Gerard Grech: North can be industrial powerhouse of digital age

WE are witnessing a renaissance in Britain’s northern cities. Fuelled by the growth of the UK’s tech sector, cities like Leeds and Sheffield are reclaiming their industrial heritage, prospering as centres of innovation and entrepreneurship once more.

If we can go further, there is no doubt that the North of England will become the internationally competitive economic powerhouse envisaged by George Osborne in his Budget.

The growth of the UK’s digital industries has become a familiar theme in recent years. Yet, too often, it is a story specific to development in the South East, and predominantly the capital.

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London has cemented its status as a world-class tech hub with a digital ecosystem to rival any city in the world.

Five years since the creation of Tech City in Shoreditch, we can see real evidence of thriving digital clusters right across Britain. The potential to create a globally competitive UK tech proposition is on the horizon.

Our Tech Nation project, which analysed close to 50,000 digital technology businesses, shows that 74 per cent of them are based outside of London – a staggering statistic.

Launched by the Chancellor and Prime Minister in Leeds earlier this year, it highlights Yorkshire’s city regions as major hubs of digital business growth: rapidly evolving clusters of creativity.

Each cluster has its own unique DNA, with individual specialisms and areas of expertise. From Sheffield to Hull, diverse and unique capabilities have driven the growth of digital businesses across Yorkshire.

Building on its traditional strengths in engineering and manufacturing, Sheffield has emerged as a centre for Advanced Manufacturing, earning again its moniker of “maker city”. The Advanced Manufacturing Park unites the University of Sheffield with international corporations including Boeing and Rolls Royce. From gaming software pioneers Sumo Digital to online digital current account provider and “fintech” (financial technology) company Ffrees, a growing number of new companies are choosing to HQ in Sheffield.

Leeds, the city in which the Chancellor launched our Tech Nation report, boasts a burgeoning tech sector. With the highest concentration of financial service workers outside of London, “fintech” is becoming a core Leeds industry, but it continues to defy simple categorisation with Cirronix, Creode and Rocketware breaking the mould.

It is important that we celebrate the diversity of these local tech clusters but we can achieve more by encouraging greater collaboration to unite them.

A lot can be learned from the success of London’s tech sector which is thriving thanks to access to local talent, skills, networking and investment.

For the first time Yorkshire’s digital economy has been measured. Over 65,000 people are employed within digital businesses in Leeds and Sheffield (including South Yorkshire) alone, while Hull and East Yorkshire saw a 57 per cent increase in digital business creation between 2010 and 2013.

To truly harness business innovation and growth, we need to assist individual businesses to work together and share their successful ideas and experience.

This can only be achieved through greater connectivity and collaboration. Investment in vital infrastructure projects, such as HS2 and broadband, is crucial but we also need to promote human conversation and partnerships between entrepreneurs, inventors, schools, universities and businesses.

To address this issue, and to help accelerate the growth of digital businesses across the UK, Tech City UK established the Cluster Alliance. Using the Alliance as a platform, Tech City UK works with leading local figures and support networks to provide resources and programmes to support the growth of digital businesses and entrepreneurs.

The Cluster Alliance is already celebrating success. In July last year, Dotforge opened the first dedicated “fintech accelerator” outside of London in Leeds. Through our work with the DotForge team in Sheffield, an additional pre-accelerator hub has been established.

Like the original Chambers of Commerce, these are simply the structures and people who bring different skills in investment and industry, and combine to be more than the sum of their parts.

Yorkshire is bursting with talent. There is no shortage of skilled workers in places like Sheffield and Leeds, with some of the biggest student populations in the country. However, businesses surveyed by Tech City UK across Yorkshire highlighted a London “brain-drain”, and more needs to be done to make graduates aware of the local opportunities for them.

Nationally, we must and will do more to celebrate the individual differences of our tech clusters while at the same time promoting the UK’s connected digital economy to the world’s investors, entrepreneurs and digital professionals. Now is the time to realise the opportunity for our Tech Nation.

Gerard Grech is CEO of Tech City UK.