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Tech City is Five: So what about the next five years?


Tech City UK’s focus on Old Street since the idea was first conceived five years ago has been controversial for many reasons.

One is that much of the country would prefer something similar to La French Tech, the French equivalent of Tech City UK, whose branding and mission has been national rather than local right from the start.

That message has finally been heard in Shoreditch and in the next five years Tech City will expand massively in the north of England through its subsidiary Tech North.

Claire Braithwaite, its CEO, was in Manchester on Wednesday to debate whether the north of England was heading into a tech boom or desperately trying to defuse a tech time-bomb.

IPPR North and ODI Leeds completed the panel and a room full of willing participants were also there to join in. It was a great conversation as part of Manchester University’s famous Policy Week.

Fears of inequalities and gentrification like we see in San Francisco and Brixton were raised by many in the audience and at times it felt more like a Paul Mason rally than a tech discussion.

Afterwards, with my thoughts filled with the apparent need for a new economic model, I passed by Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, a former public building constructed to commemorate the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, to cheer myself up.

It was, after all, the innovative technical North that was the birthplace of John Bright’s Manchester liberalism. I think that deep down the city is still a believer in the economic model of free-trade that came from his ideas.

In order to benefit from free markets you need to have things to trade and the north of England has a lot.

NFCring in Bradford are world leaders in wearables. WordPress, cofounded in Stockport, powers a quarter of the world’s websites, from Wired to Sage in Newcastle is the UK’s largest software firm.

The north of England’s biggest problem is that until just now you probably didn’t know that.

We desperately need cheerleading institutions and a louder voice in national and international debates about tech. We also need to make young and unemployed people aware of the opportunities there are, alongside providing them with the education to access those jobs.

I think that Tech North understands this. I am convinced that its people want to succeed.

If Tech North can increase the profile of tech companies, projects and events in the same way as it helped raise the profile of tech in East London, then it will be a success.

My only worry is that Tech North will be tempted to spend time advocating solutions to problems that exist far less acutely in the North.

Gentrification may be a problem in Dalston but it is not in large central parts of northern English cities where there’s no-one to displace. Inequality between Bishopsgate and Brick Lane is extreme but in Sunderland, one of the UK’s most equal cities, it is the absolute lack of a wealth and opportunity, not its uneven distribution, that is our biggest challenge.

Tech North has made a bright start and is already visible across the north of England.

Some people worry that they are learning too few lessons from Tech City’s early mistakes in London. I disagree. My worry is that they might learn too many.

Tom Forth runs imactivate, a software and data company in Leeds, and is also an Associate at ODI Leeds

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