Guest blog: Greater Manchester – infrastructure to tackle exclusion?
It’s been fantastic to see some big tech events return to life with 6,000 people attending Manchester Tech Week in April and all the buzz, energy and ideas sparking from re-acquaintances and fresh introductions. One thing that is coming through - loud and strong - is the importance of focussing on digital inclusion and social value in the context of rising cost of living pressures. Undoubtedly the emphasis is shifting when we talk about digital from tech and hardware to people and impact – but what role does infrastructure have to play in that?
Challenging our partners
Greater Manchester’s £30M Local Full Fibre Networks Programme (LFFN) set out a plan for up to 2,700km of new fibre optic broadband infrastructure to connect more than 1,500 public sites. It’s the UK’s largest and most ambitious LFFN programme to date.
During the procurement phase we made clear that this was more than just cables in the ground - we needed any successful supplier to commit to a range of bold social value ambitions to help our people live healthier and happier lives and we’re seeing that in action now via our partner Virgin Media O2 Business.
So, why is that important? Because having wider impacts is essential - for example in helping to tackle homelessness – with Virgin Media 02 Business donating £100,000 to the Greater Manchester Mayor’s Charity to support the A Bed Every Night programme. The team have also set up a mixture of homeless shelters, charities and community centres with free gigabit connectivity for five years and given hundreds of devices and connectivity to school pupils at risk of digital exclusion. That’s not the first thing that springs to mind when you see cable being laid, but for us it’s a reality.
A call to industry
I recently listened to the rousing closing speech from Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, who called on digital tech businesses to work with us on fixing the digital divide and closing the digital skills gap. “Now is the time” was his most emphatic point.
Our relationship with VMB illustrates this – building on the work described above it is growing into a unique public-private social innovation partnership centred on tacking digital exclusion, and innovative and affordable connectivity spanning support to get under 25s, over 75 and disabled people online. VMB have seconded staff to GMCA to support this and we are co-designing new ways of working to support Care Leavers and other groups, working with our local authorities, housing bodies, other industry players and thought leaders like the Good Things Foundation.
In Greater Manchester digital infrastructure, inclusion and skills are not separate entities. They are initiatives, projects and challenges we’re looking at as a whole but we can’t do this alone.
For example, our education system is not yet aligned with our own vision in Greater Manchester. All our young people should get a good grounding in digital skills with future employability in mind.
In addition, we have the Greater Manchester Apprenticeship and Careers Service (GMACS) and as of end 2021, more than 100,000 young people have used the service to find opportunities, access resources and directly apply for apprenticeships.
GMACS launched with the intention of being a UCAS-style system; a one-stop shop allowing users to search and apply directly for opportunities with businesses in the city-region. It also includes careers advice, skill-building workshops and a personality quiz designed to give people an idea of their compatibility with certain jobs. Since its creation, the platform has grown considerably to incorporate the concerns raised by young people through the Young Person’s Guarantee such as transitions into work and training, health and wellbeing, digital connectivity, transport safety and concerns around widening inequalities.
We have funds like the Skills for Growth programme, designed to fill the occupational skills gaps identified by employers who have continually highlighted that they cannot find the technical skills in Greater Manchester required to support and grow their businesses. GMCA secured £42million from the European Social Fund to deliver a three-year programme, working in partnership with businesses and training providers to create new learning opportunities for employed residents in the city-region.
The digital landscape is changing faster than many people appreciate, this brings its own complexities and challenges. But one thing is clear – in Greater Manchester we have relentless focus on "making a difference" for the people and communities of our region, an exciting time indeed.
Guest blog by Phil Swan, Director for Digital at Greater Manchester Combined Authority
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