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In his first blog for the RSA, Ed Cox, the new director of the Public Services and Communities change aim in the Action & Research Centre, considers the alignment between the RSA’s mission to ‘enrich society through ideas and action’ and the civic spirit that once galvanised some of Manchester’s most well-known entrepreneurs. Considering some of the region’s most successful companies today, the question arises as to how far they are linking commercial success with social transformation in the city region and beyond. Could the idea of a Northern Powerhouse provide inspiration for new ways to think about good work and rejuvenate the prospect that places like Manchester could become cities of mass learning and innovation? And can we build on a northern conversation about trains and mayors to explore issues such as health, energy and democratic renewal?

 

Last week I was invited to give the keynote speech at the awards ceremony for the 50 fastest growing companies in the North West of EnglandAwards were handed to a housebuilder, a public sector consultancy and distributor of healthcare products, which in itself tells us something about the North West economy, but in the wider roll of honour there were makers and traders representing the diversity of the region’s economy: from cloud solutions to catering; from telematics to toys. 

The ceremony took place at the Museum of Science and Industry which for me characterises so much of Manchester at its best - of course, drawing upon its rich industrial heritage from steam power to clever chemistry and textiles; but there’s also something dynamic and regenerative at the museum too. When they were younger, my kids always loved coming to the Experiment Zone and even now even now there’s a special exhibition where you can enjoy a virtual reality space descent in the Soyuz capsule. 

 

Enriching society through ideas and action 

The whole occasion seemed very fitting for a first speech in my new role at the RSA, where I’ve just taken over as the Director of Public Services and Communities.  

As many reading this will know, the RSA was founded in London in 1754 by William Shipley and one of its very first activities was to organise an awards scheme. For its first 100 years the Society encouraged innovation and excellence and handed out awards in six areas - Agriculture, Manufacture, Chemistry, Mechanics, Polite Arts, Colonies and Trade.  But the modern mission of the RSA is to enrich society through ideas and action and it often strikes me when I walk around the city of Manchester, where I live, that although some of its historical greats were inventors and makers and traders, they too were infused with a civic spirit and a desire to enrich society through ideas and action. 

Very often they combined their entrepreneurial spirits and wealth with acts of wider social good. For example, people like John Rylands who would have won the Fastest 50 award many times over in Manchester in the mid-nineteenth century – but as a Congregationalist, he also built orphanages and public baths and coffee houses all around the city. 

Ironically it was his wife, Enriqueta, who built the famous library on Deansgate now named after him and she was also the first person to design an electric lighting system to reduce the risk of gas lamps setting fire to the books. Manchester then became the first city to have electric street lighting too – and if you want to know more then there’s a special Circuit City exhibition that is on at the museum at the moment. 

It seems that what both the RSA and Manchester have in common is that enlightenment spirit of combining innovation and enterprise with wider social transformation. The challenge though for today’s fastest 50 companies is whether they are using their entrepreneurial success to bring about the social transformation we so desperately need to see. 

This challenge is not a moralistic one. The men and women that have time and again remade Manchester did not do so out of a dreary moral burden, they did so because they were excited that their designs, their innovations and their ideas could be put to wider use and no doubt lead to further commercial success. 

 

Northern Powerhouse 2.0 

And for me this challenge needs to apply beyond Manchester and the North West. In recent times the idea of ‘the Northern Powerhouse’ has generated a lot of attention and I have often wondered whether we couldn’t transform it into something that goes beyond some clunky ideas about the economy and instead stimulates a new wave of innovation and collaboration to create more fulfilling Northern lives and a more flourishing Northern society? 

This is what I’m calling Northern Powerhouse 2.0. And given George Osborne announced Northern Powerhouse Mark 1 at the Museum of Science and Industry, it seems fitting to call for a Northern Powerhouse 2.0 should be made in the very same place. 

There is nothing desperately wrong with Northern Powerhouse Mark 1. It is true that in my previous role at IPPR North, regularly railed against the idea that the Northern Powerhouse is all about creating a new London in the North – or even constantly comparing our productivity growth with that of London. That seems such a myopic approach. We need a North that redefines the 21st century economy, not one that emulates some of the worst excesses and inequalities of the late-20th century virtual economy. 

And it is true that I have consistently argued that it’s not just about Manchester and Leeds – so many of the North’s most significant economic assets lie outside its big cities in its energy sector, its advanced manufacturing and in its natural environment. 

But George Osborne’s recognition of the importance of better transport links and more recently of an improvement in our schools and skills systems remain key priorities and his emphasis on driving devolution and rebuilding city leadership is one of the great challenges of our time. 

So what then could be meant by Northern Powerhouse 2.0? And how is it relevant to the fastest growing companies? 

 

The Northern Powerhouse as a social movement 

I have always been fascinated by the way in which the term ‘Northern Powerhouse’ has seemed to stir the emotions. Wherever you go, people have heard of it and even if people have no real idea what “it” is, they still seem keen to engage in a discussion about it. This is particularly true in the business world. Nearly four years on since Osborne first used the phrase there still seems to be considerable momentum behind the idea that there might be something ‘Northern’ about our collective effort to transform the economy. 

Although we have our more parochial identities and our pride in particular towns or cities, we are also comfortable being Northern and somehow different from ‘the South’. What I think we are witnessing – and it is true right across Europe – is the gradual emergence of a more regional identity which is taking the form of what sociologists might call ‘a social movement’. 

Whatever we call it, whatever is causing it, as The Guardian’s Helen Pidd has notedNorthern identity is back in vogue and it creates a huge opportunity to think beyond just big cities, metro mayors and fast trains and to ask ourselves the question: what kind of Northern Powerhouse are we actually trying to build? 

 

Northern Powerhouse 2.0: redefining good work 

I think that the RSA and its many Fellows in the North can help answer that kind of question in an interesting and creative way. Last year, for example, the RSA published the findings of the Inclusive Growth Commission. The commission had brought together the great and the good to understand and identify practical ways to make local economies across the UK more economically inclusive and prosperous. 

The Commission made important recommendations about how we develop place-based industrial strategies, how we think again about public investmentand even how we measure economic success. More recently we have published reports on economic insecurity and the future of work. This is one of the most pressing issues of our time – and right at the heart of what so many of the North’s fastest growing companies must be about – what kind of jobs are they creating? what kind of workplaces are they responsible for? how are they shaping the lives of their employees? – while at the same time trying to remain profitable and deliver commercial success. 

I am fascinated to understand whether there is something about being employers who are committed to Manchester – or to the North – just like the industrialists of old – many of the fastest growing companies are at the same time reinventing working practices so that we might redefine ‘good work’ in the twenty-first century here in the North. 

 

Northern Powerhouse 2.0: redefining learning and collective intelligence 

Secondly, we know that our cities flourish when they encourage systems and networks of learning and insight – not just in schools and through the formal education system but by involving learners, employers, civil society and the voluntary and cultural sectors in making lifelong learning as core to their cultural and civic identity. 

The RSA has a new programme called Cities of Learning which has been developed here with the museum of science and industry, with BBC North, the university and Curious Minds. 

The hope is that Manchester might become a pilot where we explore ways in which we can activate a grassroots, city-based, mass-engagement movement around learning and skills in the city. And although there are lots of RSA events in the North already, wouldn’t it be good to bring even more of the RSA’s events programme to this city, perhaps even establishing a Northern base for the RSA’s programme. 

Beyond this, it is fascinating to think through how we use the digital and data expertise in the North of England to explore what it means to develop collective intelligence. Are there new data platforms and technologies that can be opened up for social good that we might pioneer in the North that give us both a commercial and a social advantage as artificial intelligence increasingly disrupts our world. 

 

Northern Powerhouse 2.0: redesigning public services, transforming energy and transportation systems 

Thirdly, we are in the midst of a huge public experiment in Greater Manchester with the devolution of health and social care. Manchester is the city where we are supposed to be reinventing the health service for the 21st century. But it is also the city where levels of ill health are some of the worst in the country. 

For example, Central Manchester and North Manchester CCGs are the two worst in the whole country for emergency admissions for asthma – with central Manchester’s admissions rate more than twice that of the national average. No surprise then that Manchester is a city where air pollution on Oxford Road was 5 times the legal limit on no fewer than 90 days in 2016. 

Healthcare, air pollution, transport, energy – these are some of the burning issues of our time. Could Manchester, for example, be the first city in the UK to radically decentralise its energy system with thousands of micro-generation projects and a massive programme of retrofitting its houses to make them more energy efficient? Could it switch to an all-electric bus fleet in the next 3 years? Could the North of England be the first region to take responsibility for its own carbon budget and hit its carbon reduction targets through switching our heating and transportation systems to hydrogen power? 

 

Northern Powerhouse 2.0: new forms of democracy and decision-making 

And lastly, the North of England has always been home to democratic transformation. From Peterloo to the Chartists and the Suffragettes, Northerners have always railed against the vested interests of the London elite and explored new ways of collective and more inclusive decision-making. 

So many of our nation’s intractable problems – the planning systempensions, immigration, climate change - are rooted in the weaknesses of highly-centralised, two-party, parliamentary democracy with an antiquated first-past-the-post voting system. Devolution offers some opportunity to reinvent democracy from the bottom-up with far more deliberative and participatory approaches to local and regional decision-making. 

Why couldn’t Manchester have a second chamber for business and the voluntary sector to hold the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to account? Why couldn’t we establish a Northern Citizen’s Assembly to speak with a louder voice on the national and international stage? 

The North West is currently defying the odds with rates of economic growth that are currently out-stripping many parts of London and the South East, but the challenges facing the North of England are broader and deeper than simple GVA or profitability metrics will address. There is a great opportunity for some of the North of England’s most successful firms to join once again with a great institution like the RSA – not least through its fellowship programme – and unite commercial success with social transformation. This is how Manchester put itself on the map and it’s how we will once again build a world-leading Northern Powerhouse. 

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