Manchester

As a Canadian diplomat responsible for commercial relations between the Province of Ontario and the UK, people often ask me to draw comparisons between the two.

To start with, both have enviably ranked global hubs. London is 1st on the Global Financial Centres Index (GFCI) after knocking New York off the top spot for 2015, while Ontario has the 2nd largest financial services sector in North America after New York and the 2nd largest technology hub after California.

Both boast cities with larger economic outputs than sovereign nations; Toronto and London, for example, have annual economic outputs equivalent to those of Hungary and Saudi Arabia respectively. No other city in either country even comes close.

Both also have innovative Northern cities and regions. A fact that has gone largely unreported is that both are home to cities that are reinventing themselves to become innovative commercial hubs. This week’s Northern Powerhouse Conference has helped to draw much needed attention to Northern cities and their contributions to the UK economy.

Thunder Bay (Northern Ontario) and Manchester (Northern England) serve as excellent case studies, in their respective markets, of Northern cities that have reinvented themselves to become drivers of economic growth. They’ve done so by bridging away from their industrial pasts to become knowledge economies. Both are doing this by embracing and investing in human capital and technology.

Thunder Bay is the municipality with the highest population in Northwestern Ontario. With a history of shipping and manufacturing that declined in recent times, Thunder Bay has seen and realised the need for innovation to retool itself as part of the “knowledge economy”. As a result, the region has been actively building a knowledge-based ecosystem and attracting investment, primarily in the life sciences sector and its fields of molecular medicine and genomics research for cancer treatment.

The new knowledge economy is focused on the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, the research work of the Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. Established in 2005, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine is a partnership between Laurentian University in Sudbury and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and provides a model for how regions outside major centres across the world can work together to address challenges. Demonstrating a commitment to addressing under-serviced populations in the North, the University requires all students to complete a month-long placement in an Aboriginal or Métis community.

This innovation at work in Thunder Bay comes as little surprise, though. The Ontario Government has nurtured a province-wide culture of innovation in Ontario and has built the most highly educated, skilled and reliable workforce in the world (63 percent of Ontarians have a post-secondary education).

In the UK, Manchester is one of the cities at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse and has a rich industrial history rooted in manufacturing. Despite the decline of its past industry, the city maintains its position as the fastest-growing region in the UK outside of London. Knowledge-based industries thrive, such as ICT, biotechnology, environmental technology and electronics. For example, Citylabs is a 100,000 sq ft biomedical centre of excellence located on the Central Manchester University Hospitals campus, in the heart of Manchester’s Knowledge Quarter and the largest clinical academic campus in Europe. And, right now, Manchester is also home to more than 200 biomedical companies.

Thunder Bay and Manchester have a lot in common. Both cities are carving out new, niche industries and attracting capital and talent, resulting in optimism, increasing populations, new construction activity, and rising housing prices – all good for growth. However, that’s not to say they aren’t without challenges.

In my work I spend a lot of time meeting with and speaking to businesses across the country, in particular Northern businesses. They tell me that one of their biggest challenges is scaling up internationally. Once they’ve conquered their local market, they are unsure of how to take that all-important next step of scaling up in a new market.

Businesses in both Thunder Bay and Manchester are a testament to just how far a spirit of innovation can take forward-thinking cities, whose traditional industrial structures would have rendered them obsolete in a fast-changing world. There are striking similarities between both cities – in particular the need for ongoing support, so that businesses can realise their full potential through international expansion. By taking advantage of the help that is on offer, I believe Northern powerhouses like Thunder Bay and Manchester will continue to thrive, and grow to become globally-renowned hubs in their own right.

By Aaron Rosland, Commercial Counsellor at the Canadian High Commission in London