NW in 2017: The next digital wave

PLACE TECH LOGO FOR ARTICLESWe’re in the midst of a second digital revolution and it’s incredibly fascinating, challenging and inspiring to be living in an era which has given birth to disruptive businesses in the sharing economy, like Airbnb and Uber, which deploy technology to connect and transact without owning physical assets, writes Thomas Renn.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic for Manchester or the North West to one day be home to a cluster of ‘unicorn’ companies like these – firms valued at more than $1bn within five years of start-up.

We do have exciting digital businesses here, and a strong track record of supporting university spin-outs, but we’ve some way to go in terms of early-stage venture capital funding and commercialising our great innovations before we can compete with the US.

There are however, some fantastic opportunities for Manchester. Chief among these platforms is the Internet of Things, where the CityVerve smart cities demonstrator gives us the chance to be a real pioneer.

I am sure many readers will be aware of the deployment of IoT devices at our Citylabs 1.0 campus as part of CityVerve. This will allow us to connect, sense, receive and share data from the assets in the building, so we can then shape decisions around how we heat, light and maintain it.

I see the digitisation of assets being a big trend in property in 2017 – something like 80% of buildings are unconnected, so there will be opportunities for owners and asset managers to connect them and eke out cost efficiencies. I believe we’ll see increased adoption of solutions featuring augmented reality and virtual reality which could forever change how we view, fit-out and market our buildings.

Generally, I feel the sector is slightly behind the curve in terms of tech and innovation; just look at how financial services companies have embraced it. Ten years ago, Goldman Sachs had just a handful of software engineers, now they employ more of these guys than they do traders – something like 9,000.

We’ve seen some really significant deals in proptech this year: the $300m combination of US-based VTS and Hightower has created a powerful online leasing and asset management platform, which is one to watch.

Appear Here, which has created the world’s biggest online marketplace for vacant retail space, is another fantastic disruptive business which will gain further traction in 2017. Encouragingly, it’s a British business that is expanding internationally, which is great to see.

In terms of an aspiration for 2017, I feel strongly that all businesses have a responsibility to look at themselves and ask what kind of contribution they can make to the greater good.

At a time where the public sector is having to do more with considerably less, if there is an issue, for example around skills, infrastructure  or funding, we should not just sit back and wait for someone else to intervene and solve it. Much more can be achieved by like-minded organisations working together towards a common goal, than it can by operating in isolation.

  • Thomas Renn is managing director of Manchester Science Partnerships

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