Our no-nonsense Yorkshire approach to technology and AI

When The Terminator film came out in 1984 it was pure science fiction. One android’s relentless pursuit of an unlucky heroine as robots tried to wipe out the human race was entertaining but about as believable as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting.

Nearly 25 years later and it’s still make-believe, but now with a sting in the tail.

Last month, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said that we are seeing a revolution in technology and artificial intelligence (AI) – in plain English, machines which can solve problems and learn. But Brin, president of Google’s parent firm, Alphabet, warned: “Such powerful tools also bring with them new questions and responsibilities. How will they affect employment across different sectors… How might they manipulate people? Are they safe?”

A cynic might say that in the wake of the recent Facebook data-sharing scandal, this was part of Big Tech’s effort to regain damaged public trust. Even so, Brin has a point: technology is everywhere and is changing rapidly. We can’t just grin and hope for the best.

Anyone in business will tell you that a successful company or organisation has to be innovative. Stand still and you risk being left behind. We shouldn’t necessarily be alarmed by this. Bradford, Yorkshire and the North were built on innovation. And if we didn’t invent it, you can be sure we were among the first movers in adoption. Bradford led the way in the manufacturing of TV sets and operated the first regular motorised bus services.

The names of Bradford’s Victorian industrial giants like Titus Salt, Henry Ripley and Samuel Lister still echo on our streets and in the buildings that bear their names. Bradford gave the world great innovators in other fields like Margaret McMillan, the nursery education pioneer, and the Brontë sisters, the literary sensations. Radical in their own way, their impact is still felt today.

As the decades passed, many other innovators followed in their footsteps. Today, to name but a few, we have the turbo-charged BorgWarner, Denso Marston, inventor of the QR code, and Christeyns, pushing the boundaries in the science of detergents. New names are coming to the fore, like internet and software business EXA Networks, 3D printing firm Filamentive and Produmax, an aerospace engineering company.

Perhaps AI will be able to predict if any of these businesses will one day be as successful as Pace or Google. But what is clear is that the region’s top innovators enjoy a worldwide reputation; Bradford’s Redfern Travel was acquired by Australia’s Corporate Travel Management in 2016 after it caught someone’s eye down under.

In such rapidly changing times, we have to ensure that people don’t get left behind. Yes, this is a creative, entrepreneurial district and that may make us more resilient to the automation challenge, but we aren’t complacent. In my Yorkshire Post column last week I spoke about Bradford City Council’s work to encourage young people to become innovators through initiatives like the Industrial Centres of Excellence (ICE). We need to support working people in their 40s and 50s too. Upskilling is critical: the percentage of Bradford’s working age population without any qualifications is higher than the national average, and the percentage of our working age population qualified to degree level and above is lower than the national average.

A no-nonsense Yorkshire approach to tackling this is needed. The Bradford District Economic Strategy 2018-2030 sets out a plan to improve the skills of 48,000 city residents to NVQ 3 – the equivalent of two or more A-Levels – or above. But the country needs to put its hand in its pocket and invest in peoples’ education and skills to make this happen. We need also more control over what is happening in the city and to simplify local employment and skills provision to meet the needs of employers.

This is made more pressing by the fact that jobs that we take for granted today may not be here tomorrow. In 2015, the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane – a Yorkshireman – warned that 15 million UK jobs could go as roles become automated.

We need to be optimistic but realistic about meeting these challenges. So enjoy watching The Terminator 6 when it arrives next year but take note of what Google’s co-founder says: AI is transforming the world. Let’s grasp the nettle and let Bradford determine its own fate.

  • Dave Baldwin is chairman of the Bradford Economic Partnership and chief executive of Burnley FC.

Get well soon Dynamo, you’re one of our own

When Tottenham Hotspur scored their third goal at Turf Moor in December, the fans sang for their hat-trick hero: “Harry Kane, he’s one of our own”. As chief executive of Burnley FC I was disappointed to lose that day. But I understand the Spurs fans’ pride in a player who many see as being like them – he grew up close to White Hart Lane and always supported the club.

I feel a similar sense of pride in my home city, Bradford. Bradford City FC, where I worked for seven years, might not have a player to match Harry Kane just now. But a world-famous illusionist is one of our own. Dynamo, who entertains millions with his amazing magic, grew up here and always talks up Bradford. In June 2016, he backed our bid to host the Great Exhibition of the North and spoke about Bradford’s positive impact on his career.

Dynamo has faced his share of adversity. Slightly-built and shy as a child, he was bullied and suffered from Crohn’s disease. Magic was an escape – he would stay inside for hours and practice tricks. His confidence grew as he developed a unique style of magic. After recovering from a spell in hospital with Crohn’s disease, he decided to give magic everything he had. Trick by trick, show by show, he worked his way up and became a superstar.

Like his fans around the world, I was sorry to learn that Dynamo is currently unwell. This month, he opened up about the toll that Crohn’s disease is having on his health and his ability to perform magic. But there was no self-pity from this young man. He vowed to get better and to put his efforts into helping refugee children who had fled war-torn Syria while recovering. He is also diversifying by learning new tricks and adapting how he performs.

Diversification and innovation are crucial in business. As chairman of the Bradford Economic Partnership, I know that we must be willing to adapt and change ways of working. According to the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook 2018 report, 24 per cent of current jobs in Bradford are in occupations that are likely to shrink by 2030. Just 10 per cent of current jobs are in occupations that are likely to grow. The Economic Strategy for Bradford District 2018-2030 sets out how the city can reposition itself in the global economy by drawing on our enterprising and growing population, supporting innovative businesses and our knowledge institutions, building public and private partnerships and the regeneration of our towns and cities.

Attracting and supporting entrepreneurs to set up in Bradford is crucial. Entrepreneurs identify a talent, product or service which will sell and build it at scale. I see Dynamo as an entrepreneur as well as an entertainer. When starting out, he identified his talent but needed help to get going. He visited the Prince’s Trust charity, got advice and inspiration and – crucially – a small grant which he used to make a DVD to showcase his talents. It was a shrewd marketing investment. He built scale by uploading films of his magic to the internet.

The UK could be doing more to encourage enterprise. Bradford is trying – the council has set up Industrial Centres of Excellence (ICE), which help young people gain qualifications, skills and experience that they need and which local businesses want. The curriculum is up-to-date and relevant having been jointly developed by schools, colleges and local businesses.

The Prince’s Trust also does its bit. Its Mosaic Enterprise Challenge links teams of students aged 11 to 16 with mentors to compete with other schools in running a business. In March, Bradford’s Dixons Kings Academy won the Yorkshire Regional Final of the 2018 challenge. The school won the regional finals in 2016 and 2017. The national final is on May 16; I hope it’s third time lucky.

I wish Dynamo a speedy recovery. I remember when he performed magic tricks for Bradford City fans queuing up for tickets to the Capital One Cup semi-final against Aston Villa in December 2012. He appeared out of nowhere to entertain the fans, but I wasn’t surprised – after all, he’s one of our own.

  • Dave Baldwin is chairman of the Bradford Economic Partnership and chief executive of Burnley FC.