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Andy Burnham: “Digital connectivity is a basic human right”

The Mayor of Greater Manchester on how the region is making strides in the start-up space, tackling digital exclusion and using tech to improve public services.

By Andy Burnham

Greater Manchester’s creative, digital and technology sectors are on the leading edge of the UK’s economic revival as we come out of the pandemic. Our fast-growing £5bn digital ecosystem can lay claim to being the UK’s top digital technology city and has an incredible level of energy. This undoubtedly contributed towards Time Out recently giving Manchester the title of third-best city in the world behind San Francisco and Amsterdam.

Our digital sector is powering our economy and creating exciting career opportunities in a place steeped in culture, surrounded by national parks and with arguably the best international connectivity outside London. The city region is going from strength to strength with global investors targeting companies such as Matillion – an artificial intelligence (AI) specialist and our latest “unicorn” – while innovative smaller organisations are growing and making strides in areas such as digital security, media, finance, e-commerce and health tech.

Many parts of the UK are having a similar experience, but what makes Greater Manchester special is its combination of size, compactness and motivation. As was stated in the Greater Manchester Digital Blueprint launched in 2020, we are “big enough to matter, small enough to know each other, and driven enough to make things happen”.

We have a thriving community of more than 10,000 digital and tech businesses, from start-ups and small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to global brands including Google, Microsoft, IBM and Cisco. We have homegrown successes such as Peak AI, Matillion, The Hut Group, AO.com and BooHoo. These companies engage strongly with the city’s broad range of digital and tech clusters, incubators and co-working spaces, where they converge, collaborate and drive innovation.

Over the past two years, businesses, academia and the public sector have worked hard to adapt and diversify. It’s clear the focus on innovation has increased with many new technologies being adopted in months instead of years. That pace has been positive but also challenging for many people, and we need to lock in the good whilst addressing the problems.

We continue to invest heavily in digital infrastructure and connectivity. Based on trends, which show no signs of slowing, households and organisations are doubling their internet use every three years – so by 2030, data consumption will be eight times higher than now.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, work began on the region’s Local Full Fibre Networks Programme, an initiative that will help ensure Greater Manchester has the digital infrastructure it needs to be a world-class digital region.

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With government, local authority and combined authority backing, this £30m programme will connect more than 1,500 public sites across the city region, pushing out full fibre into new areas and running past 45 per cent of properties in Greater Manchester, helping us deliver better, more resilient public services and improve connectivity.

We’re in the final stages of Virgin Media Business (VMB) delivering this new network and its 2,700km of new fibre optics – but this has always been more than putting cables in the ground.

VMB’s Tackling Digital Inequality in Greater Manchester report outlines the positive impact the company has achieved through its social value programme, a commitment made to improve lives through the roll-out of better broadband. Some £11.8m of overall local economic value was secured in the first year of delivery and the programme has exceeded local employment targets, with 75 per cent of the workforce delivering the project based in Greater Manchester. 

Our people, not just our infrastructure, must remain at the heart of what we do, which is why we have a strong focus on tackling digital exclusion. This is a national issue, and we feel that we’re at the vanguard of work in this area, working with fantastic organisations like the Good Things Foundation, our councils, NHS organisations, our telecoms partners, academia and grassroots organisations.

We need to see digital connectivity as a basic human right. Without it, people will be shut out of the conversation, lose access to essential services, and miss out on a whole range of opportunities.

That is why I set a new ambition to help all under-25s, over-75s and disabled people in Greater Manchester to get online. By involving partners from public, private and community sectors, we want to provide the data, devices and skills that people need. I have created a new Digital Inclusion Action Network to work with our wider Digital Inclusion Taskforce, which will lend its strength to fix the digital divide across Greater Manchester.

The Early Years App is an example of how we’re doing digital differently. It is truly transforming the way our health and education information is delivered and shared. The app digitises current paper-based assessments used to review a child’s development, allowing parents and carers to efficiently complete assessments online and access their records. It’s helping us to join up our public services and is providing parents and carers with the support they need quickly and efficiently, while freeing up valuable clinical time for health visiting teams.

It goes without saying that a city region like Greater Manchester is focused on using data to run more effectively. At the start of the pandemic, we quickly set up a situation reporting system to monitor personal protective equipment (PPE) stock levels, staffing availability, infection rates and outbreaks to identify early signs of instability so swift action could be taken.

Our AI-enabled traffic flow optimisation pilot is another good example – this anonymously identifies different types of road users at selected junctions and traffic signals to allow different modes of transportation to be prioritised as and when required. These “smart junctions” will be able to give priority to people on foot or bike where and when appropriate.

We have a relentless drive to make a difference through digital and data so the focus on outcomes is critical. We don’t want to run pilots that can’t grow, and we’re not interested in demonstrator projects unless they are valuable. Technology for technology’s sake doesn’t change lives.

Greater Manchester is at its best when we bring together all parts of our system: communities, people, ideas, research, ways of working, technology and data. This truly enables us to do things differently and challenge the status quo.

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