a business that the state is on their side, whatever the party.
Take what Chuka Umunna told the Daily Telegraph this week: “We want to celebrate companies that have good business models, which promote long-term sustainable value creation, who value their people and see business as part of society. During our time in government, we weren’t always discerning about the kinds of business models and practices we want to see.”
I’d like to know this: Where is Labour placing the tidemark on these models? No, OK, putting kids up chimneys is off, but cold calling? Lending money? Private healthcare? Entrepreneurial people tend to spot opportunities better than government. They should be supported when they do so. That support should be unconditional, otherwise the aspiration isn’t to support small business at all, just to support cool people we like, and the rest of you can just pay your tax and shut up.