Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Some more intellectual grist on the mill

I was invited to a breakfast event this morning with about 60 big hitters from around Manchester, where the guest speakers threatened to bring some intellectual vigour to Manchester's perpetual renewal, as discussed here.

The main point was that the city needs to recapture a 19th century “sense of self-fulfilling ambition” and continue to be a "city of ideas" with a "sense of independence". That was the conclusion of historian Tristram Hunt, a biographer of Freidrich Engels and author of Building Jerusalem a book Sir Richard Leese recommended (to much laughter) "if you have a spare few weeks".

They were debating the subject So What Has Manchester Done For Us? along with design guru Peter Saville at the Manchester International Festival Pavilion in Albert Square.

Hunt said history shows us the importance of arts, culture and ideas in attracting 25-34 year olds to a place - as Manchester did in the industrial revolution– “they are the wealth creators of tomorrow.” He also told stories of Manchester in the 19th century as a centre of innovation with "an extraordinary culture of public science".

Saville seemed nonplussed. He also said the audience was in "shock and awe" at Hunt's presentation. I rather took it as amusement, politeness and stimulation.

Now, the event was organised by the Commission for the New Economy, who invited a hand picked and deliberately on message kind of crowd. Saville also used the Guardian newspaper as a metaphor for what Manchester used to be and how it is unimagible that the leading liberal newspaper could be from Manchester in the present day and age.

Maybe it was early morning, but I felt Saville spoke with his usual impenetrable density. He is hard to follow, but there are ideas of searing simplicity pressing against the early morning wall of fog that a double shot of espresso didn't shift. But Tristram Hunt was lucid, lively and stimulating. They at least agreed that strong civic leadership sets Manchester apart. It needs to be - there are precious few private sector stakeholders with enough responsibility towards Manchester and a central government that is indifferent or hostile to Manchester’s ambitions.

But to return to the previous intellectual salvo - how much appetite is there for this kind of debate? And how much thinking and talking actually leads to new ideas that turn into wealth creation? I get brief glimpses of activity from the Commission, or Manchester Knowledge Capital, when the latest guru with an American accent gets wheeled out, but wonder if this amounts to a hill of beans? Jane Davies of Manchester Science Park asked that very question this morning, who needs another strategy?

Also, when I dropped the words M*dia C*ty into my question I got the distinct impression I was talking about some kind of elephant in the living room. Peter Saville doesn't believe the Manchester Guardian could exist today. But Radio 5 Live, a national news network, will be coming live from Manchester in two years time. And much more. It can work and it will.

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