Manchester must ‘stop thinking about technology', and engage with people and their problems if it is to become a truly smart city.

Claire Braithwaite, ventures and partnership consultant for the Co-op Group, stresses the importance of starting with users when attempting a large-scale digital transformation.

The former head of government growth initiative Tech North was speaking at Pro-Manchester’s Digital Disruption Conference on Wednesday 22nd March.

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She sees the similarities between transformation at the Co-op development in cities around the world today.

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Claire Braithwaite

She said: “I was in China last year, as part of a conference with attendees from all over the globe – every continent, and everything goes back to this question: What is a smart city and what can we achieve?

“For the Chinese they’re a lot focused on heavy investment in technology like facial recognition and tracking. It’s very much the brave new world.

"But when you talk to CIOs in cities around the world, what really came out of the conference is how important engagement with people is, and getting a clear vision of what we’re trying to create.

“And it’s about the problem you are trying to solve, actually, it’s not about technology at all, it’s about people and it’s about engagement.

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“What is a smart city? Ultimately, it’s a sustainable place where people enjoy living and enjoy life. Technology enables that.”

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Mike Blackburn

Mike Blackburn, North West regional director for BT, said the real importance to business is not the emergence of new technology, but the empowerment of people.

Employees, customers and consumers are presented witht he ability to do some “absolutely amazing things”.

“How capable we are of harnessing technology will be one of the defining issues of the next decade,” he said.

“We’ve got one of the lowest productivity rates in the UK, in Greater Manchester. We’ve also got one of the most unhealthy populations.

“Any way we can connect people with tech to help them take care of themselves, and use data in a way that informs them... should  help provide better productivity and economic outcomes and create a healthier population.”

Steve Connor co-founded the full service agency Creative Concern in 2002, with the belief that high-impact communications could help make the world a better place.

He believes the political leadership and academic appetite needed to make the jump to a smart city exists in Manchester – but thinks one of the biggest challenges is the people of the city itself.

He asked: “They will struggle with the idea of a smart city where there are real areas of dysfunction.

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Steve Connor

"And they’ll look at an investment over here in the Internet of Things, and they’ll go: ‘When are you going to finish the Ordsall Chord to complete a very basic transport connection across the city?’

“I think even more fundamentally, they will say if we still have massive inequalities in the city, don’t come to us and say we’re investing £10m in this really groovy new technology when in Rochdale, Bolton or Wigan, people are feeling massively disempowered by an economic model that has huge dysfunctions.”

He added: “In terms of a city-wide dialogue the priorities right now are fighting poverty, sorting out air pollution, creating genuinely inclusive growth and fighting climate change.

“What we need to do is keep those targets front and centre in our minds, and then decide how technology can help us.”

Mike Blackburn, who is also chair of the Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership, is well aware of problems facing the region, but added that technology had the ability to solve them.

He added that digital disruption presents regions, like Greater Manchester, with a choice.

“Either we seek to block digital disruption, as many cities are attempting to do with Uber and use regulation to protect the status quo, alternatively we can embrace it.

“We’ve already started that journey. We have a large digital and creative sector – 55,000 jobs in Greater Manchester generating over £3bn in GVA per annum.

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A smart bus stop in the Piccadilly area of Manchester

"Our assets include MediaCity, Sharp, and a vibrant start-up culture – particularly in the Northern Quarter.

“In Greater Manchester, some would say we’ve got previous in the area of disruption. Most notably the building of the largest inland ship canal in the world, to bypass the high taxation being imposed by Liverpool docks.

“It is therefore not too surprising that we would choose Greater Manchester to embrace the challenges that technical disruption brings.

“We believe that creating the right conditions for disruptive technologies is central to our ambition.

"It’s not imagined, it’s central if we are to be a top 20 global city, and become a digital powerhouse."