Doug Ward says his own story helps explain why the forthcoming Forward co-working space is so important, not only to the world’s tech community, but to the young people of Manchester.
When Forward launches later in 2016 it will be a co-working space which will create a gravitational pull in terms of talent, investors, press and government towards Manchester.
We want Forward to be the tech centre of the UK. From an international standpoint, it’s a big statement and a flag in the ground to say ‘this is Manchester, this is what we think we bring to the rest of the world, and this is only going to get bigger.’
It will be a much larger version of what we have now at SpaceportX, which is 6,000 square feet. Forward will be 100,000 square feet, making it four times the size of London’s Google Campus.
So Forward’s purpose is clear – it’s to accelerate business in Manchester and the North.
But let me explain what’s driving it and what’s driving me personally. It’s about opportunity.
Opportunity to create businesses, to develop careers, to get financial and personal rewards – and for all types of people.
I learned to code online, and it changed my life. I was signing on in Salford after a business fail. I stumbled on coding and went into it out of desperation.
Currently it isn’t a fashionable message to say to a young audience that they can gain the same skills as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg for free, and that such skills could then change your life and transform the economy.
So with Forward, I want to get this message out there. There will be international promotion, but it is also really important that the people of Greater Manchester and the North grasp what we are trying to achieve.
The digital and tech economy is not just for people who have been to university, and through Forward my role is to get the youth of Manchester to stay in the city and open up career paths they didn’t know existed.
What Greater Manchester is going to see from it?
Some of the best entrepreneurs and technologists on the planet frequently coming to this place; a gravitational hub for investors, government, the media, raw talent, enterprising start-ups and global thought leaders; a place to go is you want to learn about websites and apps; a place where friendly people will signpost you in the right direction.
Anyone in GM can go to this building and get some support. There will be dedicated full-time teachers there, because I wish I could have gone and spoke to someone when I was young and didn’t know where to turn.
Because unless you are a university kid, the tech world can feel closed off to you. But really, you don’t need to know how to make websites as long as you understand it, and everyone has the potential to have a good career in technology. And if you do the get the bug for it – it’s life changing having that skills set, and there’s a real shortage of those skills out there.
My thinking is to provide software engineer education with assisted learning. When it opens, Forward will be a charity that uses the rent generated to provide free coding education to anyone who turns up to the building, with a dedicated computer science professor based at the building, a 24-hour coffee shop, and a large free tech event space for interesting meet-ups, hackathons and happenings. You can expect the likes of Google sharing best practice.
All the tenants in the building will be contributing to a pot of money that will be employing a team that’s wholly dedicated to accelerating Manchester’s tech community. We will be working with the city to fly in the best people in the world, who we want to challenge our thinking as far as possible.
Because we also want to attract the best youth from around the planet. I want to promote the value of living here and moving here to the ideas people, the crazy people, the visionaries.
Something like the Hacienda did in the 80s and 90s with music and culture. It brought new musicians here, and we want to do the same with entrepreneurs and technology.
The government is right behind our drive to make the city truly global. The Northern Powerhouse concept was created by the UK government and is championed by Chancellor George Osborne. I see Manchester as the heart and engine of the powerhouse.
The UK government backed Forward with £4m in the March 2015 budget and it is set to have multiples of this in private backing to help our push Manchester towards being one of Europe’s top five start-up destinations (AKA #MCRTOP5).
There are around 7bn people on the planet and for Manchester to keep a reputation we can be proud of, we need to let them know we are doing remarkable stuff again, and experiment and be true to what the internet was, which was an experiment.
That, you could say, is what is driving me – and Manchester - Forward.