Digital State Consulting

From Mill town to Media City, Manchester’s Metamorphosis.

City, United, Coronation Street, Lowry, Oasis, the Industrial Revolution… for two-hundred years, Manchester has been an industrial and cultural powerhouse. Yet it also has an impressive history of technological innovation. In the late 18th century, Richard Arkwright pioneered the spinning frame helping to revolutionise the textile industry.

Manchester became home to one of the world’s first telephone exchanges. In 1948, the University of Manchester completed the first successful run of the “Small-Scale Experimental Machine”, nicknamed “Baby” – the first device containing all the components of a modern computer.

In 1951, the same team developed the “Ferranti Mark 1” – the world’s first commercially available general-purpose electronic computer. Drawing on some of these examples, we are retracing Manchester’s turbulent history from the riches of the Industrial Revolution to near ruin in the late twentieth century. We will examine the recent emergence of Manchester’s technological scene and also suggest what is in store for the region’s future.


In nineteenth-century Manchester, Cotton was King. Owing its industrial prominence, and its current geographical location, to its proximity to the sloping Pennines – providing a constant energy supply from the fast-flowing rivers – Manchester grew to a town of around 70,000 people by the end of the eighteenth-century.

Urban centre growth stimulated demand for manufactured goods and extensive changes to transport and communications infrastructure. The completion of the Duke of Bridgewater Canal enabled cotton, coal, heavy manufactured and consumer goods to be moved cheaply and at far greater distances than ever before. Canals quickly became vital arteries of the Manchester’s industrial landscape and by the 1830s four-thousand miles of navigable waterway criss-crossed the region.

Built on commerce

Manchester is a city built on commerce, nowerdays Ecommerce. During the nineteenth-century, the movement of credit stimulated profit-making values, leading to significant investment in the region’s textile industry. The importation of cotton through the Port of Liverpool and along the Mersey and Irwell Navigation (superseded by the Manchester Ship Canal) proved revolutionary. By the early 19th century, Manchester was both a marketplace and manufacturing and distribution centre for raw cotton and spun yarn. Coal-fuelled steam engines, pioneered by Richard Arkwright, were central to the mechanisation of the textile industry.

As mills spread rapidly, Manchester became dubbed “Warehouse City” and “Cottonpolis” – where the chimneys of over one hundred mills and factories dominated the smoke-sullied skyline. Mechanisation also dictated the course of industrial diversification: bleachworks and textile printworks serviced the cotton industry; engineering workshops were built; and the influx of financial services made Manchester the financial and cultural capital of the North – a status which it assumes today.

In a relatively short space of time, Manchester had become the world’s first modern industrial city. However, its new found eminence brought challenges. Most notably, the region became a hotbed for political radicalism. Famine and unemployment following the Napoleonic Wars, coupled with the lack of suffrage in the North’s urban centres, resulted in agitations and activism. In 1819, sword-wielding cavalry charged a peaceful political rally, killing at least 15 people and injuring hundreds – the Peterloo Massacre.

Cotton shortage during the American Civil War caused widespread distress. Inner city living conditions were typically poor and workers often suffered from malnutrition. Nevertheless, Manchester continued to thrive. It attracted people from home and abroad seeking the sights and sounds of a new way of life. A thriving cultural scene emerged – newspapers, libraries, music halls and cinemas – and the city’s industrial landscape continued to evolve. In 1894, for example, the Manchester Ship Canal was built, partly because dependence on the Port of Liverpool was proving expensive, which opened up the North’s industrial heartland to the world.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression and the advent of foreign competition spelled the beginning of the end for Manchester’s textile industry. Industrial diversification, however, cushioned some of the inevitable decline and helped to further engrain the pioneering spirit which Manchester has become known for. The Trafford Park development became home to new flour milling and automotive manufacturing industries, helping to offset some of the effects the depression had in other parts of city. The Co-operative Wholesale Society packaged most of its goods in the complex. It became home to Ford’s Model T car. And, in 1938, the Kellogg cereal company opened a major new plant at Barton Dock – the home of Corn Flakes to this day. In fact, by the mid-1930s over 200 American companies had established an overseas base in Trafford Park – signalling the start of a new industrial era.

During the Second World War much of Manchester’s industry was turned over to the production of military equipment. In Trafford Park, Ford made Rolls-Royce Merlin engines used to power the Spitfire, Lancaster Bomber and Hurricane aircraft; engineering firm Metropolitan-Vickers built heavy bombers.

Elsewhere, Dunlop’s rubber work made barrage balloons and locomotive manufactures Beyer, Peacock and Company assembled bombs. Manchester’s industrial importance, however, made it a target for German bombing during the Blitz – estimates suggest around 70% of Manchester’s Victorian and Edwardian buildings were destroyed or damaged, including the Royal Exchange, the Free Trade Hall and Manchester Cathedral.

Following the war, city leaders sought to heal the scars left by bombing and industrial decline. Although little came of a radical city plan in 1945, local authorities embarked on a huge slum clearance project. Areas like Hulme, Moss Side and Salford were cleared – around 90,000 dwellings were demolished between 1954 and 1976 – and new housing was erected in new satellite towns. By the late 1960s, the cotton industry was in steep decline. Between 1966 and 1971 the number of cotton spinning, weaving and waste warehouses fell from twenty-one to just six.

By the 1980s and 1990s the city centre’s early grandeur was increasingly dilapidated and unkempt – Britain’s former industrial heartland had become blighted by huge areas of dereliction, while new swaths of business parks and office blocks were erected in the outer-suburbs.

The demise of traditional manufacturing industries necessitated the development of Manchester’s service sector to fuel the city’s socio-economic development. Indeed, with the emergence of digital technology and media, Manchester has experienced a dramatic rebirth – and is now “Britain’s boom city”. Its population has grown 19%, almost three times the national average and, most strikingly, the number of people in their twenties has increased to 123,600 compared to 78,301 in 2001.

Of course, population growth has increased demands on housing, healthcare and school places, but its impact on the city’s economy has been largely positive. Manchester has the largest student population in Europe – over 100,000 students in five universities – creating a thriving start-up culture for technology-based businesses. The University of Salford’s new campus in MediaCityUK is developing new talent for tech industries and promoting collaboration between academics and professionals. Meanwhile, companies like TechHub and Techcelerate have helped fuel tech entrepreneurship, enhance Manchester’s technological ecosystem and accelerate business growth.

Manchester’s economic rejuvenation

The growth of business communities has been paramount to Manchester’s economic rejuvenation. The private investment company, Peel Group, has spent approximately £650 million developing MediaCityUK in Salford – now home to BBC Breakfast, BBC Sport, BBC Children’s, BBC North, as well as ITV Granada and Satellite Information Services. To the south of the city centre, Manchester Science Parks has become home to over 500 digital media, ICT, biotechnology and industrial technology companies.

Growth has been underpinned by substantial investment in the city’s infrastructure. BT recently completed a £575 million investment programme installing next generation broadband. “Fibre to the premises” (FTTP) has increased speeds to 100mbps, placing Manchester well ahead of its competitors in terms of access to digital communications. MediaCityUK, for instance, is now connected by twenty million metres of fibre delivering speeds up to 10 gigabits.

The Government has also recognised the city’s potential. The £150 million government-led Urban Broadband Fund, part of its “super-connected cities” plan, aims to provide superfast 4G city-wide mobile connectivity and ultrafast broadband by 2015 – with a particular attention to the growing needs of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and strategic employment zones. A combination of state funded and private initiatives have enabled Manchester’s digital and technology industries to compete internationally – overhead costs are cheaper, internet traffic moves faster and systems have greater resilience to network problems.

Throughout its history, Manchester has pioneered new ways to develop industry, and, accordingly, the current leadership cohort are planning ahead to meet future demands.  In 2011, a new flagship for digital technology, The Sharp Project, opened in Newton Heath. Speaking to the Manchester Evening News, Sue Woodward, the project director, said that the development “is the perfect place for start-ups to grow and flourish…people help each other out, pass on business leads or offer advice”, she adds, “this unique environment is what makes [the project] special and allows our tenants’ businesses to grow.”

The venture has been enhanced by the arrival of global corporations. EON Reality, a leading provider of 3D technology, has established its European headquarters and new research centre in the complex and aims to employ more than 240 people by 2015 – it has invested in a virtual reality showroom, 3D classroom infrastructure, a development lab and a new Entrepreneurial Coding School – offering 100 free places each year to young people.

Dan Lejerskar, co-founder and chairmen of EON Reality, remarks: “Manchester is the original technology city – they invented the computer and have been improving it ever since, designing, programming, creating content and sharing ideas”, he comments, “no other city in Europe has invested as much in its digital media and content operations – with billions being spent on creating a global hub for creative industries. Manchester is perfectly placed to be the UK’s digital city.”

The world of technology and media

Manchester has a huge future in the world of technology and media. “Growing British Business”, a report by HSBC, labels Manchester as a future “super-city” – the “centre of a network of innovative knowledge based industries, employing 80,000 new residents by 2027.” For that reason, city leaders are encouraging graduates and talented young people to stay in the region to safeguard the high tech talent of tomorrow. In 2012, for example, the development of a new coding school was announced to train the next generation of software talent.

However, digital connectivity is not the only facet to Manchester’s progressive business vision. Manchester Airport’s new “Enterprise Zone” aims to create 20,000 jobs over the next 15 years and intend to transform the city from a regional transport hub into a world class business destination – providing access to lucrative foreign markets. In fact, the distribution and trading industries have already seen success.

The World Freight Terminal enjoyed a successful decade of cargo growth, whilst the emergence of the Far East as a mass manufacturing region exporting to the UK guarantees future success. Similarly, the World Freight Centre, based in Trafford Park, has experienced dramatic growth – in 2013, its annual turnover grew by 17% to £6.8 million and is on course for its £25 million target by 2017.

“Manchester will be elevated to the top flight of world cities under a masterplan that will shape the city over the next 15 years”, reported the Manchester Evening News in June 2012. Town hall chiefs envisage a city driven by business and entrepreneurship – committed to media and digital technology – helping Manchester to eclipse rival cities such as Milan, Munich and Helsinki. 60,000 new homes will be created; population is expected to increase by 80,000 and new skyscraper developments will reshape the city’s skyline.

But why has Manchester’s regeneration been so successful?

Firstly, it has a proven track record of technological innovation and an established start-up culture. It was the world’s first industrial city and the birthplace of the computer – the city has constantly evolved, diversified and met the challenges which history has presented.

Secondly, substantial investment has not only underpinned its rebirth but also assures continued growth in the future.  Manchester has emerged as an attractive location for both national and international firms to do business – it is well connected, forward-thinking and innovative. Home to some of the best digital marketing agencies in the country and other silos of technology. 

It’s not surprising, therefore, that we – at DSC – have decided to make it our home. As the digital capital of the North, it is the ideal location to interact with professionals at the head of their respective fields; develop new services to meet our clients’ demands and dynamically evolve with constant change. We are truly at the vanguard of technological innovation and, for Manchester, the future looks bright.