Mancunian Swagger

9 months ago I took on the role of ‘Community Engagement & Partnerships Manager’ for Tech North, a new Government-backed organisation aiming to galvanise and accelerate digital entrepreneurship in the North of England.

United in our mission to help re-balance the UK economy by shining a light on the amazing tech businesses that already existed ‘up North’ and promote greater collaboration between our major Northern cities, one of the major attractions for me was the chance to spend time in Manchester each week.

Like many people throughout the UK, the music of ‘Madchester’ was the soundtrack to my life as a kid growing up in the early 90s and over 25yrs later, The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays are still my favourite bands. Not only was the music and artwork of Factory Records and other labels breathtakingly exciting, part of the enduring appeal was what I refer to as the ‘Mancunian Swagger’ - a confidence, cockiness and wilfulness that comes with a proven track record of success and a belief you can take on the world and win! (Watch this great interview with legendary designer Peter Saville of Factory Records / New Order / Hacienda fame explaining his ‘Original Modern’ concept for the City of Manchester):

And Manchester certainly is winning. It’s now widely regarded as the UK’s second city (sorry Birmingham) which is borne out of strong leadership at Manchester city council, genuinely innovative and groundbreaking technology coming from the local universities and business community plus a real ‘can do’ attitude from entrepreneurs everywhere.

Not only is Manchester an amazing city, steeped in world-changing history, there’s a real buzz and excitement in the air. I’ve been impressed by just how ‘up for it’ people there are, knowing that they’re on the cusp of great things and that the future is theirs for the taking.

And no-one demonstrates this more to me than Jonny Cadden, the founder and organiser of the Business Rocks tech, music + investment summit taking place in Manchester on 21-22 April 2016. When Jonny came to see me and the Tech North team in August 2015 during my first week in the job he was everything I wanted a young entrepreneur from Manchester to be. Hugely ambitious and tenacious with the ability to dream big for himself and the city.

When Jonny asked us to come onboard as a sponsor we had no real way of knowing whether Business Rocks would really happen but we had an ‘Ecosystem Support Budget’ to support new events and initiatives that others might deem too risky but which we felt would help catalyse more entrepreneurial endeavours in the city. Together, Claire Braithwaite (Head of Tech North) and I believed Jonny was someone worth backing and that with the right support behind him he’d pull it off and I’m delighted to say that he has.

In my opinion we Brits spend far too much time celebrating overseas entrepreneurs instead of supporting our homegrown talent and over the past 9 months I’ve been hugely impressed by Jonny’s perseverance, professionalism and positivity as he’s hustled each day to bring Business Rocks to life. Jonny Cadden I salute you and thank you for giving us this event. It’s now up to us to make the most of this amazing opportunity to show the world what the North is made of. See you on the dancefloor!

Watch my Blab interview with Jonny below and then get your Business Rocks conference pass from just £99 here!

#TechNorth - Auf Wiedersehen, Pet

For the past 8 months (since August 2015) I’ve been on the most incredible journey with my Tech North colleagues but it’s now time for me to move on.

As ‘Community Engagement & Partnerships Manager’, I’ve had the enormous privilege of meeting and working with literally hundreds of amazingly talented people across the North of England – from startup founders to corporate giants – all pulling together to help grow the Northern tech community in the seven major cities of Newcastle, Sunderland, Hull, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool (and many points in between).

Despite some rather sensational headlines in the media lately, I’m leaving Tech North on positive terms and will continue to support it as best I can. My original contract simply came to an end on 31st March 2016 and so rather than sign a new one, I’ve decided the time is now right to start my own business, Plan Digital UK. (This is something I was actually on the verge of doing when I was offered the Tech North job last year).

I temporarily put this on hold as the opportunity to shine a light on all the great things that were already happening in the North whilst kick-starting something new was a huge draw and I’ve had an amazing experience with a truly awesome team.

It’s fair to say there were a few sceptics in the beginning who either saw us as a threat to what they were doing or didn’t see the need for another Government body loosely linked to the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. However, we soon won people over when they saw how genuinely committed and passionate we all were, with a grassroots approach to community building that took inspiration from Brad Feld’s ‘Boulder Thesis’.

With a broad remit but modest budget, we set about trying to inspire people to start their own tech business or community-based project, develop skills, create more jobs, improve access to finance and market the North to the rest of the UK and around the world. Our flagship ‘Northern Stars’ programme and relentlessly upbeat social media activity which you can follow and contribute to via the #TechNorth hashtag have helped turn this into a reality.

From a personal perspective, I’ve tried to use my networks and online influence to act like a ‘SuperConnector’ – bringing people and businesses together, mentoring and advising, matchmaking, making introductions, spotting opportunities to innovate and encouraging greater collaboration across the North.

I’ve also been able to sponsor and seed fund some fantastic events and initiatives that otherwise would not have happened, including some where our involvement has helped organisers unlock further sponsorship and support.

I’ve loved spending time in each of the seven amazing cities listed above every week but I love my wife and kids more and being away for one or two nights (and sometimes five nights) a week is tough when you have a young family so I’m looking forward to spending much more time with them at home.

So, from 1st April onwards I’ll continue to build connections between people and businesses but with more focus on the North East specifically. I’ll also be looking to share my knowledge, skills and expertise with individuals or organisations on a consultancy basis so please get in touch and/or Follow me on Twitter @lordlancaster if you think I can help.

The mission is much bigger than any one person so although I’m leaving the team I’ll continue to support from the sidelines and hope you will too as “We Are (All) Tech North”!

#FloodHack16 @ODILeeds (sponsored by #TechNorth)

On Friday 11th and Saturday 12th March around 70 developers, data scientists, academics, flood risk management consultants, local authority experts and geographers came together for our #FloodHack16 event at the Open Data Institute (ODI) in Leeds.

After being hugely impressed by the facilities and work being done by Paul Connell and his team at ODI Leeds when I first visited in October I just knew that we had to do something with them. And when the Boxing Day floods devastated huge parts of Yorkshire, I asked if they would organise a ‘Flood Hack’ if we gave them some funding to cover their costs.

In my opinion, some of the best things we’ve done at Tech North so far include seed funding new initiatives and sponsoring community-based events like this. Despite what many people think, Governments around the world have a long history of investing in new technology that creates and shapes the world (see Mariana Mazzucato’s excellent Thinking Digital 2014 talk on ‘Creating a revolution in how we speak about government‘).

What next?

Like all hackathons, there’s always the question of “what comes next?” So much skill, time and effort was put into #FloodHack16 by people who genuinely care about using ‘tech for good’ that it would be a shame not to take their ideas and outcomes further.

With George Osborne announcing that £700M would be spent on ‘flood defences’ in his Budget today, I’d love to see some of this given to ODI Leeds to implement some of the ideas which you can see outlined in the video below:

(Huge thanks to John Popham for live streaming #FloodHack16 and recording interviews and show and tell presentations throughout the two days. See all his excellent videos here).

The North East really does ‘Get Digital’

Everyone who lives and works in the North East’s creative and digital sectors knows what a great and vibrant place it is to be. However, if you’re not from the area or are still in education, your opinion of the area is likely to be thirty years out of date.

My experience at Tech North (part of the Govt-backed Tech City UK) and at Sage before that, has proven to me that one of the biggest barriers to success in the North East is a lack of positive media coverage. Yes, there are serious problems in some parts of the region but there are also huge success stories too if you know where to look but which aren’t being highlighted often enough. If all people ever get to see or hear are the negatives, is it any wonder that so many teachers, parents and grandparents tell their kids to move away in search of a brighter future, mistakenly believing there’s nothing for them here?

But it doesn’t need to be this way and thankfully there are many brilliant people working hard to re-educate and inspire people, shifting their focus from the failures of the past towards the opportunities of the future.

It’s for this reason that I was so pleased that we (Tech North) could sponsor Creative North’s ‘Get Digital North East’ event in Newcastle on 17th March. This event is all about shining a light on some of the fantastic digital and creative businesses and membership organisations we already have in the North East, whilst encouraging greater collaboration between them and providing an opportunity for people looking to start a career in the sector.

Newcastle has one of the strongest and most vibrant tech startup scenes in the UK which can be witnessed first hand at the free events, workshops and developer meetups that take place almost every night of the week at the Campus North co-working and event space where I am based, plus the amazingly talented people that work there during the day.

The recent ‘Tech Nation 2016’ report from my colleagues at Tech City UK revealed that when it comes to ‘digital tech economy jobs’, Newcastle had the second highest salary growth of any in the UK last year at 26.6% with an average salary of £44,068. Obviously not everyone is earning that much money but when you take the lower cost of living and arguably higher quality of life up here, Newcastle compares rather favourably with London’s average digital salary of £58,978. Sunderland has also seen significant growth in its digital economy in recent years with 17% growth in employment and 44% increase in turnover, largely thanks to the great work of organisations like Sunderland Software City helping to support and grow businesses in the city.

But there’s still much more to be done. If we want the North East digital and creative economy to grow and compete on a national and international level we have to all get better at shouting about our successes, collaborate more and do everything we can to upskill or retrain our existing workforce whilst providing relevant, useful and practical skills and training for our next generation of employees.

So let’s come together to show that the North East really does ‘Get Digital’, starting with the event at CastleGate on 17th March. I hope to see you there!

New Statesman - Unleashing the Northern Tech Powerhouse

The February/March issue of the New Statesman magazine includes a ‘Northern Powerhouse‘ supplement featuring the following article from me (in between one from George Osborne and James Wharton MP no less)!

Click on the image below to read a .PDF of the article…