Worldwide technology, local regeneration: the Manchester Approach

Shaun Fensom

From Knowledge Politics October 2007: Localism and the information society

It was back in 1989 that forward-thinking people in Manchester City Council first thought of using on-line services to promote economic and social development. The city was reeling from the loss of many thousands of manufacturing jobs in the 1980’s – parts of North and East Manchester had become a wasteland, and many thousands of people had no realistic prospect of ever working again. At the time the fledgling on-line services industry consisted of a small number of independent networks offering mostly corporate and public sector users email and online information sources, and the internet was a specialist computer network confined to academics and the US military.

Working with one of the smaller providers, pioneers at Manchester City Council used urban regeneration money to set up a new online service for the city. This was the Manchester Host 1, aimed at private, public sector and community users. It offered email, bulletin boards and access both to existing commercially-run database services (such as the Official Airlines Guide), as well as a facility for local organisations and businesses to set up their own on-line databases, and take the first steps to becoming electronic publishers in their own right. The Manchester Host was probably unique in the way it used a technology that was clearly global (email was hardly known at the time, but was an invaluable tool for international communication), with a local economic strategy. Grant funds were used to set up a network of “Electronic Village Halls” where people – often from disadvantaged communities - learnt how to use the Host – how to connect using a modem, exchange emails and access database information.

The Host was operated by an employee cooperative, Poptel 2, which was able to sustain the business after the grant funding was used up. But it was almost certainly too far ahead of its time. It seems ironical now that one of the biggest disincentives to new users, newly excited by the technology, was the bald statement that they had “no new messages” when they logged on: email did not reach “critical mass” until several years later.

During the early 1990’s the technology was made easier to use, particularly with the invention of the World Wide Web. This was adopted as the base technology for the Manchester Community Information Network (MCIN) 3, started in 1994. This was in contrast with a number of municipal information services set up by local authorities using viewdata technology which was seen as a way to distribute information quickly and cheaply. The lowcost modems were “asymmetric” – information was transmitted from the central servers out to the users much more quickly than the other way. The crude low-resolution text and graphics meant that cheap and simple terminal devices could use a television for a display.

MCIN not only correctly guessed which technology would become dominant, it also instinctively rejected the “broadcast” model implicit in the other public information networks. With the spread of dial-up internet access in the late 90’s, MCIN went on to focus on the development of what it called community portals. Portal services were mushrooming across the net as a way for people to find what they wanted in what was already a bewildering mass of information. MCIN adapted the principle to local information. This was not unique, but the focus on enabling the community to run their own portals and generate content was typical of the Manchester approach.

The same notion – that disadvantaged communities can enthusiastically adopt and benefit from quite advanced technologies ahead of the rest of society – was central to the development of the Eastserve4 project some years later in 2001. Eastserve was one of a number of government-funded “wired up community” projects. Its aim was to break a cycle of decline in East Manchester - one of the most deprived areas in the UK. Very low cost computers were made available (£200 for a new PC) to residents in cooperation with the local credit union which provided loan finance. And a large scale wireless (“WiFi”) network was built, providing internet access at broadband speeds (at a time when “DSL” broadband services were only available in some parts of the UK and take-up was very low).

Since its launch Eastserve has provided the community with over 5,000 PCs, each one delivered with 3 hours’ training, and over 2,000 households have taken up the broadband service. This is in an area where very large numbers of households have no telephone line and would in any case be unable to buy normal broadband services because of the requirement to have a credit card and to sign up for a year’s contract. Instead Eastserve users can pay cash – from as little as £6 per month – and drop in and out of the service as and when they can afford it.

A vital component of the project has been the focus on involving the community in its delivery. The lively website encourages local people to contribute content, and “community champions” have received some 30 hours training each, enabling them to provide training and support services in turn. Some have even gone on to teach ICT at the local college. The jobs database receives over 2,000 enquiries a month, and the anonymous crime reporting service amassed 650 reports in 9 months. There is – claims Eastserve – emerging evidence of increases in school attendance and achievement (a similar effect has been reported by Cybermoor in Cumbria).

Manchester now has a vibrant digital and creative sector, expected to grow rapidly when the BBC moves in to the new Media City on the banks of the ship canal. The city centre has seen a building boom since the IRA bomb in 1996. But many in the city see the success as a reason to put more effort into tackling social exclusion: Manchester still ranks third in the deprivation stakes behind Liverpool and Knowsley. The next challenge for cities, like Manchester, that see their future in the development of “knowledge industries”, is the introduction of so-called next generation access – ultra high speed broadband services of 100Mbits per second and more. Here again Manchester’s attitude is that the very latest technology is relevant and useful in tackling social exclusion, and that given a chance, deprived communities can make just as much use as the young professionals moving into the city centre apartments.

Acknowledging Manchester’s status as the home of the worldwide cooperative movement (the first modern cooperative was founded in Rochdale 160 years ago, and Manchester is the headquarters of the Co-op), the Manchester Digital Development Agency5 now wants to use

the cooperative model, as a way of tackling the failure of the private sector to start building a next generation network, but also as a way to engage communities in the production of content. Cooperatives can help “aggregate demand” to make new network construction viable, while at the same time ensuring that all parts of the community can get the benefit, instead of allowing network operators to “cherry pick” the most lucrative business.

1 The Manchester Host has been the subject of academic research and is referred to in Gurstein, M (2000), Community Informatics: Enabling Communities with Information and Communications Technologies, and Woolgar, S (2002), Virtual Society?: Technology, Cyberbole, Reality. See also

2, and