“What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow.” This well-known phrase was coined in the Victorian era but still rings true today. Known for being the world’s first industrialized city and subsequently an origin of the cooperative movement, the town in Northern England continues to lead in the modern era in the realm of smart cities.
Fueled by a curiosity bordering on obsession, I visited Manchester in October 2017 after meeting a delegation of Mancunians (aka folks from Manchester) at SXSW in Austin, Texas that March. Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, charmed the crowd at Digi.City’s Smart City Day and illustrated how the fastest growing area in the UK is learning lessons from its historic, industrial past.
I received a first-class tour of the city from my amazing hosts Rachel Kenyon and Dave Carter. Rachel fills a critical, though often understated, role and helps those from outside of the academic world connect and navigate the system. Dave Carter was part of the Manchester City Council, from 2004 to 2014 and so his current work as an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre of Urban Policy Studies (CUPS) is well informed at an expert level.
My time with Rachel and Dave and amazing swirl of people they introduced me to confirmed my hunch. Manchester is brimming with smart city projects and initiatives. University, government and private sector partners collaborate with ease and the result is a magnetic energy that is difficult to explain. There is an air of potential and possibility. It is definitely a kind of magic.
The University is the linchpin, providing a stable base of research, academics and the physical gathering place of the stately campus. Through The Manchester Institute of Innovation and Research, there is a robust list of complementary activities that study and ignite the evolution of cities and communities.
Of most relevance to the smart city audience is City Verve, the IoT Demonstrator, which gathers experts to create a “blueprint for cities.” It begins with the platform – a technology layer that acts as a central nervous system – smartly supporting and connecting independent systems and applications. This is of course the obvious and logical place to build. The group then identifies opportunities in four key areas, encourages collaboration and open innovation, and finds a way to measure it all. City Verve is made up of 21 organizations from government, university and industry.
Next is Triangulum, which leverages the learnings of the “Lighthouse Cities” of Manchester, England; Eindhoven, Netherlands; and Stavanger, Norway to develop a Smart City framework that is then used to support “Follower Cities” ( in Germany, Spain, Czech Republic, China). The goal is faster implementation of sustainable smart city projects that are sustained by real business models with the ultimate beneficiary being the city resident. This is a powerful model that puts real metrics and muscle behind global partnership and collaboration. This effort is one to watch and hopefully there will be many more follower cities joining from around the world.
Embedded in this work – and geographically adjacent to the University campus – is FutureEverything. Feimatta Conteh, Programme Manager, met with me in a room plastered with sticky notes nestled in a modern building that couldn’t be missed. FutureEverything is working with CityVerve, adding the human element by hosting community forums and introducing art as an important facilitator. Through the art, they are able to reach and connect with citizens (adults as well as children) more intuitively and effectively. They are identifying Community Champions who will also evaluate success according to set Community KPIs.
On this long list of collaborative efforts is also the Innovation Co-Lab, a partnership between the Georgia Institute of Technology (GT), the Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT) and the University of Manchester (UNIMAN). The purpose is to share resources, research and to provide a framework for doing so.
Our last stop was in the newest building on campus where we met with the lovely Dr. Shanta Aphale, the Business Engagement Manager in the Department of the Humanities. She who shares my love and concern for all things social impact and we talked about bridging cities that have and the cities that have not. And then serendipitously, Atif Ahmad, Project Manager for Transportation and Visualisation on CityVerve nestled in Cisco was on hand to demonstrate their Immersive Lab project.
Manchester is getting it right. But they are not content to create their own smart city and let it prosper – they are dedicated to helping the rest of the world learn along side and join the journey. Manchester is no longer just about smokestacks and factories. It is about innovation and invention, with a call to global partners to build human-centered cities.
In his SXSW address, Sir Richard Leese stated, “The best way of competing (in the global economy) is to work together.”
But what else can you expect from the city where the atom was first split, the first programmable computer was built and the strongest material in the world, graphene, was discovered? It is a city where industry, academics and government work along side, each contributing their specialized strengths. KPMG vouches for the approach and has knighted Manchester with the distinction of the 9th lowest tax cost of any industrialized global city (2012) as well as the most affordable city.
I’m not afraid to gush when it is warranted. I love a city that works hard, plays hard with collaboration as the default. Manchester has the confidence of a city that has been there and been through it. All while being incredibly demure in that British way that is irresistible to Texans who are accustomed to bragging.
Manchester, thank you for mapping the way for smart cities worldwide. I’ll be back and often. #CityCrush