The Manchester Model: How A City’s Urban Past Influences Its Smart City Future

The smart cities movement is gaining adoption on a global scale, creating an opportunity to share best practices beyond national borders. The U.S., a newer entrant, has much to gain from examining models and approaches from those communities who have been in pursuit of the smart city promise for decades. Greater Manchester in Northern England, U.K. is one of those. 

I first learned about Manchester’s smart city efforts in March of 2017 at SXSW, followed by a visit to the city that November. Ever since, I have been drawn to its rich history, learning about how its ambitious yet humbling beginnings have influenced the current smart city journey.

Manchester is the birthplace of the (first) Industrial Revolution, where the steam engine first roared to life, where the atom was split, where ‘Baby’, the first stored program computer was built, all of which changed the modern world forever. None of these accomplishments can be heralded in isolation. Manchester is also the birthplace of the Cooperative Movement, the Suffragette Movement, and is a city of intense creative energy. Some hail Manchester as “The Original Modern City” that has been creating the future for over 250 years.

I had the opportunity to be a part of this community for two months thanks to a Simon Industrial Fellowship, which allows non-academic professionals to spend time at the University of Manchester to undertake research and knowledge exchange activities. The chance to embed allowed me to go beyond the textbook comprehension of a smart city strategy and form relationships that provide a new understanding of the psyche and nuances of what makes this city such a special place. I have codified my learning into The Manchester Model. And while the combination of elements is uniquely Manchester, it can be (and hopefully will be) applied to other cities.

The key to Manchester’s success is rooted in cooperation. In the model, there are plus signs after each sector – university, city, industry – because each of these areas represents more than one organization. In other cities, this level of complexity could be a challenge to efficiency. In Manchester, they have managed to articulate each organization’s unique strengths and then build upon those to fortify the whole. The honeycomb structure is important as each segment is independent of, but dependent on the other. 

At the heart of the model is the worker bee, the symbol that signifies the city’s energy and sense of community. This image can be found emblazoned on everything from historical building mosaics to urban art, on t-shirts and even tattoos. The worker bee is the Manchester brand and was a crucial unifying force following the Manchester Bombing in 2017.

The first pod of the Manchester Model is the City+ sector. The plus sign after ‘City’ refers to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), comprised of ten Borough Councils led by Mayor Andy Burnham. This unified government structure encourages individuality while also emphasizing collaboration between the members. The largest is the Manchester City Council, which is flanked and supported by other Borough Councils, including the City of Salford, home to MediaCityUK, The Landing, and several emerging technology labs including the 5G-enabled Digital Catapult’s Immersive Lab, and Vodafone’s recently launched 5G test bed.

Next, is the University+ sector comprised of the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Salford. The University of Manchester is the largest academic member and, as the premier research institution, dominates the landscape. They use this position of strength to lead, undertaking two ambitious efforts to bring together multidisciplinary researchers. Digital Futures gathers more than 850 researchers as a strategic response to the challenges and opportunities presented by the digital revolution. This effort is in addition to The Manchester Urban Institute that reaches across academia to “work closely with governments, companies and communities to develop smart solutions and services.”  Manchester Metropolitan University is a critical contributor in the area of Digital Innovation with its hands-on labs that cut across disciplines to enable real-world creative problem solving. The University is also a member of the European Network of Living Labs. The two campuses are just steps apart, creating a synergistic vibe that highlights each of their respective strengths. They take cooperation so seriously that they share the School of Architecture, an innovative collaboration that unites two schools. The third institution, the University of Salford has its main campus just two kilometers from the Manchester city center. It plays an integral part in fueling activity around media and also healthcare with a focus embedded in practical applications. They also have a campus at MediaCityUK along with BBC and other mainstream digital media brands.

Finally, there is Industry+. Integration between industry and community has always been at the heart of Manchester’s modern identity. As a result, there is a confidence to Manchester’s smart city work. Where other communities are struggling with integration, Manchester is much more open to integrity-based industry involvement. It was this respectfully ambitious spirit that inspired the formation of CityVerve, the U.K.’s first IoT demonstrator.  The two-year program came to a close and delivered invaluable lessons learned on how to integrate separate sectors to focus on “how technology could improve the lives of all Mancunians by helping us gather and share information in new and exciting ways.”

Moving to the lower hemisphere of the Manchester Model are ‘Creativity, History, Humanity’. These areas serve as the foundation for the top three sectors: City+, University+, Industry+. And again, while separate, all of these categories are interconnected. Creativity, cultural industries and local economic development have co-existed in the city for many decades. The origins of this creativity lie in the city’s history as an innovator in the Industrial Revolution and its role as a convener of the best humanity has to offer through the Cooperative Movement. Creativity, history, humanity is the DNA of Manchester and infuses their smart cities approach.

In Manchester, creativity is a local byproduct; and the city has been recognized globally as a powerhouse of talent. Musically, they have contributed more than most and can claim the origins of Oasis, New Order, The Smiths, Joy Division. In fact the term ‘Madchester’ was coined to describe the music surge in the 1980s.  Relative to smart cities, Future Everything is an important catalyst in the creative urban digital expression. Since 1995, Future Everything has been “co-designing the future of digital culture”. They unite an “international community of artists, technologists and industry collaborators” to “explore the intersection of art, technology and society through bold new art commissions, living labs, participatory design and public events”. They are celebrated as an important element of the regional smart city strategy.

The Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham has laid the The Greater Manchester Digital Strategy 2018-2020, a “collective ambition to make Greater Manchester one of the best places in the world to grow up, get on, and grow old.” His aim is not only to make Greater Manchester a smart city, but to make it the smartest city and U.K.’s tech leader. The program centers around infrastructure and skills development, increasing access to broadband and using digital to connect young people to opportunities.

The Mayor goes on to say, “I want Greater Manchester to be a digital city with a difference – one with a bold digital economy which actively encourages businesses to invest and grow, and also one where technology is used to deliver positive change, from connecting young people with opportunities, to tackling social problems such as homelessness. This bold vision places the needs of people firmly at the heart of technological innovation. We’re already ahead of the game on this. Right here in Greater Manchester we are on the digital frontier with some of the most cutting-edge tech firms in the world.  This gives us a remarkable opportunity to take that expertise and innovation, and work with local people to create a smart digital future which has a unique Greater Manchester stamp. We want to fuse technological advancement with culture, ethics, communities and places to build a world which is connected, creative and cooperative, and a modern and prosperous Greater Manchester where no-one is left behind. I don’t want Greater Manchester to be just a smart city – I want it to be the smartest city.”

In my original article I stated that, “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.” I found this statement to be true in spades during my time in the city and at the university. Collaboration and creativity is so embedded in their approach, they are hardly cognizant that they are wielding such a powerful force.

Other cities would be wise to learn how to harness what Greater Manchester has built over decades: an ecosystem of municipal, academic and industry leaders that identify their respective strengths and leverage those for the greater mission to build a more connected community. Manchester is a city of ideas, innovation and social movements and the Manchester Model could be the framework to develop digital cities of the future. 

Special thanks to the team at the University of Manchester responsible for orchestrating my Simon Industrial Fellowship – Dave Carter, Honorary Knowledge Exchange Fellow in Planning and Environmental Management; Richard Kingston Professor of Urban Planning and GISc; and Rachel Kenyon, Business Engagement Lead for Fintech, LegalTech & Cyber Security. They, and so many others, went well beyond the norm to create an incredible experience that opened and showed the true heart of Greater Manchester.