A leading industry body has called on the government to commit to a digital levelling up after the pandemic highlighted stark regional differences.
Tech UK, a trade association for the industry, has today launched a report into how to strengthen the UK’s “Local Digital Capital”.
Scrutiny on tech and the availability of it has come into sharper focus amid the pandemic as small businesses pivot to online to stay afloat.
“The interest and the need for being digital has gone up dramatically… because those who weren’t digital have got an existential threat. If you can’t trade in the old mode you’ll go out of business,” TechUK chief executive Julian David told City A.M.
He says the pandemic has been an impetus, and “with Brexit, people are going to have to think about hiring new markets, and the way to do that is to get online is to add services and deliver value.”
The government has already committed to upgrading broadband speeds in rural English areas, as well as 5G rollout, but TechUK is calling on them to go way beyond promises of faster broadband and increasing digital skills.
“When you look at transformation change disruption it lands very unevenly, and some communities are not in a position to take advantage,” David told City A.M. “It was clear to us that the solution would need to be matched to the local communities.”
TechUK says its policies, and overcoming the “Local Digital Capital gap”, would boost the UK’s economic output by as much as £145bn, create 2.7m new jobs and see combined revenues among SMEs increase by £325bn.
One of Boris Johnson’s key election pledges was levelling up but the outbreak of coronavirus has sidelined this somewhat.
“Levelling up is essential. We found that the problems you can see everywhere, but the capability – this local digital capital – is very different in various regions and is different in demographics as well,” David said.
“If you don’t level up the regions and the demographics things will get further apart. If you are short of digital skills you won’t attract digital jobs, you wont be able to do digital transformation. If you don’t have digital connectivity you won’t be able to have the new types of businesses or transforming the existing small businesses if you don’t have access to finance.”
As well as calling for further collaboration and coordination between areas, TechUK is also calling on the government to drive digital adoption.
Among its recommendations are digital adoption grants for SMEs and a chief technology officer credit. It is also calling for a chief digital officer forum to support national collaboration.
Mini Londons aren’t the solution
David recognises the strength of London when it comes to digital adoption. “It’s opened itself up, it’s got very strong international recognition so that needs to be replicated around the country.”
But he warns against copying this London playbook and replicating it. “We don’t want lots of mini Londons, you have to understand your local digital capital and understand what you have,” he says.
This will further be strengthened by additional funding for research and development away from the major urban hubs such as Edinburgh and Manchester.
TechUK is calling for a funding strategy with an explicit aim to support growth outside London and the South East.