After the tech cities, here come the tech towns

21 Jul, 2017

The Duke of York was in Oldham this week for the latest regional heat of his Pitch@Palace startup competition. The main thing reporters wanted to ask him was “why have you come to Oldham?”

On the surface, that’s a fair question. After all, it’s not a town known for a thriving startup scene. And yet the Duke’s response was pointed. “Why wouldn’t I come to Oldham?”

There’s more to his answer than a member of the Royal Family wanting to look inclusive of the whole UK. Oldham is a town that has its eyes set firmly on the future.

Rebuilding towns for the 21st century

Places like Oldham have had their fill of being overlooked in favour of nearby cities. Why should these once-proud centres of industry be relegated to satellite towns full of takeaways and poundshops? Some town councils have realised that it doesn’t have to be this way. A little inspiration can have a big impact.

Pitch@Palace was held at Open Future_North, a facility that Telefonica’s Wayra shares with community-oriented tech organisation Hack Oldham. Opening the event, local MP Jim McMahon discussed how the building used to be home to a nightclub with a poor reputation, on a street synonymous with excessive drinking – “but that was the old Oldham.”

Community leaders like McMahon are keen to demonstrate that tech can offer a positive way forward. Among those pitching at the event were local companies like Jobskilla and iMechanic – both proof that a tech-focused approach to business doesn’t have to be the preserve of Shoreditch or a handful of regional UK hubs.

The Duke of York at Pitch@Palace in Oldham, July 2017
The Duke of York at Pitch@Palace in Oldham, July 2017

Through Wayra, these firms have connections to the global tech industry from an early stage without having to relocate. Maybe they’ll end up as world-dominating giants, or maybe they’ll be smaller-scale successes. Does it matter which? Either way, they’ll offer employment and inspiration of a very modern kind to the people of Oldham.

Towns with tenacity

Further west, I recently chaired an event as part of the Digital Wigan initiative. Wigan Council is keen not only to get local businesses embracing tech, but also to explore ways of improving its services through a more digital approach. The event, complete with interactive workshops and gender-balanced panels, showed that the council is serious about reshaping Wigan for the 21st century in an inclusive way.

Elsewhere in the North, Barnsley is part of TechTown, a community of “11 cities and towns around Europe who want to grow their own digital communities and economies.” My former colleague Laura I.H. Bennett has written about its approach.

And who can forget Middlesbrough with its DigitalCity, startups like EvaluAgent, and a culture of academic collaboration with young tech companies? Or Burnley, where business leaders are investing in the town’s future via the Bondholders scheme?

Broadening the tech elite’s horizons

All too often, the temptation among the ‘tech elite’ is to focus on what’s happening in a few global ecosystems in a league table, and sneer at any activity anywhere that doesn’t have a bunch of VCs circling around future unicorns. But that can mean you miss what’s happening at a more local level.

Towns are starting to realise that they don’t need to become ‘the next Silicon Valley.’ We’re approaching a point where tech is everything and everything is tech, and there’s room for anyone with the nous and tenacity to embrace it – wherever they are.

The winners of Pitch@Palace in Oldham were DriverNet, Triple Tread, and Music for Pets. They go forward to the competition’s bootcamp phase.

Leave a comment

Please Post Your Comments & Reviews

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. It is important that city regions’ strategies address the whole population, including the town centres and market towns that fall within their boundaries. What is devolution for, if not to improve rates of inclusive growth and, with it, life chances for everyone across the great metropolises and equally great, but smaller, towns of the North and Midlands? It’s not just about tech, as Martyn suggests – tech is one part of a value web that includes culture, creative industries, education, housing and transport. And devolution shouldn’t stop at the local authority level – towns and communities should be diversifying sources of investment and exploiting the flexibilities that devolution brings to develop new, cooperative models to build social value and resilience in a whole range of public services.