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The epic journey that an entire city can go through is phenomenal.  And the great thing is, we don’t just get to observe it – we can all be part of it, and help to lead it too.

It was in 2005 that Manchester: Knowledge Capital first published its vision for an “Innovation Ecosystem” approach to developing a truly innovative city region.  The point of this approach was to encompass the complexity of real life.  National innovation policy was trailing behind what many innovative organisations already knew: that innovation does not just happen in a laboratory, that innovators and entrepreneurs do not act in isolation, and their work is the product of social, economic, and cultural forces.  

A thorough, ‘total environment’ approach to nurturing innovation means that a whole smorgasbord of inter-dependent factors has to be considered, including talented people, skills, risk finance, physical infrastructure, business support services, networks and partnerships to build up relational capital and strategic connectivity, and the intangible cultural “buzz” of the city.

In the past 5 years Manchester has moved forward in leaps, bounds, and the odd stumble.  And most importantly, this is not a story of any one organisation – it never could be. It’s a story about the talent and the spirit of partnership in our great city.  

We have far greater choice for business incubation, with the Core Technology Facility, Innospace, Salford Innovation Forum, and ever-developing work of Manchester Science Park; and the city has won national strategic bids such as the Biomedical Research Facility.  Major city developments including the Corridor and MediaCityUK are escalating our position in the UK and internationally.  There have been countless successes on the part of innovative businesses and world-leading researchers.

We’ve had a UK first in the form of the Manchester Innovation Investment Fund, supporting pilots and experiments to boost the city region’s capacity for innovation.  The Innovation Manchester network and the Innovation Boardroom are steadily transforming the landscape in which our business and civic leaders can collaborate, generate great ideas for mutual benefit, and turn them into action.  And in 2009 Manchester won a global award for Most Admired Knowledge City Region, recognising its outstanding journey so far.  

It’s also cheering to hear people like Will Hutton, of The Work Foundation and journalism fame, extol the virtues of the Innovation Ecosystem approach and the importance of developing a knowledge-based economy.  Will visited Manchester earlier this week, and is working on a report on the future of British cities for the Core Cities Group

Despite the obvious progress, we all know that we’ve got a long way to go before we can call ourselves a truly innovative place.  Anyone who’s visited one the handful of places in the world that really get it right, knows that Manchester needs at least another 10 years, focused effort, and a big dollop of serendipity before we can really say we’ve arrived. 

And I think the fuel for that journey will be the loyalty that Manchester generates – it’s a great city and I know a lot of people reading this will continue to play their part in making it better and better.


Corporation, n.  An ingenious device for obtaining personal wealth without personal responsibility. (Ambrose Bierce)

 It was in the early 1900s that journalist Ambrose Bierce came up with this definition, as part of his charmingly cynical ‘Devil’s Dictionary’. At the time, society was emerging from a century of staggering changes in technological progress, economic growth and social turmoil.

Mr Bierce didn’t include a definition for a co-operative business model in his dictionary, although the Rochdale Pioneers had defined and implemented this fabulous concept in 1844. They made an imaginative quantum leap: they dreamed up a business that was run by and owned by its customers and employees, so that they had a true stake in the business. 

Once again we are living in times when there is great public cynicism with big business and the banking sector in particular, and we’re heading for a period of major economic and social upheaval as unprecedented planetary changes have their effect on populations across the world.

We need some radical new ways of working and living, like the Rochdale Pioneers created – whether that is in delivering public services, or in developing businesses. Has Manchester got the talent and the chutzpah to get ahead of the curve, and become a leading centre for developing and testing bold and imaginative ways of going about our daily lives?

Who’s got time for innovation? How many of us deliberately take the time to sit back, look at what we’re doing, and think about ways to do it better or do something else?

The classic problem with many organisations is that everyone is working so hard on today’s crisis or this month’s targets that they never feel that they can take the time to think about anything else. The end result is that we end up doing ‘more of the same’ each and every day – instead of trying anything new. And that’s a not going to support our competitive edge in the long run.

Famously, companies like 3M and Google are very open about this. When you work for Google your employment contract allows you to spend one day a week on any idea you like. It’s a wide open space – a space for experimenting, exploring and developing breakthrough ideas like Google Earth and Gmail that have helped to keep that company at the top of its game.

Many organisations can’t afford to give employees that much exploration time – but the general principle is of fundamental importance to all of us.

We need to set aside time to come up with ideas and explore them, and leaders need to make sure that employees feel empowered to do this. Staring into space for half an hour can sometimes be far more productive than ‘proper work’.

I got a chance to visit the inspiring Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at MOSI a few days ago. The word polymath is perhaps over-used these days – certainly a man of da Vinci’s incredibly diverse talents still puts most of the human race into the shade.

He believed, absolutely, that there is no art without science. His intense curiosity about the world around him led him to be a painter, engineer, inventor, musician, scientist and mathematician.

Leonardo da vinci

Leonardo da vinci

I think that is more difficult today. A few hundred years ago, different branches of science and philosophy were more closely intertwined, and scholars often crossed over between what we would now consider to be disparate branches of knowledge. As world knowledge grew, specialisms developed and the sciences (what we would now broadly distinguish as biology, chemistry & physics) grew apart from each other and from the arts and humanities.

With this came culture change – and not in a good way. In the national mindset, arts and sciences became two foreign lands: arts people would perfectly happily confess their ignorance of scientific matters, and scientists would do likewise with art and philosophy. It became OK to be selectively ignorant.

This led to the novelist and scientist CP Snow to give his famous “Two Cultures” lecture in 1959, out of pure frustration with the way that otherwise intelligent and knowledgeable people would put up imaginary barriers to their wider learning.

Innovation often happens ‘at the edges’ – the interface between different groups or sectors or disciplines – but we often have to achieve this despite of our standard school curriculum and national culture.  I generalise of course. But there’s much more we could do to bring different arts and science disciplines together. I vote that as a nation we start mixing things up a lot more. It’ll be fun, educational and productive – what more could you ask?

How important are networks and communities in building successful markets? It’s a question that anyone looking at this year’s Nobel prize for economic sciences just has to ask themselves.

Professor Elinor Ostrom is the first woman to win the prize. She’s been recognised for her work on “the Commons” – meaning anything that’s collectively owned, such as common land.

Before Elinor came along, conventional economic theory was that if there is a commonly-owned resource, the people who own it will always act individually in their own self-interest – and ultimately damage or destroy the whole resource, so that everybody loses. It’s a pretty sorry reflection of the human race.

She challenged this dogma. She showed that commons can in fact be managed in a way that leads to shared prosperity, if the individuals using it can develop the right methods and institutions to manage it.

In recent years her work has been proven by many of you reading this. If you’ve used ‘open source’ software, you’re part of a self-policing network that allows commonly-owned assets to be used widely, rather than used up. By acting as a community rather than a set of individuals, everybody wins.

There must be products and services other than software that this could apply to – I’d love to hear your views.

Innovation Manchester

Innovation Manchester is a dynamic and diverse network of innovators and entrepreneurs, working together to make Manchester a better place to do business. We’re making Manchester a global innovation leader by creating: - new connections - new business opportunities - radical city-wide solutions Be part of the innovation conversation - all you need is enthusiasm and original thinking.

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