Town by town, we can build a dig­i­tal su­per­power

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business Comment - NICK JEF­FERY Nick Jef­fery is the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Voda­fone UK

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’

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