One of the parallel “seminar” sessions that I attended at the Innovation Edge conference was billed as “Are online social networks the new cities?”. The session was chaired by NESTA visiting fellow Charles Leadbetter of “We think” fame and was set up as a classic debate between the physical and the virtual world. In the “red corner”, representing physical cities as the financial, social and creative engines of our culture, was Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council. In the “blue corner” was Michael Birch, former CEO of Bebo, a social networking site, recently sold out to AOL. In the middle ground was Jon Gisby from Channel 4 and Tom “inkie” Bingle, kept his private image by not bothering to show up.
The debate followed fairly predictable lines, with it starting as an either/or discussion between the physical and the virtual. Sir Richard Leese maintained that cities were the crucible for innovation – it is only innovative people that make Manchester innovative, so Manchester’s policy is to do what they can to attract them and them pretty much get out of their way. Just as Manchester had made the journey from being at risk from becoming a declining industrial city, Sir Richard didn’t want Manchester to become a declining post-industrial city either and he saw that innovation was key. Michael Birch was quirky and enigmatic, but pretty much trotted out the Bebo story. He did manage to drop in a good plug for Bebo because, which is on the intersection of where social networking is helping to world to become a better place. The conversation finally meandered its way around to the question not being one of either/or between the physical and the virtual, but more a question of how they could complement each other in a possible future world.
I was dying to ask a question about transport systems, as they seemed to me to be exactly at that interface between the physical world and the virtual, but it was one of the least intimate “seminars” I have been to and very hard to get your hand seen amongst the crowd! Intelligent transport systems have lots of great examples of where the modern ICT technology can help improve the travel experience (travel alerts when to leave the house based on current conditions or Variable Message Signs when travelling as to whether to divert route or mode of transport) all the way through to virtual conferencing and online networks as a means to give people a credible alternative to travelling in the first place. In the middle ground on that spectrum is the opportunity for social networks to help enable behavioural change to encourage people when they do travel by car to actually share the space with people who they’d like to spend time with. If only you knew that your friends, or a business contact, were making nearly the same journey as you; wouldn’t it be good to have the opportunity to have a chat as well as travelling?
As you’d expect for the topic, the seminar is well covered within the blogosphere, although unfortunately it looks like it wasn’t videoed. Well done to James Stewart, for an amazing attempt at live blogging at the event and there is plenty of coverage on technorati.
Finally, Sir Richard Leese also commented on the importance of schools in creating a culture of learning and the continuation into work via 21st Century apprenticeships.