Thinking Digital founder: High profile events play a big hand in putting Northern tech on the map

Thinking Digital conference
Credit: Colin Davison

Image (c) Colin Davison

This article is part of TechRadar's Northern Powerhouse column, a series focusing on the development of the North of England's tech sector.

After being staged in Newcastle for eight years, Thinking Digital is being held in Manchester for the second year in a row. Set to take place on October 10 and 11, the future-gazing conference has one eye firmly on the nexus between tech and business, with this year's speakers lining up to lend their thoughts on everything from big data to blockchain, virtual reality and ethical hacking. IBM, Twitter, Google and NASA are set to take to the stage alongside Sheffield-based big data company WANdisco.

As a proponent of the North of England's tech scene, Thinking Digital founder Herb Kim believes that high-profile events are a vital cog in the region's promotional machine. According to Kim, not only are they useful opportunities for people to gain insight from industry professionals, they're also networking events that bring local and international creative minds together under one roof.

This year, Thinking Digital Manchester is inviting startups to apply to the Thinking Digital Startup Fund, which will will provide the successful applicant with a pass to the conference and the opportunity to ask a panel of startup mentors for advice on the day. TechRadar spoke to Kim to find out more about what's in store for this year's Thinking Digital conference at Manchester.

TechRadar: It's the second time that the conference has been staged in Manchester. What is it about the city that makes it a good fit?

Herb Kim: Thinking Digital was created for professionals who are passionate about innovation and creativity, and Manchester just happens to be packed full of these kinds of people.

Herb Kim

Herb Kim - (c) Colin Davison

Why is it important for the North of England to hold events like this and help people learn about the talent and opportunities in the region?

I think there are three reasons, and the first is continuous learning. When you're in a "knowledge economy", it's incredibly important to ensure you continue to invest in your learning and development. A well-curated and produced conference can be a really valuable way to do this. In addition to the facts, figures and evidence, a great speaker can really help accelerate and drive learning. Second is high quality networking – we attract a great crowd of people at Thinking Digital who are ambitious and creative, and the quality of our content means there's always something interesting to talk about. Third is about the North's image – high profile events like Thinking Digital can really help contribute to the changing image of the North.

Who are some notable speakers at this year's event?

They're all fascinating folks, but there are a few who stand out. Amber Case shot to fame a few years ago with her TED Talk "We are all Cyborgs now". Amber is a really interesting thinker about how humans and computers interact. Then there's Sarah Drinkwater, head of Google's Campus London. Over the past five years, the UK and London tech scene has really exploded. Google Campus has definitely been a big part of that story, so I'll look forward to hearing about Sarah's experience in her role. Finally, David Richards and his big data startup WANdisco don't really have the profile they should have here in the UK. They're AIM-listed and have offices in both Sheffield and Silicon Valley. Things are really starting to take off for them and I think David's got a great startup story to tell.

What has changed this year compared to last year's event?

The most obvious difference is that we have moved the Conference into Theatre One of HOME, which is a bigger space than last year but also one that seems perfectly architected to hold an event like Thinking Digital.


Colin Davison

Can you pick out a couple of highlights from the Thinking Digital Conference from its eight years in Newcastle?

There are tons, but off the top are a couple. In 2014 we hosted Blaise Aguera y Arcas of the Google Machine Learning team who gave one of the most provocative glimpses into the near future I've ever heard. He argued – with compelling data backing him up – that he saw two big things coming. The first was an undeniable shift in power between men and women.

Yes, today we obviously see significant gender pay gaps and a lack of gender diversity at the tops of organisations but Blaise argued that technology, among other factors, is helping facilitate shift in gender power and that is already being seen clearly in data among millennials. While others have since advanced this argument, he was the first that I'd heard who predicted that AI would finally end the long battle between labour versus capital.

AI would be able to enhance the relative power of capital so quickly and completely that we would begin to see a situation where larger groups of people would become unemployed. We'd have a weird situation where AI and other technologies would allow our economies to be more productive than ever, but with less need for people to be a part of it. He then advanced the case for a universal basic income.

Roy Sutherland of Ogilvy spoke in both 2010 and 2015. Roy is a fabulous and very funny speaker but his ability to illustrate how humans behave in real life versus how we think they'll behave is something that I have found extremely illuminating and insightful.

Manchester is being held up as a hotbed for emerging tech talent. Why should startups in particular attend the conference this year?

Thinking Digital has proven to be hugely popular among startups. Startup people are typically both hugely curious and ambitious all at once and that's a perfect fit for our speakers and content. Startups tell me that they find Thinking Digital to be a fabulous opportunity to hear and learn from the most interesting and influential thought leaders in the world, while presenting excellent networking opportunities.

What is the Thinking Digital Startup Fund, and why should people apply for it? When is the deadline?

The deadline to apply to it is Friday 23 September. The startups chosen will receive a pass to Thinking Digital on Tuesday, October 11 at HOME, which includes the after party on the evening. They'll also get an invite to the Thinking Digital dinner on Monday October 10 at Revolucion de Cuba, and they'll be able to attend a special workshop for startups on that date. People can apply for it here.

Kane Fulton
Kane has been fascinated by the endless possibilities of computers since first getting his hands on an Amiga 500+ back in 1991. These days he mostly lives in realm of VR, where he's working his way into the world Paddleball rankings in Rec Room.