Manchester innovation: is there a road to Graphene Valley?

At his first (and last) Autumn Statement, Chancellor Philip Hammond, announced that £23bn will be invested in innovation and infrastructure over the next five years in order to boost productivity. The recently released Northern Powerhouse Strategy is clear to point out that the North has ‘lagged behind’ other areas of the country in terms of productivity, and that the region has 34% fewer patents per head than the UK as whole, so there is clearly room for improvement. Manchester is in an excellent position to attract the investment required for innovative technology sectors, but it will need to continue to push for transport infrastructure improvements if it is to reach its full potential.

We’ve attended many networking events where there have been discussions about the kind of investment seen in Manchester in recent years. Rolling back 20 years or so, the city was said to be looking to attract pretty much any investment that came its way, but now it is able to seek global, long-term investors: the kind which are needed to grow an innovative technology sector. The University of Manchester, in particular, is working hard to become a hub for new technology, with the Graphene Institute becoming a flagship development for the city in science circles, and a further building dedicated to the material due next year. There is also the University’s Innovation Centre, which provides a hub for ‘biotech and hi-tech’ companies.

In the grand scheme of things, however, the one aspect that pretty much all conversations regarding investment in the North turn to is transport infrastructure. It’s no secret that this is something all regions across the North desperately need, not just within their own boundaries, but between the major city regions. The Treasury has said the government is still committed to improving connectivity between Sheffield and Manchesterand that, congestion on the M62 means that it can take more than two hours to travel the 40 miles between Manchester and Leeds. This makes it harder for people to find jobs, for firms to find workers, and for ideas to be shared and developed.’

While Manchester may be in a great position to build on the innovative industry it already has, if it is really to unlock the potential then the infrastructure commitments will need to come to fruition. The rhetoric on this is positive: Mr Hammond has committed to billions of pounds of transport infrastructure investment in the North over the course of this Parliament. There have also been positive comments coming from Whitehall regarding Transport for the North and its bid to become the country’s first statutory sub-national transport body. We’ve had this kind of optimism before, but by 2020 it looks as though the North will be very much on the way to being better connected. If this turns out to be the case, could we see Manchester have its very own Graphene Valley?

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