Cumbria’s burgeoning digital sector should consider buddying up with counterparts in Greater Manchester to realise its full potential, an expert has said.

Phil Swan, digital strategy lead and chief information officer at Greater Manchester Combined Authority floated the idea to 100 delegates at the LA23NET Alternative Futures event, which took place at Brathay Hall, Ambleside on Friday.

Mr Swan outlined how the council, businesses, academic institutions and organisations from across the Greater Manchester came together to develop a digital strategy after its mayor, Andy Burnham, outlined his vision for it to be a top five European digital city region.

The exercise saw 250 people contribute to the strategy, which is soon to be refreshed, to drive growth in the sector by focusing on key issues including skills, infrastructure and business support.

And Mr Swan said there was a significant opportunity for Cumbria to set outs its own ambitious plan working with counterparts in the city – which already has strong links in a number of other industries.

“It would be great to establish something that sees the two regions working together,” he said.

“We already collaborate on nuclear. I think it would be a really interesting opportunity to do something with the digital sector.

“The key thing we found it working collectively on this. It is about the energy of those who can help pull it together – it isn’t just about one organisation.

Mr Swan also said that the digital sector had huge potential to develop the wider economy and boost people’s wage packets. In Greater Manchester it generates £4.6 billion a year and employs around 90,000 people. The average salary, he added, was £44,000 a year – double that for a job in the service sector.

“I'd rather have a £44,000 a year job up here than in Greater Manchester,” he said.

“I’m sure lower wages in the service sector is an issue here. But with the right connectivity and infrastructure there's no reason why you cannot have more of these higher paid digital roles.”

Cumbria’s potential was also highlighted by digital artist Richard Stevens, of Design Real whose clients include Bentley and, closer to home, Cumbria Crystal.

He said the county’s landscape should be a test bed for new technologies, such as driverless cars, and that more needed to be done to encourage young people to develop skills and careers in the digital sector.

“Technology gets a bad press, with robots taking jobs and kids on computers all the time,” he said.

“Research has found that schools lowering priority of technology, arts and creative studies.

“Rather than a threat, I think embracing technologies of the future can actually protect skills. I also think it could help to reverse the trend of young people moving out of the area. Young people see things differently and engage differently. 

“The jobs one not one dimensional and require plenty of the different skills that don’t always involve sitting in front of a computer.”

Mr Stevens also agreed that there should be no reason why someone could not pursue a career in the industry in Cumbria.

“I don't think people should have to choose living somewhere beautiful and doing hi tech jobs – they are not mutually exclusive,” he added.

“There is a groundswell of brilliant people here and hopefully there will be some who can drive this forward and create a movement.”

The event – organised by Windermere-based PR, events and social media company Flock – also heard presentations from Liam McAleese of the Lake District National Park and Julian Turner of futuristic automative company Westfield on Cumbria’s role as a test bed for innovation, and from Lou Kneath from animation powerhouse +3k Animation.

It also included interactive sessions with topics ranging from virtual reality to ‘Conker Living’.