The one constant we can be sure of amidst this uncertainty is that connectivity is critical to our economic prosperity. In fact, the digital economy currently accounts for over a third of overall GDP – and it is predicted to grow to over £764bn by 2020.
But dig a bit deeper and there remains significant, untapped potential within the digital economy – potential that could and should be unlocked with relatively simple action from government and business. Research from Development Economics estimates that Britain’s economy could be boosted by £1.5bn by 2020 if as few as 30 towns across Britain are given access to better digital infrastructure, technology and skills training. That’s growth a mature economy like the UK should be grabbing with both hands.
The forecast is based on a pilot O2 delivered with St Helens Council. It tested the extent to which a relatively short programme of digital engagement could make a difference to a predominantly analogue community grappling with modern day challenges – from poor productivity to unemployment and funding cuts to local services.
In just ten weeks the testbed showed that improving connectivity, through new wifi hotspots and more access to tablets and smartphones, increased peoples’ access to local services and boosted young peoples’ confidence.
But it created more than just a feel-good factor. It also enhanced the performance of local businesses, improving profitability and therefore their ability to invest and grow. It showed how connectivity can help sustain the future growth of our economy. So how can we turn that forecast into reality? What are the relatively simple steps that should be taken to ensure that more businesses and communities can use connectivity to prosper?
First, we must improve Britain’s digital infrastructure. Currently, access to connectivity – whether broadband or mobile networks – is under urgent review. The reform of planning laws and the Electronic Communications Code – the rules by which telecoms companies can build and maintain networks – is underway, which is a good step in the right direction because without change, the digital economy will suffer both locally and nationally.
Second, businesses of all sizes need better access to the tools and guidance to grow. Over two thirds of British businesses told us digital technology has had a positive impact on their productivity and efficiency. But less than half of businesses have a digital strategy. That needs to change.
I’m not talking about an entire business overhaul. It can be as simple as giving employees smartphones or tablets so they can work in a way that suits them and to save time. As part of the pilot we gave a local healthcare provider access to tablets, laptops and a mobile printer. It streamlined admin time from 2 hours to 30 minutes and means the company can deliver better quality care to more people.
It is evident that digital opportunities for growth are no longer the preserve of tech start-ups. Businesses in any sector can embed digital tools in their processes to improve service delivery, get closer to their customers, and reduce administration time and cost. By doing so they can improve revenues and profitability, unlock cash and resources to invest in growth and help drive local economic sustainability.
Finally, once you have the tools and guidance, you need people within the business who are digitally competent and capable of maximising the technology available. If the skills don’t already exist within the business, look to bring them in. That often means looking to young people, our digital natives, who have the skills and ambition to harness the potential of technology. But it’s often hard for businesses, especially those on the smaller end of the scale to tap into that talent pool. We need better collaboration between businesses, schools and colleges to ensure local young people and business can make the most of the opportunities on their doorstep.
Now is the time to ensure that no matter where you live or run your business, you can make the most of digital technology and its benefits. We have shown that when communities put digital at their heart they prosper. Now we need collective effort from business and government to inspire more towns to follow in St Helens’ footsteps to help build a thriving Digital Britain.
Read the full report, ‘Rebalancing Britain: Inspiring thriving Digital Communities’, here.