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Digital city festival


16 Mar 2021

Building and developing a digital city

Phil Swan, Director of Digital, GMCA
Building and developing a digital city
Greater Manchester
Phil Swan, Greater Manchester Combined Authority's Director of Digital, takes stock of Greater Manchester's Digital Blueprint - which was launched not long before COVID hit - to explore how a true digital city is created, and whether priorities now need to change.

As I write, I have a copy of “The Wired World in 2020” on my desk, produced while COVID was still a distant news story. With the benefit of hindsight, the glaring absence of pandemic risk seems unbelievable, however there are clear themes that strike a chord, some of which have placed a centre stage role over the past year for reasons not necessarily for good or bad, but different to how they were imagined: AI (Artificial Intelligence), algorithms, health monitoring environments, deepfake apathy, car-free cities. 

So how do you build and develop a digital city in a post pandemic society and economy with tight finances, polarised growth, uncertain employment, a frustrated population, a stressed health and care system and educational upheaval? 

The Greater Manchester Digital Blueprint was our plan. Launched in February 2020, is it still valid? We have been taking stock.

This is the place that does digital differently

The blueprint’s central ambition focuses on putting our residents at the heart of our plans, an inclusive approach that builds on our greatest asset as we work towards our ambition to be recognised as a world leading digital city-region. It was, and is, always about people - in many ways a people strategy viewed through a digital lens. 

As I reflect on the five priorities and two enablers in the blueprint it’s clear the focus on innovation and pace has increased. This year we’ve seen the acceleration of the Greater Manchester Care Record to reach 99.7% of patients; creation of a situation reporting system in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic; a renewed drive for a 100% digitally enabled city-region and the launch of a taskforce to drive that work; demand for improved connectivity and infrastructure; help for businesses to get online through programmes like Made Smarter; and of course, deployments of technology at scale to support remote and home working.

Whilst each of the 10 councils in Greater Manchester have their own motto, Manchester’s 'Wisdom and Effort' combined with its busy bees feels analogous. Building and developing a digital city region is about connecting a broad range of motivated and empowered “doers”; making the whole more than the sum of the parts, and investing in strong, cross-cutting digital foundations.

Much of this ethos is grounded in Greater Manchester’s deep cultural roots - this will always be a city region of social and technological innovation: British computer scientist Alan Turing worked at the University of Manchester where he made key contributions in artificial intelligence; and where Emmeline Pankhurst held the first women’s suffrage meetings; and where the Co-operative movement was born. It’s where Rolls met Royce, and where Graphene was invented.

Manchester city centre

More to do

Digital exclusion is a good example. A new report by The Good Things Foundation and Liverpool University suggests that levels of digital exclusion are much worse than previously thought, with over 700,000 people in Greater Manchester only using the internet in a narrow or limited way and a further 450,000 classified as 'non-users.’

As many as 1.2 million residents in Greater Manchester could be excluded in some way to access the benefits digital brings, including a considerable number of children and young people for whom digital literacy only extends to expertise in phones and social media. A challenge of this magnitude requires a whole system response across education, healthcare, industry, voluntary & community sectors. 

The taskforce that's been created to help address these challenges includes over 100 people who come from across the industry, voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors, plus public sector partners, local government, schools and our health and social care partnership.

There’s no silver bullet, so we are taking a bottom-up, collective approach, working to identify and pull the levers that have impact, then finding ways to make them scale. Levers like our procurement, our voice with government, our industry relationships with companies that have a strong social ethos. It’s intensive and is just one example but is an important lighthouse project that shows there are diverse ways of making a difference.

Direction setting

My overall sense is that our blueprint needs to evolve, and we are working on that now, but the central tenets hold water still. For other places looking at building and developing a digital city, our ideas might provide some food for thought:

This is the place where digital connectivity makes things better for people.

This is the place with a fast-growing digital ecosystem.

This is the place that makes things happen.

This is the place where businesses of all types and sizes can come and thrive.


Digital City Festival returns from 12-23 April as a truly digital experience. Will you be part of it? 

  • Register here.
  • Find out about opportunities to sponsor, exhibit, speak, or host an event here.