Manchester Digital’s Manifesto: Fuelling northern tech evolution

Aerial view of Manchester city in UK on a beautiful sunny day.
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Manchester Digital has unveiled a Manifesto for the Northern Tech Economy in anticipation of the upcoming mayoral elections scheduled for 2 May.

The industry association’s Manifesto outlines an opportunity to ‘supercharge’ the fastest growing tech hub in Europe outside of London, sharing recommendations to the future Mayor on how to develop a Northern Tech Nexus (NTN) – a collaborative network of northern city-regions to create a new globally significant tech ecosystem.

Katie Gallagher OBE, Managing Director at Manchester Digital, stated: “We see an opportunity to build a powerful northern tech ecosystem with Greater Manchester at its heart.”

Greater Manchester is by some distance the most advanced digital tech economy in the North of England. According to data revealed in the Manifesto, Manchester has 415 high growth companies, five unicorns, and in 2022 raised £680m of investment.

In comparison, Leeds (the next most advanced northern city) raised £323m in 2022, has 373 high growth companies and no unicorns. In fact, Manchester has more high growth companies and unicorns than Cambridge, although the southern city raised £910m in 2022.

Furthermore, research by the Beauhurst Group revealed that last year, Manchester University enjoyed the greatest growth in terms of the proportion of spinout population – the ratio or percentage of companies that have been spun out from a particular entity or institution.

Beauhurst found that a total of 84 companies have spun out from the University of Manchester, including six exits: three have been acquired and three have had Initial Public Offerings (IPOs).

These figures reveal Greater Manchester’s “untapped potential” and places the region in the prime position to lead the way in creating a NTN.

The recommendations

Manchester Digital has shared recommendations for the future Mayor, which are aimed at boosting local talent and skills and fostering innovation to accelerate growth and development of this critical sector.

Gallagher added: “We want to work closely with the Mayor to create a combined northern approach to tech growth and innovation, harnessing core strengths across different city-regions to propel future growth on a larger scale.

“The recommendations in our Manifesto focus on the achievement of that goal, boosting innovation and skills in the process.”

To do so, the association has said that the Mayor should look to stage an annual international Northern Tech Summit, engaging tech companies, venture capital firms, educational leaders and politicians, as well as launch a specific workstream through which academic and business leaders develop new pathways from education into work.

In 2020, the current Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham was among the roster of speakers to open up the Digital City Festival, which placed a key focus on fintech and digital tech.

Other suggestions include the creation of a new collaborative forum that includes regional conferences, meetings and committees, the introduction of a Regional Digital Investment Fund – managed by a Board with representatives from government, private finance, academic institutions and major companies.

Manchester Digital has also recommended that the future Mayor should advocate and collaborate with local and national governments, as well as private sector partners, aiming to invest in infrastructure projects necessary to support a thriving tech ecosystem, among other suggestions for not only the Mayor, but the local and central government.

The three step plan

Through following these suggestions and the others made in the Manifesto, Manchester Digital has constructed three pillars that the enhancement of the tech economy would be built upon.

Firstly, is the creation of the NTN. As mentioned above, Greater Manchester has all the ingredients that a thriving digital economy requires. However, the association urges the future Mayor to learn from other successful tech ecosystems around the world, especially Silicon Valley. 

The Manifesto states: “Silicon Valley’s development into a global tech hub was not orchestrated by a single policy or organisation but evolved through a combination of university-industry collaboration, venture capital investment, a culture of innovation, and supportive policies.

This description rounds up everything that Digital Manchester wants the region to learn from, however, it has stated that it doesn’t want to simply “replicate” its success, but “shape a culture in our own image”.

The second column, labelled ‘Boosting Talent and Skills’, emphasises the need for proactive measures. To ensure the success of this initiative, the trade body advocates for the new Mayor to spearhead renewed efforts in lobbying the central government, aiming to revamp the Apprenticeship Levy, thereby unlocking funding for mentoring schemes.

The Manifesto states that the ‘number one’ issue for Manchester Digital members and for the wider tech industry in Greater Manchester concerns access to skills, explaining that while there is a steady supply of entry-level tech workers, many developed skills through initiatives like digital “bootcamps”, a pinch-point is reported at mid-level, which outlines a ‘fundamental’ structural problem that the Apprenticeship Levy could solve.

Digital Manchester has outlined that the “Manchester Baccalaureate” (MBacc) proposed by Burnham last year could serve as an important basis to address these issues. Furthermore, it says that funding will be required to support the implementation of the MBacc.

Alison Ross, Chair of Manchester Digital’s Board and Chief People and Operations Director at Auto Trader, commented: “With the right investment, organisation and collaboration, northern cities have the potential to become Britain’s biggest tech hub.

Fostering Innovation and Growth is the third and final column. The association says that while Greater Manchester has made significant progress in developing its tech sector, it’s underperforming in terms of start-ups, scale-ups and private investment compared to other regions.

To solve this, Digital Manchester argues that the Mayor should initiate a review of tax breaks and grants, work with universities and tech incubators to drive innovation, and work closely with the public sector to align investments with tech advancements. 

Ross concluded: “As the representative of the city-region with the largest digital economy and the most developed devolved political arrangements in the north, the Mayor of Greater Manchester should instigate the creation of a Northern Tech Nexus with the aim of establishing a new global tech ecosystem that would serve as a counterpoint to the dominance of London and the South East.”