Putting people at the heart of plans to grow a £5bn digital eco-system

Councillor Elise Wilson is the self-confessed non-techie taking a leading role in ensuring that Greater Manchester’s £5bn digital ecosystem reaches its potential, including an ambition that the city-region will become a global digital influencer.

If that seems somehow incongruous, then it isn’t surprising when you dive into the detail of Greater Manchester’s promise of “doing digital differently”. Alongside building on Greater Manchester’s credentials as the UK’s second biggest tech cluster outside London, the clear intention is that generating benefits for ordinary citizens will be paramount.

Having first entered local politics in order to campaign on an issue facing people in the community ward of Davenport and Cale Green, Stockport, Elise was elevated in May 2019 to the position of leader of Stockport Council.

In turn she accepted Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s invitation to become the public sector lead for Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s Digital City Portfolio.

Elise is rightly proud of Greater Manchester’s rich history of digital innovation and position as the leading digital centre outside of London, she insists that the digital revolution underway in the region is about serving ordinary people as much as it is attracting inward investment. No-one will be left behind by the digital revolution here, she insists.

Working alongside combined authority officers and other stakeholders, Elise’s vision was recently brought to life with the publication of the Greater Manchester Digital Blueprint (opens new page), which set out the city-region’s strengths as the biggest UK tech hub outside London and its ambitions for the digital sector.

Here, Elise answers questions about Greater Manchester’s digital sector:

What is the Digital City Portfolio?

The Digital City Portfolio has a huge scope and scale. It is one of our key priorities in Greater Manchester as we’re looking to grow our economy and deliver for the people of Greater Manchester. We see digital as a key area of growth, not just in terms of attracting new businesses here, but also having the right skills and talent pipeline, and digital infrastructure. We want to deliver a place where people will want to live, a place that will be the best possible place in the world to grow up, to get on and grow old.

What does Greater Manchester mean when it says it wants to do digital differently?

The key message for everything we do Greater Manchester is that we do things differently and we’re going to do digital differently as well. It’s about how we place people at the heart of what we do in achieving our digital ambitions. As we move forward, our goal is to create a digital city-region shaped by the people who live here, taking everybody with us.

How will doing digital differently support inward investment to the digital and tech sector?

We’ve got a huge economic ambition for Greater Manchester and there’s a real opportunity for businesses to capitalise on that.

We want to continue to create a place where people know they can work and collaborate openly, co-designing and co-creating with others, where they know you’re going to be able to attract people to come and work, because Greater Manchester is a great place to live. Investment in business and infrastructure is important so is the culture of Greater Manchester. The staff of the companies and start-ups that invest in Greater Manchester are going to want to come here and eat in our restaurants, send their children to our schools.

 How does doing digital differently help individuals?

People want a place where they can really live their lives to the full. People want to live happy, healthy lives and it will be about how we make that happen. We have huge interconnected communities that stand together. In Manchester, standing together is a hugely emotional thing because we’ve been through so much. And it doesn’t matter which community you go to, it resonates because we do stand together, we do things together.

How has digital affected you personally?

When I was a child, the internet didn’t exist. To be here now and see all of the amazing stuff we’re working on now, it blows your mind. It’s very hard then to visualise what it’s going to be like in the future. Nobody knows what it’s going to be like in another 20 years’ time. And that’s what I think Manchester can offer: an opportunity to be somewhere that is ambitious and innovative, and really challenge that creativity. To say, ‘Well, what is the possibility?’ The possibilities are huge.

What difference has digital made in helping Greater Manchester respond to the coronavirus pandemic?

The current climate brings a whole new meaning to ‘Doing Digital Differently’ and from the work being done with the Digital Platform to enhance public service,  to fast-track on digital skills and addressing inequalities and digital inclusion, it has forced us to think about how digital can enhance our way of being and working as communities, people and businesses to address inequalities and uplift each other. We have seen the public sector working with the private sector and VSO sector in ways that we’ve never seen and digital has been a catalyst to that. It is now more than ever that ‘Doing Digital Differently’ shows how we can work together to inform better practices, skills and knowledge sharing, how we can connect communities and those that live and work in Greater Manchester as well as nationally and internationally.

These extraordinary times have demonstrated the positive impact that digital technology can have in connecting people and businesses during a time of crisis, introducing methods of communication on our lives, enabling many people to work remotely; stay in touch with family and friends; seek entertainment, continue their education, and access essential services.

The Zoom (opens new page) web meeting platform has added 2.2m monthly active users so far in 2020, while webinars and social media channels have proven invaluable for people want to keep in touch, stay informed, and find distraction. I’m particularly excited about the (opens new page) platform launched by night time economy advisor for Greater Manchester, Sacha Lord, which promised to stream Manchester’s culture around the world; and proud of the support being offered via The Growth Company and GMCA through the Employ GM, which connects employers* who have urgent temporary vacancies with individuals across Greater Manchester, who are available to start working straight away during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It is likely that many of these new means of digital communication will become part of our lives beyond this crisis.

What is the role for Greater Manchester Combined Authority in developing the digital economy?

I see Greater Manchester Combined Authority as a key enabler of how we actually connect people together. We have the new shoots of a digital ecosystem that is going to be really exciting, with lots of different innovators doing exciting things. It’s about being able to join all of that up, so that we have all these innovators sparking off one another.

Examples include ensuring that our universities and academic visionaries and working alongside to businesses that are trying to deliver innovation, and are making sure that they’re connected together so that we can be sure that those outcomes are applicable to the challenges facing people here and across world. The other thing the combined authority is a really in great place to deliver on is infrastructure. Some of the things we are going to need, and I do think digital businesses do need, include full fibre connectivity, physical transport infrastructure, 5G, and the talent pipeline necessary to be able to do create the future and continue to be relevant at a time when digital makes things so fast.

Public services are there to deliver stuff, and not necessarily directly deliver, but enable and cultivate the delivery of certain services.

Why is it important for Greater Manchester to become a global digital influencer?

We put people at the heart of everything we are doing. That’s how we do things differently here. It’s about the opportunity here in Greater Manchester to do something for human good, to do things that make a social difference, to look at how people are living their lives today, and how that we can make that better people in the future. Those are ideas that we can share with the world.

When we consider how public services could interact with each other, there’s an awful lot that can be done. We need to consider that we’re an ageing population that we need to find ways to be sustainable going forward and reduce our carbon footprint.

I think Greater Manchester is an exciting place for innovation and it always has been. We have an emblem in Greater Manchester of a bee. It’s sometimes thought that the emblem of the bee is because we’re all busy bees, working away. But it’s not. The bee goes off from the hive, finds those ideas, brings those ideas back that are new and exciting, and that’s what Greater Manchester does best. It’s how we do something with those ideas which is really exciting and challenging.

How excited are you about the opportunities for digital growth in Greater Manchester?

We’re in a really good place for digital, whether that’s on our cultural side; at centres like MediaCityUK, or the things our smaller organisations and universities are working on. We also have large multinational organisations working here, or considering setting up shop. The vision for the future is how we make sure our digital ecosystem is tied together and co-designed, where creative meets science and maths.  I do think that Greater Manchester is really well placed for that.

What digital has done is deliver solutions that are specific to individual needs. When we get to public services, we need to have that same response. The things that I need from public services are not necessarily the same things that my mother needs or my daughter needs. As we change and go through different stages in life, it’s got to be bespoke to what those different stages are.

Read more on Greater Manchester digital ambitions, through the Digital Blueprint (opens new page).

Article Published: 27/04/2020 14:16 PM