From five-year-old primary school children to pensioners who've been tinkering away in their garages, Manchester is crowd-sourcing an orchestra. An amazing machine built from the city's imagination, this will not be the symphony ensemble that we are used to seeing on the stage of the Bridgewater Hall, but a gathering of 'electronic brains' that will turn everything, from old floppy disk drives and desk fans to the violins and woodwinds of classical music, into a modern melody. In short: a robot orchestra.
It's only fitting that a city which has built an international reputation as much on its game-changing scientific discovery as on its seminal music scene, should combine the two in 2016 as Manchester continues to enjoy a special place under the global scientific spotlight as Britain's first European City of Science.
In July, the EuroScience Open Forum – Europe's largest science symposium – will gather in the city, and Professor Danielle George will lift the curtain on the robot orchestra that she started dreaming up more than a year ago with citizen science innovator Dr Erinma Ochu MBE.
Manchester's new revolution
"I want to show how everyone can discover the secret engineer inside themselves — and build an amazing machine from their imagination," says Professor George, Professor of Radio Frequency Engineering at the University. "A new musical engineering revolution has begun. I want to showcase the ingenuity, creativity and revolutionary spirit of the people of Manchester and to explore how a city might creatively re-engineer and spread environmental and creative practices through performance.
"We're effectively trying to deliver an engineering project simply via crowd-sourcing; it's definitely taking me out of my comfort zone. However, that's a good thing, because that's when we're at our most creative.
We want to showcase everyone's work – from five-year-old primary school children working together to the 75-year-old tinkering in their garage – and to celebrate the fantastic failures that allow us to develop our skills and creativity."
Manchester has always been a hotbed of innovation.
From the very first computer to the splitting of the atom, the city and the University have a proud entwined history of world-firsts and brilliant discoveries. Its designation as European City of Science 2016 offers a unique opportunity to showcase the ground-breaking science and cutting-edge industry of today's Manchester to citizens across the world who will benefit from its fruits in decades to come.
I'd like them to realise that they could use their skills to solve some of the world's big engineering challenges.
Throughout the year, Manchester is coming alive with science, and people across the city are being encouraged to take part in a dazzling array of exciting experiments and activities, bringing technology and engineering to life. The robot orchestra is a fun and fascinating part of this, not least because it has called on the people who live and work here to build it; to get involved by salvaging and donating unused technology, building the robots and the instruments, writing the code, hosting maker events or even sharing their musical expertise.
Professor George, who found her way into living rooms across the nation when she delivered 2014's televised Royal Institution Christmas lectures, says: "I strongly feel that this citizen engineering project innovates in scientific, industrial and educational practices and fosters citizenship with potentially huge educational benefits. It also encourages environmental care through its use of upcycling electronic waste and coding to 'make' music."
Professor George worked with the Royal Institution to find robots that were already in existence to perform the Doctor Who theme as part of her popular Christmas lectures, while her collaborator, Dr Ochu, helped to design the Museum of Science and Industry's globally successful citizen science initiatives. Between them, they are a powerful force who can pull off incredible things.
Harnessing the innovative spirit of its people will showcase so much of Manchester's ability, collaboration and imagination. As their ideas and inventions come together in the University's engineering labs, these 'electronic brains' begin to take shape, from a cheap, calculator-size Raspberry Pi computer, often used by kids as a start to coding, to 'Graphene', the orchestra's lead robot – so-named because it is a 'good conductor' – designed by engineering giant Siemens.
The city's renowned Hallé Orchestra has composed an amazing piece of music for the robots to play, and lots of independent composers are also writing pieces. The organisers are also hoping to bring Manchester-based artists on board, enabling the orchestra to have a truly local feel.
Rehearsals are already taking place to ensure that all of the robots connect to their conductor and perform as a cohesive unit, instead of playing randomly and out of sync.
"I'd love this project to get more people tinkering and making, and for them to think about where being involved in such a crazy project can take them," says Professor George. "If people have lots of fun doing it, I'd like them to realise that they could use their skills to solve some of the world's big engineering challenges – and that this project will have started them on that journey. So make a robot, make some sounds, work together, get recycling – and make it Manchester!"
If you want to get involved, visit the website at www.robotorchestra.co.uk, where you also can sign up to the mailing list to receive news and updates. You can also follow the hashtag #robotsarecoming on Twitter, or follow Professor George @EngineerDG.