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Manchester’s tech innovation can fuel the world’s low carbon quest

Categories: Low Carbon

Digital City Festival

Related sectors

Technology and Energy & Environment

Tech can close the gap in achieving Manchester’s ambitious goal of net carbon neutrality by 2038 – with a rich history of innovation and collaboration here supporting positive change around the world.

That was the message to delegates attending a packed keynote event hosted by MIDAS and GMCA at Digital City Festival 2020, where panellists at the forefront of digital innovation spoke on the subject of AI and Data: The driver of zero carbon?

Mark Atherton, Director of Environment at Greater Manchester Combined Authority, said the latest research suggested Manchester was only “half-way there” towards carbon neutrality by 2038 – a goal set by mayor Andy Burnham, 12 years ahead of the UK’s national target.

However, he added:

“In that gap is where innovation lies, where future growth and prosperity lies.”

Atherton outlined a series of innovations already taking place in Manchester, including plans for a low carbon local energy market, using intelligent energy solutions to support businesses and citizens alike, and the importance of being able to access and utilise real time data if Manchester is to achieve its aims.

Emphasising Manchester’s commitment that no one should be left behind during digital transformation, and the need to evolve skills to meet low carbon demands, Atherton added:

“Ninety-five per cent of the jobs we will require in future are already here. This is about changing the way that people operate, better understanding of big data.

If we want carbon neutral homes in the future, we will still need brickies, but they’ll need to know how a piece of kit works that enables them to understand energy efficiency.”

MIDAS Chief Executive Tim Newns introduced the session, highlighting the opportunity Digital City Festival provided to showcase opportunities for international companies to collaborate in Manchester and invest here, taking advantage of its talent pipeline, academic institutions and tech community.

He said:

“The digital ecosystem here is absolutely thriving and it’s great to see digital companies large and small, as well as our indigenous companies here, doing fabulously well.

Greater Manchester produced a Local Industrial Strategy last summer and one of the grand challenges nationally, Clean Growth, was a really prevalent part of the strategy that Andy Burnham launched with Government.

What the mayor is very sure of is that digital is going to be absolutely critical in solving the low carbon challenge. We really wanted to bring together a panel that really discussed what those challenges are and how the digital ecosystem can solve those challenges.”

The panel session was hosted by Joseph Dutton, policy advisor at independent climate change think tank, E3G, who started by asking whether Manchester can deliver net zero 12 years ahead of others.

Vijay Natarajan, co-founder and COO of Qbots Energy, said that it was possible, given the use of tech and the power of the community in Manchester, emphasising the role for better data sharing in helping the city to better understand the current situation and plan future needs.

He highlighted his own positive experience of working within the tech sector in Manchester, emphasising the support received from the city-region. With the support of MSP and Bruntwood in Manchester, Qbots Energy was able to test, improve and roll out its offer to the wider market, focusing on SMEs, before scaling up, he said

Ellen Wilson, Government Industry Manager, Microsoft, said it is “utterly fantastic that Manchester has these strong ambitions”.

“This aligns with a view taken by Microsoft that those who can do something about this, should,” she added.

Wilson said tech today makes it quick and easy to innovate and also urged organisations to start by looking at their own carbon footprint and the simple things they can do to reduce it.

She said there was a perfect storm in Manchester, saying “everyone is aware of what needs to be done and wants to change”, and emphasised the importance of cross-community engagement and skills development, with Microsoft itself working with government and councils in order to upskill.

Jonathan Kini, Managing Director of TalkTalk Business, agreed that it was essential for individuals and organisations to start with measurement. Referring to the estimated average carbon footprint of every UK individual, he said:

“You’re all five and a half tonnes of carbon. Let’s start with weighing Manchester.”

Kini explained how investment and innovation large and small would contribute towards achieving net carbon neutrality, highlighting the much lower carbon footprint of a fibre network in comparison to conventional copper, and how large companies must open up to ideas from other innovators.

He gave an example of projects involving the University of Manchester and the University of Salford to explore ways that domestic WiFi routers might be utilised as smart energy management devices, using AI to establish when people were at home and heating was required.

“You have to open your business up to them,” he said. “There’s no exclusivity on coming up with new ideas.”

Former Green Party MEP Gina Dowding praised Manchester’s low carbon ambition and said the city was responding to what people are demanding.

Dowding emphasised the role that transport will play in reducing carbon, praising investment in Manchester’s Metrolink tram service and urging increased support for safer walking and cycling, and e-bikes, and making sure that transport policy is working towards supporting and achieving carbon net carbon neutrality.

Tim Whitley, Building Services Engineering Director at Arup, spoke about the impact of buildings, responsible for 50 per cent of all carbon, and praised Manchester’s carbon reduction ambitions, suggesting that success lies in the “interface between the public and private sector.”

“If anyone can do it, then Manchester can,” he said.

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