Digital Britain Unconference, Manchester

Manchester Digital’s Shaun Fensom (on behalf of the MDDA) last night played host to one of a series of unconferences being held around the UK.

The events have been organised to provoke discussion and ultimately a response from the Digital community to the Government’s ‘Digital Britain Interim Report‘.

My colleague Matt Hackett and I attended the event, keen as ever to keep a finger on the pulse. The following blog is a fairly thorough run through for anyone who’s got time to read it!!

I have divided the blog into the following sections for ease of navigation:








On 29 January 2009 the Government published a plan to secure Britain’s place at the forefront of the global digital economy. The interim report contains more than 20 recommendations, including specific proposals on:

- next generation networks

- universal access to broadband

- the creation of a second public service provider of scale

- the modernisation of wireless radio spectrum holdings

- a digital future for radio

- a new deal for digital content rights

- enhancing the digital delivery of public services


In brief, an unconference is an unstructured coming together of people to discuss a topic / topics. Typically these events are particpant lead, following little or no schedule / plan. This means that the topics people feel most passionate about are innevitably brought to the fore.


The unconference was open to Manchester Digital members. Anyone with a vested interest and an opinion was welcome. Around 40 turned up including digital agency bosses, designers, a digital journalist graduate, creative managers, educational figureheads, digital industry recruiters (ourselves – Orchard), film-makers, a British Telecom engineer, and more…


To prevent the event from running on into the night, it was decided beforehand that three main topics would be discussed. These topics were chosen based on the idea that there are three areas in the Digital Britain Interim report that are of particular interest to Manchester Digital members:

- CONTENT – Content and intellectual property and how it is paid for

- BROADBAND – Next generation broadband and universal access to broadband

- SKILLS – Gearing up students and the working public for future ways of working

After initial discussion and debate about the report as a whole, the group was split into three focus groups (based on individual interest), each to discuss one of the three sub-topics. Each group was responsible for noting key issues raised and any proposed solutions. After the focus group sessions, all came together, compiled the key points into one document, which was to be sent back to the government as a dedicated response.


The content in this section is the actual document created during the event, it has been copied straight from the Manchester Digital website:

- Need infrastructure to be able to access content. Content will drive need for better infrastructure. The infrastructure is more than just broadband, for example cloud computing and mobile.

- Sharing, reuse, mashup – two way interaction. The report has a very old fashioned outlook. We all produce content. Digital Rights Management (DRM) is unworkable in its current format.

- Government data on individuals should be owned by the individual, in a common format, and sharable at the individual’s discretion.

- Funding of content, models other than advertising. Alternative models of advertising should be investigated to encourage the creation and sharing of content by brands, end users and the general public. More input from content producers and building applications from consumers.

- Encouraging the creation and sharing of content within schools.

- The report is too biased towards the broadcast media and should take into account public services.  Improving public services. NHS, MySociety, local councils, directgov, local GPs, etc.

- Government should simplify IP, particularly for small businesses. Moving towards a free model, like Creative Commons. Business models need to change due to digital copying, rather than government trying to enforce stricter copyright restrictions.


- Broadband should be treated as a utility where everyone has a right to broadband access. A 2mb standard for the UK is unacceptable and not considered sufficient for immediate needs.

- We need lots more bandwidth and we will continue to need lots more bandwidth

- Local government needs to develop a strategy that treats broadband access as an urgent priority at local level

- Early adopters can drive this by demonstrating the potential uses of this technology in areas where it appears

- Legitimate for the government to act, given the counter-incentives that the incumbent network providers suffer from (sunk costs in the copper network)

- Proof and evidence required for the economic benefits provided by this infrastructure, especially outside of the obvious urban centres

- Efforts needed to create demand by demonstrating the potential uses.  Blue sky thinking is vital for this.  We need to be clear about who will benefit.

- Now is a good time to push this project, both for Keynesian reasons and because the economic crisis means that we need new business models.  Now is a good time to sell the benefits of change, as businesses are open to change in how they operate.

- This is not just a project that can be justified on a cost-benefit analysis, it is also something that requires vision and ambition.  It is worth doing for its own sake.

- Vision and leadership is important, and the people who drive this project forward will be creating something of value for generations.  It should be thought of in the same manner as the canals, the railways or the Apollo moon missions.

- Maintain existing network neutrality giving open access to all.


- Apprenticeship skills type training – learning on the job

- Training whilst working rather than full time education

- Creation of training contracts with both education and placement driven degrees

- Abolishment of performance based funding for education bodies

- Local business and industry representatives to have greater control over training funding

- Development of best practice and standards within the industry to be followed by  “all”

- Development of creative and technical skills within suitable environments

- Create a culture of innovation and creativity from an early age

- Creation of a Chartered Institute for the Digital Industry driven by industry practitioners. Would have connections with by not be driven by education (primary, secondary, higher and further), public sector (for funding and support), business support organisations etc

- Development of better training courses that can be studied whilst working  – small bite sizes courses, possibly e-learning driven


The document will now be integrated with the outcomes of other Digital Britain Unconferences that have taken place across the UK and handed to the government. Watch this space…

Thank you to Shaun Fensom of Manchester Digital, the MDDA, and all the participants. It was an insightful and positive event.

Andy Chesters


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