Town by town, we can build a digital superpower
Ibelieve Britain is well-placed to thrive, both domestically and on the international stage. We have some of the best schools and universities in the world, a rich industrial history and outstanding businesses, entrepreneurs and innovators.
We also have the potential to be a leading digital economy; embracing and fostering new and emerging technologies, industries and opportunities, and enhancing existing ones.
To do this we need to unlock our digital potential. This potential is huge and wide-ranging. It is the student who’s learning coding skills to develop a promising new app; the small business that’s using digital marketing strategies to sell more goods overseas; the manufacturer that’s speeding up production by introducing artificially intelligent robots into its supply chain; and the sole trader using the internet for the first time. There’s untapped digital potential right across Britain, and we need to make the most of it.
Today this country boasts an advanced digital economy with strengths in industries like artificial intelligence, cyber security, fintech, gaming and virtual reality. But to continue to grow and flourish in an increasingly competitive global economy, we must harness as much of our digital potential as we can. And we must work to realise this potential in every part of the country.
This is why we’ve published Digital Super Towns: Unlocking the UK’s Digital Potential, a study that uses three indicators – digital infrastructure, digital skills and the digital economy – to assess the digital strengths of large towns and cities across the nation. The most comprehensive study to date of the UK’s digital performance on a regional basis, it recognises that different places need different policy interventions to boost productivity and spur economic growth.
As a first step, we urge the Government and local politicians to foster the digital economy by setting up “Digital Enterprise Zones”. These would be defined geographic areas created to promote the growth of digital businesses, with benefits such as tax breaks for companies that locate there; support to encourage people to learn new digital skills; and incentives to invest in full fibre and 5G networks, along with access to existing infrastructure and public sector land and buildings.
A key advantage of Digital Enterprise Zones would be the opportunity to test policy initiatives that could strengthen local digital economies. One example would be to offer digital marketing vouchers to small and medium-sized enterprises with export potential to help them internationalise their websites and acquire the translation services they need to find new markets abroad. Local authorities could also offer financial incentives to train and retain digital talent, for instance by making use of Apprenticeship Levy funds.
Over time, by drawing more and more investment, skilled workers and businesses in tech-related fields to the area, these zones could pave the way for the formation of “Digital Super Towns” – places where every bit of digital potential is exploited to its fullest. Indeed, if Digital Super Towns emerged in all the places identified in this study as having the greatest potential, this could raise regional productivity and contribute tens of billions of pounds to the UK economy.
Local leaders recognise that digital technology is crucial to the future economic success of their areas, and have a clear appetite to identify and fulfil their digital potential as a result. This can be seen in the digital policy visions of the recently elected “metro mayors” in England’s combined authorities – from Andy Street wanting to create a Digital Skills Institute in the West Midlands, to Steve Rotherham wanting to develop a digital inclusion strategy in the Liverpool City Region. Likewise, national government – with its Digital Strategy and Industrial Strategy – recognises the importance of developing the digital economy, upgrading our infrastructure and driving growth across the economy.
Success in these areas will be critical as we look to the future of our country after leaving the European Union. The analysis presented in our study looks at the digital potential of more than 50 towns and cities, from Bolton to Belfast and from Wigan to Worksop. Taken together, these towns and cities contribute more than £380bn to the economy and have a combined population of some 16m people. Both local government and national government play active roles in making these places successful, and we believe that Digital Enterprise Zones offer a route to even greater success.
At Vodafone, a business proud of our British roots, we are committed to playing our part. We have spent more than £2bn on our UK network, core fibre infrastructure and services since 2014, and have pledged to invest a similar amount over the next few years. We are willing partners for future investment, but we cannot work alone. To improve digital connectivity, our industry needs national and local policies that encourage investment in full fibre networks, as well as a supportive regulatory environment and planning framework.
Britain has a long history as a tech innovator. We can build on this legacy to realise our nation’s potential to be a digital leader. By working together, not just at the national level but also regionally, we can achieve this ambition.
‘Britain has a long history as a technology innovator. We can build on this to realise our nation’s potential’