How can digital transformation drive the government’s levelling-up agenda?
Experts suggest greater UK institutional investment, better distribution of successful tech companies, and the adoption of open source and low-code will break down local and regional barriers across the country
In its mission to spread opportunity and prosperity to all parts of the UK, the government’s Levelling Up White Paper includes much talk of how technology and digital transformation can drive this.
For example, by 2030 it wants most of the country to have access to nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 5G mobile networks, suggesting cities, towns and communities must be digitally connected to thrive.
The report also speaks of the importance of new digital skills and infrastructure to power jobs and industry in the future, with prime minister Boris Johnson describing it as the most comprehensive, ambitious plan of its kind. Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove said success would mean “where you live will no longer determine how far you can go”.
However, experts suggest much joined-up governmental digital thinking will be needed if levelling up is to succeed, accompanied by huge financial investment from central funds, swathes of new legislation and positive efforts to make the country more attractive to the brightest digital companies to move here and partner with government on its aims.
Dr Tanya Filer, CEO and founder of public-purpose tech-intelligence company StateUp – and leader of the Digital State Project at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge – believes reducing the huge gap between public-sector organisations and technology start-ups is critical.
“Globally, thousands of public-purpose technology start-ups are developing high-quality, contextually sensitive products and services to help address pressing challenges that towns and cities face. This suggests that often the problem is not supply,” she says.
“We’re living in an age of networks, but often innovative technology companies and local decision-makers are siloed from one another, and from the researchers and investors needed to shape the public-purpose tech ecosystem around levelling up.”
Filer argues that innovative public procurement is also key to greater levels of digital innovation within public sector organisations, saying research shows it can be “a powerful vehicle for supporting wide-ranging policy objectives relating to levelling up”.
One good example of a public/-private partnership designed to level up is in Sunderland, where BAI Communications works with the authority’s Our Smart City plan to ensure the region benefits from 5G and wireless infrastructure. The project is supported by the Department for Levelling Up’s Getting Building Fund and has encouraged trials of self-driving vehicles in the automotive supply chain, remote learning across schools, and social care improvements using assistive technologies so that vulnerable people can live independently.
However, the UK could be falling behind other nations in the digital transformation stakes. Research in September 2021 from the European Center for Digital Competitiveness, by ESCP Europe Business School, ranked the UK 15th in a list of digital risers, analysing how the digital competitiveness of 140 countries had developed over the past three years.
And in March 2022, when it was announced how the UK’s tech sector had surpassed a total $1tn valuation, digital minister Chris Philp suggested UK institutional investors were missing out to non-UK investors and called on them to back more homegrown tech firms.
Matthew Scullion, CEO of Manchester-based Matillion – a data transformation tech unicorn – believes the UK must produce far more high-growth, consequential technology companies outside London and the South East.
Scullion, who sits on the Business Council, says: “The steps the government can take are quite simple. We need to open eyes to the possibility of building these businesses anywhere,” he explains. “Running courses on high growth across the UK, especially at computer science universities and business schools outside London, will help spawn a new generation of digital entrepreneurs whose ventures can power the UK’s transition to a digital economy, and make sure it delivers for all.”
Scullion argues entrepreneurs outside the South East bubble have not been given enough encouragement to “wake up one morning and think, ‘I’m going to change the world and build a multibillion-pound business as a by-product’”.
“We can fix that,” he adds. “We need to show them the playbook of how to do it and help them run it. Sometimes it will work, and sometimes it won’t. When it does, it’ll encourage more equitable distribution of capital across different regions of the country, which will promote regional technology talent and skills too.”
One way forward for the government to achieve its levelling-up mission, according to two experts, is by harnessing open source and low-code. The former is software that can be shared and edited by anyone for any purpose, while the latter offers an easier visual approach to software development.
Alex Case, public-sector industry principal at Pegasystems, previously worked at No 10 and has led large-scale public-sector reform initiatives in the UK and Canada. He suggests the government should increase the uptake of low-code platforms to spread IT jobs more equally across the UK.
“This enables many people currently in operational, non-IT civil service jobs to upskill and become a key part of technology transformation projects,” he explains, adding it could also transform the relationship government has with its citizens, giving them the chance to take part in service development and improvement.
This chimes with a survey from real-time data analytics company KX, which found nearly half of UK students believed coding skills were either equally or more valuable than foreign-language skills.
But there is no short-term fix if research from EdTech Emeritus is right. It found levelling-up digital skills across England could take decades, with London at least 15 years ahead of the rest of the country, and the North East 30 years behind the capital.
Amanda Brock, CEO at non-profit OpenUK, is currently working with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. She says the government must step up its understanding of open technology and collaboration to underpin digital transformation and “make the economy tick”.
She highlights the strength of open source for the public good, as a successful piece of development can be adapted and re-used, saving time and money.
“Get this right, and we not only provide the building blocks for our national digital infrastructure but we will be world-leading, and these assets can be used by other governments for their digital transformation initiatives,” she adds.
“This would support more companies in developing their products and services around UK outputs and allow our UK-based talent to service the world.”