How artificial intelligence (AI) could hold the key to levelling up - Rhys Merrett

Westminster’s attempts to bridge the north-south divide has failed to deliver the levelling up vision reflected in the countless policy pledges and reforms. In fact, the opposite is now happening.

The recent discussions surrounding the future of the HS2 project (a controversial undertaking to begin with) has triggered a broader discussion, one focused on the growing rift forming between local authorities and National Government.

The crux of the issue is the lack of outcome. Pledges have not converted into action, and the ones that have, are typically marred by poor planning, delays and lost momentum. The question beckons - will a permanent rift always exist between the North and the South?

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Progress will only come about should we collectively change the narrative and recognise the added value and potential the North can deliver to the country’s economic productivity and growth. Lest we ever forget about where the Industrial Revolution began. This is in contrast to an approach which positions the North as playing catchup to the South and indeed London.

HS2 contractors excavating an area below a newly replaced section of the Aylesbury to Princes Risborough branch line track. PIC: Jonathan Brady/PA WireHS2 contractors excavating an area below a newly replaced section of the Aylesbury to Princes Risborough branch line track. PIC: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
HS2 contractors excavating an area below a newly replaced section of the Aylesbury to Princes Risborough branch line track. PIC: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

The added value is already on display. Conferences, festivals and local initiatives led by industry-bodies consistently champion the entrepreneurial potential on offer. Startups, which form the backbone of the UK economy, continue to sprout in numbers. And while there has been a traditional focus on London as a global hub for startup formation and growth, businesses are seeking the opportunities on offer in places like Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. Setting a base in these Northern cities makes sense for startups. It shields them from the overheads and operational costs which have skyrocketed as a product of inflation. World-class universities and incubator programs, combined with proud city cultures and sense of identity have made the North an attractive destination for early-stage companies.

Unfortunately, recognition of this trend has been limited to certain industry circles. Instead, when we speak about startups, innovation and business growth, London dominates both domestic and international conversations. Yes, it is a global city. Yes, it is a beacon for foreign investment. And yes, it boasts one of Europe’s leading startup rates. It benefits from a rich historical legacy and a global financial services capital. How could Northern cities compete with this?

The point is they can’t, and neither should they strive to. Instead, what is needed is greater recognition within the UK and abroad on the startup opportunities that are on offer outside of the capital.

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If investment is key to the future of the North, rebalancing foreign capital injections to regional cities has to be promoted and diversified. The long-term goal here is to present a new image of the North as a region that showcases the best of local talent, and presents an environment geared towards the long-term scale of startups.

We can already start making that difference by taking that long-term view, defining the future vision of the North in the immediate and long-term and working practically to achieve outcome-based results.

Take artificial intelligence (AI) as an example. As part of the Leeds Digital Festival, The PHA Group hosted a panel discussion on how AI is transforming the business world, public sentiment towards the technology and how the sector’s rise is likely to transpire. Naturally, the Global AI Safety Summit taking place this November was mentioned numerous times; a summit focusing on risk and safety concerns linked to frontier AI.

This Summit symbolises the beginning of a nationwide discussion on our relationship with this new technology, including how we can ensure the UK is seen as a global player.

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It goes without mentioning that London will play a pivotal role, from policy to private innovation. But before this technology really takes hold, the national government needs to ensure this is balanced with equal engagement and contribution from the North.

This contribution can take many forms. Local conferences and events focused on AI innovation, policies targeted towards the incubation of AI startups, particularly in cities with renowned university research facilities, alongside a wider education campaign and community discussion are all viable options that can be considered.

The Levelling Up strategy is marketed as a ‘moral, social and economic programme’ to spread opportunity across the whole of the UK. Yet its image is now tarnished with underwhelming outcomes and controversial infrastructure projects.

Let us bridge the rift that is forming so the North-South divide no longer holds merit as a concept. Let us instead look to the strengths of the North and think ambitiously for the future, setting objectives that set an admirable vision and are attainable. AI is not the silver bullet solution, but it has a role to play.

Rhys Merrett is head of technology at the PHA Group.

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