Megabyte metros: how data and digital technologies can drive city growth

May 23, 2014 by
Filed under: Social Economy 

“It is a paradox of our age, that as digital connectivity enables more of us to work remotely, clustering becomes even more important in the creative, knowledge economy,”  so began Rohan Silva at the fifth and final seminar in the Commission’s spring series. To attract talent, investment and foster innovation, cities need to be places of culture and good design.

City growth needs innovation not replication (Image by delta_art via iStock

City growth needs innovation not replication                        (Image by delta_art via iStock)

When persuading Google to invest in its campus in Tech City, Rohan told us it was the fact that “Old Street station is in walking distance of 150 art galleries and exhibitions” that sealed the deal.  Culture feeds minds and, citing Richard Florida, so feeds creativity, entrepreneurialism and economic growth. Over half a million people now work in Tech City.

But our home grown talent is not just in the capital.  Mark Barrett, Head of Leeds Data Mill, explained the work going on in his city to collate, release and use data from a range of local sources – including Yorkshire Water, the NHS and City Council.  They’re also engaging people to create data where none currently exists by gamifying the cataloguing of city’s public statues.  With sell out data pub nights, a data dashboard for the city ready to go live and the Data Mill model already spinning out to six other cities in the region, there’s a new movement in town driving social and economic growth.

Look to Silicon Valley, the MIT Media Lab in Boston, and the new CornellNYC Tech campus to see how government and universities can accelerate this process. Look to Canary Wharf opening up some of its floor space to start ups to see the growing recognition of the value of incubator space for disruptive innovation.

But look to central and local politics to see a lack of data literacy and an unwillingness to tackle some of the big issues constraining digitally enabled growth.  Broadband connectivity was raised as a major barrier to the UK cities maximising their economic and social potential.  European State Aid rules prevent public support where there is already private provision, but our cities don’t have high enough speed or capacity to meet growing demand.  In the absence of the £30bn estimated for wholesale public investment in our digital infrastructure, we might have to wait until new technologies leapfrog the supply of fixed broadband.  What’s more, as someone remarked, “broadband is a today problem.  We need to be more ambitious about what we want to achieve.”

This ambition needs to be taken into a broad policy context: our migration rules, public sector reticence – especially within the trading funds – and commercial property system help to undermine data driven, digitally enabled creativity and growth.  Ideas were flying around the table: computer science courses in HE and FE colleges developed in tandem with, and within, industry; a Right to Data enshrined on statute; university funding predicated on the application of cross-disciplinary research, with readily available follow-on investment for commercialisation; and, more flexible property contracts, enabling start ups and SMEs to adapt their space rather than take on the risk of 5 or 10 year leases.  All to be fed into to the City Growth Commission’s work on infrastructure (July) and final recommendations (October).

My previous post on Open Data talked about the complexities of Snowden, Care.data and the privacy debate in exploring the boundaries of the ‘megabyte metro’.  But the capacity for social and economic growth is so great, across every sector – public, private and civil society – that to shy away from it poses a whole lot of downside risk.  The UK’s cities need to establish themselves at the forefront of advanced business and industry – whether in services, manufacturing, engineering or research.  Sometimes described as the ‘new water’ or the ‘new oil’, digital technologies and data are the building blocks of the urban economy.

Charlotte Alldritt is the Secretary of the City Growth Commission. You can follow her @CAlldritt.

This blog was originally posted on the website of the City Growth Commission .

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