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Business Management

Manchester, not London, is the UK's technology capital

This is a contributed piece by Eudie Thompson, CEO of Bright Future, a UK based software development outsourcing specialist.

If you were to ask a person outside of Britain what they know about the northern city of Manchester, the chances are they’d mention one, or both, of the city’s hugely successful football teams. They would be less likely to bring up Manchester’s largely forgotten role at the cutting edge of the IT revolution, but that’s understandable since many British people are equally unaware of the city’s place in tech history.

Following World War II, Manchester University became a hotbed of research and development in Computer Science. It was here that Alan Turing came to work shortly after the war, applying the experience he’d gained building code-breaking devices to the development of the first recognisable modern computers, a ground-breaking series of machines known as the Manchester Computers.

Off the back of this development, the city became home to a number of world-beating innovations in the IT sphere, including the first real computer memory, the first computer to store a program in memory, and the first transistorised computer. Working with the university, Manchester based electrical engineering firm, Ferranti, built the world’s first commercial computer.

Today a memorial to Alan Turing stands in Manchester’s Sackville Park (poignantly close to the city’s vibrant gay district) and the University’s school of mathematics is housed in a building dedicated to his memory. But for a long time his legacy in the city faded, Manchester’s reputation as a leading centre for computer science slipped away at the end of the seventies as others leapfrogged ahead.

Silicon Roundabout

These days it would be hard to identify any one area as the UK’s IT epicentre. Amid an ongoing national debate about why Britain can’t seem to produce its own tech powerhouses to compete with the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple, much has been done to encourage a tech-startup culture. At the centre of this has been a drive to promote the London district of Old Street as the UK’s answer to America’s Silicon Valley – a place with all of the infrastructure and support mechanisms required to attract the kind of innovative young tech companies which might grow into tomorrow’s powerhouses. The area has, somewhat hopefully, become known as Silicon Roundabout, after the vast multi-lane intersection at its heart.

Despite all this, the UK has yet to produce many world-conquering tech companies, and the focus on London is almost certainly one of the main factors behind that lack of progress. London simply is not an ideal place to launch a tech startup.

Over the past decade London has become the world’s most expensive city. Commercial and residential property is priced at eye watering levels, forcing many young people to live far away from the city centre and endure gruelling daily commutes on creaking, overpriced rail infrastructure. It is an increasingly difficult place to live unless you happen to be a wealthy banker or Russian oligarch.

Tech start-ups need to control their costs religiously, and entrepreneurs need to be able to experiment and fail without bankrupting themselves. They need to hire skilled developers, and other staff, who can afford to work on the kind of tight salaries that start-ups typically pay. Few other cities in the world could be worse than London at meeting those needs.

Manchester’s Resurgence

Manchester, by contrast, offers everything that London cannot. Living costs are far lower, making it a favourable place to live for those on lower salaries, and the quality of life is higher. The university still offers one of the best computer science departments in the world, and skilled workers are not hard to find. It’s the kind of city where it’s possible for an ambitious young entrepreneur to fail and start again without being financially crushed in the process.

The city is served by a major international airport, recently upgraded to accommodate the Airbus A380 super-jumbo, and has a fast rail link to London in a little over two hours. Additional infrastructure improvements are in the pipeline as the government recently announced investment in creating a “Northern Powerhouse” – strengthening links between Manchester and other northern cities which offer similar potential for growth and innovation.

If you wanted to launch a technology budget without the luxury of millions of pounds in seed funding, you’d be crazy to do it in a city like London where workspace rents and salary costs would bleed you dry in the blink of an eye. The north of England, and Manchester especially, is a far healthier environment for start-ups.

This is not just pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. Ten years ago the UK’s national broadcaster, BBC, announced that it planned to move the bulk of its operations out of London and chose the previously decaying Salford Quays area of Manchester as its new base. This caused uproar at the time, as many questioned the wisdom of moving such an important enterprise to what was then (incorrectly) seen by many in the south as a post-industrial northern city in terminal decline.

Following a massive regeneration project, the area has now grown into one of the UK’s most important media hubs, with a rich ecosystem of businesses evolving around it. New jobs have been created for local residents, more skilled young people are choosing to build their careers in the city.

The BBC has thrived in its new home, and added extra impetus to a city that was already reinventing and revitalising itself for the 21st century. All of the reasons that move was successful also apply to the UK’s tech industry.

Some tech businesses need to be in London – if they’re serving the south-east’s massive financial services sector then of course it makes sense for them to make Silicon Roundabout their home. For everybody else, the north has more to offer – Turing certainly thought so.

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