As a Ventures and Partnerships Consultant at The Co-operative Group and Tech Advisor to the Manchester Growth Company, Claire Braithwaite knows all about working to create growth in the north of England. We caught up with her before the Manchester health inquiry.
Do you view Manchester as home to a vibrant economy?
There is so much about Manchester that is compelling and engaging. People don’t fit into a box here. It’s a city where individualism is embraced, which makes it attractive to creatives and people who want to have a less rigid way of working. So, yes, I absolutely view Manchester as vibrant.
What would you pinpoint as the city’s main strength?
First and foremost, the people. In Manchester, you can work with passionate people, creative people, people who have different ways of looking at challenges. The people I work with are excited by how we can solve some of the deeper challenges facing Manchester. They don’t just want to make money; these are people who genuinely care.
What are the city’s main challenges?
Some 40% of children in Manchester are living under the poverty line. That disturbs me. Homelessness is an issue and it’s something that is increasingly prevalent in the city centre.
There is, clearly, unequal growth – some people are really prospering here, while others aren’t. In respect to health, we have one of the unhealthiest populations in the country. I think the lack of inclusive opportunities and inequality is a contributor to that.
However, in Manchester people do care. We have a society and a population that want to make a difference and want to contribute to their community.
Can technology be the bridge that improves the imbalance?
We have to build a tech ecosystem that is inclusive. The tech sector provides an enormous opportunity for Manchester to benefit from direct economic growth. It will have most impact if the sector brings as many people as possible with it.
This means ensuring a wide proportion of the population has the opportunity to develop digital skills and careers in tech; workers in the sector earn typically 60% higher wages than the average wage in the region.
But I think it’s dangerous to see tech as a solution to all our problems. Technology can enable answers some of the city’s and region’s problems but it should not on its own be seen as a silver bullet.
How do we make tech work for everyone?
There are some really interesting projects going on in Manchester right now. One is GM Connect, which looks at how data can be shared, across public health and civic organisations. This creates opportunities for data to drive insights into how we can improve public services and make better informed decisions about how public money should be spent to build a healthier population.
The other is Connected Health Cities, which analyses health data to identify better care pathways so we can be smarter about how we provide public health services.
Nowhere else is looking at data or health in the way Manchester is, nor does any other city have direct control of their health budget. We are finding ourselves in a position where we are a test bed, exploring how we can use technology to drive changes to our city.
Are you happy that Manchester is the test city?
Personally, yes. I am a change maker and I’m drawn to a challenge. I think that challenging times can bring out the best in people and places. And, the world is changing. For example, the NHS is under tremendous stress and meaningful transformation is required and it needs to start somewhere. I can’t think of a better place to do it than Manchester.
How important is the wellbeing of workers to a business’s economic success?
In 20 years, I have never seen a business or organisation outperform its culture. It’s not possible. If you don’t treat your people well, you might drive some sort of short term benefit, but it’s not sustainable and you won’t be able to build anything valuable over the long-term. So, I’ve come to see that culture is the most important asset of an organisation; it’s the foundation stone.
It feels like we’re at the beginning of a journey to improve the health and wellbeing of the people of this city, and hopefully that means happiness, as well. It’s not just about disease, it’s about asking questions and exploring new ways of approaching challenges. Can we organise ourselves and use tech in such a way that we can start to address some of these problems that have been entrenched here for a long time?
What do you hope is achieved by the Vibrant Economy Inquiry in Manchester?
It would be great if people came away having had a lightbulb moment, a realisation of what could be achieved through engaging with different people in different ways.
I would love to see the inquiry widen the conversation about Manchester’s devolved future, and offer a forum to open up avenues to people who maybe felt before that they could not previously engage. Also, on the flip side for those who are making decisions about the city, I hope they start to see how they can derive opportunities and insights from working more broadly across the city region with different groups they hadn’t thought of before.
As a Vibrant Economy Commissioner, how do you view your role in developing a vibrant economy?
Commissioners can offer provocations. Anyone who claims they alone have solutions to the UK economy’s challenges is underestimating the challenges. At times like this it is important to ask the right questions, encourage people to approach things differently, and take a more experimental and innovative approach.
It’s hard right now in the current political climate. I think there’s very little space for innovation or inventiveness. The media are too quick to slam something down. You get into messaging management, rather than thinking ‘no, let’s get stuck in and try different things.’
But we need to start to think differently about how we govern places, invest in places and create space for experimenting. Something might not work, but I hope the Commission can be a voice that opens up new ideas for moving forward.
Claire Braithwaite is a member of the Vibrant Economy Commission and a Ventures and Partnerships Consultant at The Co-operative Group, and Tech Advisor to the Manchester Growth Company.