Give cities a strong identity and the economic benefits will come

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Cities matter. That has been the message of almost every economic analysis about the UK in recent years. Billions of pounds of economic activity are ascribed to the agglomeration effect of people, companies, infrastructure and ideas converging in close proximity.

The growth of our economy will be driven by the growth of cities, and that is as true in the North of England as it is Northern China. But this is about more than just volume. Cities can only thrive as destinations where people want to live and work. That means they need identity.

Think London and you might think Big Ben. San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge. Paris, the Eiffel Tower. Emblems which capture the timeless promise and attraction of a destination.

And what works for cities as visitor destinations holds true for them as commercial destinations. London, as it has for well over a century, stands out as a financial services giant, increasingly with a technological bent. California and Silicon Valley are about the technologies driving the world of the future. Paris, the business of fashion.

Identity is the intangible catalyst to accelerate the benefits of urban density. It supercharges the potential of cities as meeting place for people and ideas. A destination that excites and inspires. One that attracts talent and investment.

The mantra of the hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, who knew a bit about what makes a good destination, was that “success is connected with action.” That is what an identity gives to a city: the invaluable sense that it is a place on the move, one where interesting things are happening, where you would be missing out by not taking a closer look.

If the promise of the Northern Powerhouse is to be fulfilled, Yorkshire and the North as a whole is going to need an identity as strong as the transport and governance infrastructure on which most attention has so far been focussed. And its cities are the answer.

It is quite right that efforts are being made to connect the North’s great cities together, physically through high speed rail, and politically with new combined bodies such as Transport for the North, chaired by former CBI chief John Cridland.

Yet this is progress that will move more at steam engine than high speed pace. Transport infrastructure in the UK is famously slow in coming, and political progress can prove almost as sluggish. Where the opportunity to speed ahead lies is with business.

It is business and industry, which created the identities that defined the North’s great cities in years gone by. Manchester as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution; Sheffield as the Steel City; Liverpool as the British heart of global trade. And it is business, which can and is performing the same function today.

It is the North’s digital economy that we might well find the best bet for super fast progress. Make no mistake there is a debate being fostered within the sector about where commercial advantage and identity might lie.

I chaired a debate recently for the British Business Bank where Lee Strafford, founder of the Sheffield-based broadband provider PlusNet, advance one intriguing theory. The North, he said, could steal a march by positioning itself as the natural home of B2B technology, in the same way as London has become best known for consumer tech.

Earlier this year, a list of the fastest growing Northern tech companies, from the investment bank GP Bullhound, a business I work with, showed that B2B may well be the way to go. In first position was IT consultancy OnTrac, ahead of consumer insight firm RealityMine, mobile accessory wholesaler PJA, and gambling industry platform Bede Gaming, all with annualised growth rates of over 100%.

B2B technology could fast become a booming Northern industry and a major part of its destination identity.

The question now, is how can that potential be captured and turned into a competitive advantage that attracts talent, companies and investment.

And that brings us back to cities. A connected cluster of powerful cities providing density of expertise and hunting as a pack is in every way as important as the train tracks, which might ultimately physically join them.