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Digital City Festival 2023: Highlights from The Tech Debrief


Digital City Festival is in full swing across Greater Manchester, with tech leaders from the likes of techUK, Manchester City Council and Praetura Ventures speaking at The Tech Debrief event yesterday.

Hosted at Bruntwood SciTech’s The Bright Building on Tuesday 28th March, industry leaders and decision-makers across the tech world united for a series of dedicated panel sessions and talks from delving into tech for good, emerging technologies to demystifying AI and tackling the tech skills gap.

After a morning welcome and introductions, a tech for good panel kicked off the morning chaired by Manchester City Council’s Digital Strategy Lead, Sherelle Fairweather. Speakers joining the panel included Kira Allmann, Senior Digital Strategy Officer for Manchester City Council; Ben Davies, Group Marketing Director at Praetura Ventures; Gemma McCall, co-founder and CEO at tech for good developer Culture Shift and Pauline Archer-Weill, Senior Service Designer at Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Kira sparked a debate about the expression ‘tech for good’, is it devoid of meaning as tech “is not developed for evil”? As the tech industry has evolved, the panel agreed that there needs to be greater levels of scrutiny. “Technology has gone unchecked,” explained Gemma. “Regulation is the only way. Left to their own devices, technology and social media organisations don’t do the right things or behave ethically.”

Every company should be measured against tech for good initiatives moving forward, “not just surface level, nitty gritty KPIs”.

There needs to be more diverse perspectives contributing to fuel tech innovation. “You can’t pretend to be inclusive and advocate for change if you can’t start with the people with those issues,” said Pauline. As tech for good companies often face challenges if they are making a profit, Ben asked: “Why are we ok with a company who is making profit for shareholders compared to one that makes profit and helps people?”

On the future and opportunities for Greater Manchester, the panellists all agreed they would love to see Manchester continue to innovate and become a world leader in tech. From AI, cyber, fintech to tech for good, the region is in a good position to have “global ambitions but small enough to work together”. 

An insightful talk on Scaling internationally in 2023: advice from those who’ve been there before saw Colin Greene, ex-Apple and VC partner at Praetura Ventures and Mark Hartley, founder of Manchester-based fintech BankiFi take to the stage.

Discussing their own experiences in markets overseas from Australia, the US to Japan and Korea, there’s “no blueprint” to scaling. It can be difficult to go out to a new country especially with no network in place – it’s “all about the people you know and network, those are really important things”.

“You need to find people you know and trust and build the business up from there,” explained Colin. Both agreed that it’s key to “immerse yourself in the culture” of a country. “Do as much as you can to build credibility,” said Mark, “make sure you have a company that has a track record and references. It seems like a benchmark of success to expand internationally. Time is everything, it’s easy to make a mess of it.”

Words of advice from Colin on scaling internationally is to go and meet as many people as possible, get involved on the ground to get a feel of what you will be building in a new market and curate a new team carefully. It’s all about the “right time, right people” and there is lots of support now in place if an organisation has ambitions to scale, from the British Chambers of Commerce to MIDAS. 

Following a networking break, a CTO panel chaired by Sue Daley, Director of Innovation at techUK, addressed the importance of emerging technologies and how they can equip teams for success. The line-up of speakers included: Patience Tucker, CEO of wi-Q Technologies; Anindo Ganguly, Vice President Delivery at DXC Technology; Marcus Bearden, Senior Director at Slalom, UK&I Cloud Advisory and Technology Enablement; and Lee Murray, founder and director, Triangulate Distribution.

A key theme of the discussion was convergence of tech if technology is to thrive. “Tech coming together for a common goal is where innovation lies,” said Patience.

The metaverse and generative AI were big talking points but having the people in place to adapt and leverage emerging technologies is key. Advice from the panel is to find the right partners for the convergence of technology, stick to what you’re good at and the bits you can’t develop or might not be ready to do, find someone who can do it.

On challenges and barriers about helping business embrace emerging technologies, the speakers agreed it goes back to building skills and knowledge and empowering staff to work with these technologies. It’s not just about funding, people are the “key resource” and knowing where to access support, whether it’s funding or mentoring, is a missing piece of the jigsaw. 

Stewart Boutcher, CTO at Veracity Trust Network, was up next to deliver a thought-provoking talk on cyber attacks and why it’s important for businesses of all sizes to take note. He tackled myths surrounding cybersecurity, from cyber criminals being outside hackers when in many cases the attack can be from inside an organisation, to how bugs are found daily in both established and new platforms. “Don’t assume everything is safe,” he emphasised. 

He highlighted a number of alarming statistics – 60% of small companies go out of business within six months after falling victim to a data breach or cyber attack and 64% of consumers would not trust a company with a data breach. Organisations of all levels need to have interdependence, cooperation, and responsibility in order to survive.

Next up was a special panel session on Addressing the tech skills gap and the role of apprenticeships. Chaired by Kelly Bailey, Business Development Director at GC Education & Skills, The Growth Company, panellists include Philip Blair, Senior Advisor at Business Growth Hub part of The Growth Company – Digital, Creative & Technology; Deb Hetherington, Head of Innovation Services, North at Bruntwood SciTech; Aleksa Vukotic, CTO at The and Renee Bell, former Junior Content Producer Apprenticeship.

The panel discussed how the difficulty always comes down to finding the right talent and skills but there is a need to distinguish between digital skills competency in the workplace and technological expertise. Lots of businesses are able to benefit from skills bootcamps and apprentices, it’s a long-term pathway.

The biggest barriers to growth many tech companies face are access to funding and access to talent. Although there are great initiatives already in place, more needs to be done to support underrepresented and lower socioeconomic groups and returners to tech, as well as making it easier for women to come back to the sector after having children.

Building a talent pipeline early on is crucial. “If you’re only hiring for here and now, you’re not looking ahead,” said Aleksa. “When you bring people who are early in their careers, it’s an investment.” Former apprentice Renee, said she’d struggled to get her foot in the door but an apprenticeship has allowed her to progress, landing a job in marketing 18 months later.  

Although there are “huge amounts of support”, one of the core challenges is making sure people know what support is out there and how to access it. 

Following lunch at Bruntwood SciTech’s innovative new hub BASE, an interactive workshop explored the impact of stress on innovation with Emma-Louise Fusari, Founder and Clinical Director at In-House Health and Caroline Canty, Founder and Director of Craft Coaching. 

There was some real food for thought, as Emma said when you delve deeper into the tech world it has a dark side. The duo highlighted two important figures – 66% of workforces are stressed and around 46% of workforces are at higher risk of burnout. Talent is currently being stretched really thin and “we are in danger of losing them to other sectors” as innovation is stifled if staff are stressed. The key to innovation is understanding where stress comes from first and then working through practical solutions on how to solve it – whether it be tackling workload, having support networks in place, improving relationships or addressing changes in the workplace. 

An insightful session on Demystifying AI for Business followed, kicking off with an informative talk by Sherin Mathew, Founder and CEO of AI Tech UK. He said there’s an AI race happening, with most organisations now spending time experimenting. “If you’re not collecting or generating data, you’re missing out on a big trick here,” he said. “My advice is take a leap of faith, experiment and get started,” adding that before jumping into AI understand the barriers.

Sherin Mathew
Sherin Mathew, founder and CEO, AI Tech UK

He then led a panel session to delve further into the world of AI with speakers including Sunil Mistry, Director at RIFFL; Sara Simeone, CEO and co-founder of Niftyz and Adam Hosker, Enterprise Account Executive at First Insight. Key insights included how SMEs are now using these tools to optimise and speed up processes as key drivers for adoption are efficiency, cost and improvements. Although AI is industry agnostic and can help make quicker business decisions, Sara was worried it could lead to laziness and reduce originality. Disagreeing, Adam said AI can be used as a tool to help with productivity and add more value to a business.  

Regulation of AI was a big talking point between the panellists. “There is a lot of self regulation happening, realistically there will have to be some sort of governance that comes from central government.”

To wrap up the day, an insightful talk followed on GreenCoding: Cutting carbon with code with Heather Statham, Principal Consultant at GFT and Duncan Cooper, Cloud Practice Lead at GFT. 

GreenCoding is GFT’s approach to sustainable software development, to ensure software reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. The duo discussed the vast amounts of energy consumption from a piece of software and explored the benefits of moving to the cloud, which is a “greater step towards sustainability” and can help firms to achieve ESG objectives too.

With a range of partner events taking place across Greater Manchester this week, we’re back at The Bright Building today for Digital City Festival’s Scaling for Growth event. Stay tuned for the highlights tomorrow!

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