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Is Manchester really a Smart City? Discuss.


I love Manchester, I talk my city up as much as anyone. But we’ve got to understand what a Smart City is before we can claim to be one.

A Smart City is one that uses information to make better decisions, deploy resources more intelligently, all in the cause of improvement and enhancement.

The Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) has announced this week that it is helping cities to become smarter.

Here’s what’s going on locally, according to the BIS statement: “Greater Manchester is working to take advantage in development on the use of data, such as mobile phone data, vehicle systems, satellite data and camera data. They are developing an approach to bring all of this data together to create an oversight of the city. This would then be able to be used for things such as seeing where people flows might have an impact on the transport system. This would result in creating more efficient and reliable routes and giving selective priority to buses on certain routes.”

I welcome all of this, but to be honest, some common sense wouldn’t hurt either, before we rely on technology to tell us what to do.

Who thought it ‘smart’ to reduce the traffic flows from the East Lancs Road and the M61 through Salford Crescent, by making Chapel Street a semi-pedestrian walk through?  The alternative route offers poor signage that abandons you as you peel off the A6 and try to find a route to the city centre. It makes no sense.

Who manages the people flows on Piccadilly station at peak times when no-one on the station seems to know which train is which, or when the next train is leaving?  Then there is the seemingly random nature of Metrolink tram destinations.

Should a modern ‘wired city’ see its citizens have such problems trying to access 3G networks at lunchtime in the city centre, or at a City or United game?

So, personal gripes over. But behind these mundane challenges, if Manchester really is a Smart City then these problems would be solved. But more than that, a really common sense smart city wouldn’t need data to explain the obvious and make decisions for you. Sometimes we have a utopian view that technology will free us from this chaos. But actually greater strides can only be made towards being a smarter city if people start using their brains a bit more.

Greater strides can only be made towards being a smarter city if people start using their brains a bit more.

Here’s another related point. I am always amazed at how ill-informed people are about different cultural and infrastructure developments around the city. News doesn’t travel fast any more, it hardly travels at all. We may know about the top items that trend on Twitter and what’s in the Metro (often the same thing), but beyond that? Confusion reigns. We are not getting our news from social media instead of traditional media channels, we are just getting more and more noise about fewer and fewer things, some of which we actively seek out because they are important to us. But there is very little shared experience. Instead informal back channels of communication are enhancing what we know about our deep personal interests.

Smart people will gravitate towards the places where other smart people gather. Ideas will flow, solutions will emerge.

All of this comes to us at a time when there has never been a greater energy about the city, yet there has never been a greater level of misunderstanding. Ultimately that worries me, because not understanding often leads to fear and mistrust.

At Downtown we’re actually quite optimistic about all of this. At the risk of sounding elitist and intellectual, smart people will gravitate towards the places where other smart people gather. Ideas will flow, solutions will emerge.

Part of that is this new business I’m involved in called Discuss, where we are holding regular debates that celebrate and stimulate Manchester’s intellectual heritage. Part of that too is our Smart City conference at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry in November. We’ve assembled a sparkling array of speakers. All of them will make you better informed, all of them will make you think about how technology and better use of data can improve our lives.

Where else can we learn from around the world? Well, there’s Tel Aviv, the real entrepreneurial hot spot of a troubled region. Packed full of new technology businesses and a thriving ecosystem. Al Mackin from Manchester business The eWord will be feeding back his findings from there.

Sometimes these type of events are full of confusing nonsense. Trust me this one will be plain speaking and full of good practical ideas.