At the foothills of digital change

March 5, 2020

In October 2019, the North East Local Enterprise Partnership announced its eagerly-anticipated Digital for Growth strategy, which sets out plans to maximise digital opportunities and investment in the region. Its architect is digital programme lead Laura Partridge, who has recruited a steering group of individuals to support the delivery of the strategy’s objectives. Alison Cowie met up with the group to find out more

When Laura Partridge was appointed digital programme lead at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) in December 2018, she was tasked with developing a region-wide strategy that would maximise opportunities for digital growth and investment.

Given Laura herself concedes that “digital is everything”, it was a mighty undertaking for the former innovation and engagement manager at N8 Research Partnership (a consortium of eight North-based research-led universities) who relocated to the North East in 2017 to work on the Great Exhibition of the North.

For almost a year, Laura researched the local digital tech scene and spoke to the sector’s leading players spanning the seven local authority areas the North East LEP represents.

In October 2019, Laura launched the Digital for Growth strategy to a room of business leaders and influencers.

The strategy – which will be led by the North East LEP and delivered in partnership with businesses and organisations across the region – identifies four immediate areas of priority. Laura’s job now is to build a pipeline of activity that maximises opportunities and addresses challenges in each.

At the strategy launch, it was also announced that a Digital Steering Group had been formed to help Laura in her mission.

The group comprises Stuart Lynn, Richard Baker, Pete Daykin, Deni Chambers, Michelle Rainbow, Herb Kim and Alison Shaw – who will work alongside Laura.

Though the steering group is still in its early stages, I invited its members to a special round-table discussion last month to explore the reasons each had joined the group while gauging their initial thoughts around the strategy’s four priority areas.

I began the discussion by asking Laura why she felt a steering group was necessary.

“It was important to bring together some of the brightest minds in digital tech from around the region,” Laura explains.

We have representatives from education, research, new business and established business, and it is this cross-section of expertise that will help bring the strategy to life.

Stuart Lynn – the former chief technology officer at Sage Group who founded TechNorthEast and is the visiting professor of technology at the University of Sunderland – has been appointed chair of the steering group. He passionately believes the digital tech sector represents the best opportunities for the North East to prosper and grow.

Stuart wants to see his home region become a hotbed of digital tech and creativity.

“What I’d love to see is the creation of lots of digital start-ups, more businesses growing by using digital technology, and the region attracting more digital investment,” he explains.

Pete Daykin describes himself as the “voice of small business” in the steering group.

The former digital agency owner has been making considerable waves as the co-founder of Wordnerds, which combines cutting-edge AI and linguist techniques to understand unstructured text online.

Pete wants to ensure regional SMEs benefit from the digital strategy, as well as larger, more established businesses.

He is also hoping he can use his own experiences to help encourage more collaboration.

“I’m someone who spent years in a room with a small number of people ploughing a little furrow and it’s only over the past few years that I’ve reached out and learnt from others where my progress has been massively accelerated as a result,” says Pete.

Herb Kim came to the North East in 2002 and is the mastermind of the Thinking Digital and TEDx conferences.

He has joined the steering group to help form a cohesive narrative for the region around digital.

“It needs to be evidence-based but straightforward so that everyone can understand why digital is important,” says Herb.

Michelle Rainbow is the skills director at the North East LEP and has joined the steering group in recognition of the crucial role digital plays in her broader remit to ensure the local economy has a supply of skilled workforce to meet future demand.

Speaking about the digital strategy, Michelle reflects: “I genuinely think we have an opportunity to make some societal changes.

“We must make sure everyone in the North East knows about the importance of digital skills and how it can benefit not only their working life but their home and social life as well.”

Alison Shaw, professor of practice for success and progression at Newcastle University, echoes Michelle’s sentiment that the digital strategy must “grow social justice.”

She also recognises the LEP as having “the convening power to cross physical boundaries within the North East.” Alison intends to use her position to help foster more sustainable collaboration to grow productivity that everyone can benefit from.

Deni Chambers is the assistant principal at Gateshead College who has more than 20 years’ teaching experience, specialising in digital.

Having built a large network, spanning education and tech, she also recognises the importance of collaboration.

“I want to be part of a team that helps steer that for the region,” she says. “My hope is that [the steering group’s work] supports our ambition for more and better jobs and shows the rest of the world what amazing opportunities there are in this brilliant region.”

North East LEP strategy and policy director Richard Baker’s role on the steering group is to ensure the digital strategy aligns with the LEP’s broader Strategic Economic Plan (SEP), which aims to create 100,000 more and better jobs for the region by 2024.

“We’ve identified digital as one of our SEP’s four key sectoral areas and the digital strategy must draw from and inform the LEP’s wider work,” says Richard.

“We want to hear from, and learn from, the individuals in the Digital Steering Group so that we can make sure we make the right interventions and the right investments as we move towards a digitally-enabled economy.”

Having established the principal motivations of the steering group, talk moves to the four priority areas identified in the Digital for Growth strategy.

According to Laura, the areas have been designed so that, “businesses, education and third sector organisations of all shapes and sizes can see how understanding them – and acting upon them – will lead to long-term improvement to the economy and the citizens of the region.”

Stuart continues: “When the four areas were announced, people said, ‘what about fintech, what about creative digital, what about gaming, etc?’ But they’re all encapsulated in these areas. They represent the key enablers that will help any businesses in the North East. That’s a really important point to get across.”

DATA
I ask Pete – who worked with Durham University and the University of Sunderland to develop Wordnerd’s SaaS platform – where opportunities in this priority area lie.

He highlights NICD, the National Innovation Centre for Data at Newcastle Helix, and PROTO, the emerging technology centre in Gateshead, as enablers for the North East to establish its credentials in data science and analytics on a national and global stage.

“The investment in NICD and PROTO – and some of the work being done around the Smart Cities agenda and ageing – gives us access to markets that other people in the country don’t have,” the entrepreneur says.

But Pete echoes the objective set out in the digital strategy that this expertise must be accessible for all North East businesses to help them grow.

The really interesting stuff is where you get a traditional business introduced to new technology.

“It’s where you get disruptive growth, and places such as NICD and PROTO are brokerage pieces to that.”

Laura adds that the LEP is working closely with NICD and other partners on how to articulate what they mean for local businesses, particularly SMEs.

“If we can demonstrate how we can put this power into businesses from different sectors, we will have a really good avenue to scale that up and out of the North East,” she says.

“It’s all about education,” adds Stuart.

“If people and businesses see how others have benefited [from engaging in data and emerging technology services], they’ll want it for themselves.

“We need to find the exemplars and shout about them from the rooftops.”

INFRASTRUCTURE AND CONNECTIVITY
The Digital for Growth Strategy states that ‘we want to ensure that the entire region is fully enabled with the best possible digital infrastructure and connectivity so that no business or community is restricted by provision.’

In terms of what that means, Richard says, “we need to know where we are and where we need to be in terms of future digital markets. That will give us a good understanding of the interventions we need to make.”

Richard believes the North East has the potential to be a testbed for infrastructure and connectivity innovation, while there are opportunities to build on global connectivity strengths with existing facilities, such as the Stellium data centre in North Tyneside, which offers super-fast network connectivity to the US and Europe.

But, as Michelle points out, connectivity isn’t all about infrastructure.

“It’s about making sure local communities can access digital too,” she says. “That might be through infrastructure, but it might also be through access to digital knowledge and learning.”

Alison agrees: “We must avoid digital exclusion,” she says. “Everyone has to be involved. No one – no matter where they live – should be left behind.”

DIGITAL COLLABORATION AND ENTERPRISE
The group agree with the strategy’s statement that, ‘the North East has a strong tech community, which is driven, passionate and entrepreneurial.’ But to realise digital opportunities faster and more robustly, a higher density of enterprises and boosted culture of collaboration are required.

I ask Herb how collaboration and enterprise can be encouraged in the North East and he makes the point that a decade ago, London wasn’t seen as the tech hub it is today.

“When David Cameron and George Osborne announced their intension, there were endless blogs and videos by people laughing at the idea that London could become a serious player in the tech space,” he says.

Herb explains that London’s transformation wasn’t the result of a massive $10 billion cash investment but that small amounts of funding were used to organise meetings between tech companies and non-tech companies looking to digitise.

“It encouraged collaboration and London has never looked back,” says Herb.

The founder of internationally-renowned Thinking Digital events, held annually at Sage Gateshead, believes lessons can be learnt from the example of London, while repeating the need for the North East to have a narrative to attract talent.

“A lot of this is around building confidence and if we as a group can help steer this narrative, the better position we will be in,” he adds.

Pete continues the debate about how we make the North East an attractive base for digital entrepreneurs: “The advantage we have in the North East [to attract talent] is our regional assets. We have beautiful coastlines, amazing countryside and access to culture.

“People can come here, settle here and start families here – that should be celebrated.

“It’s also much cheaper to grow business in the North East. And it’s more stable than London, New York or San Francisco. In these places, software engineers move jobs every few months. In the North East, it’s far less frequent.

“There’s a reason why Accenture has a bunch of customer-facing people in London but the tech work is getting done in the North East.”

WORKFORCE
Although four individual priority areas are identified in the strategy, everyone in the steering group recognises that they are inter-related and cross-cutting. This is perhaps no more prevalent than in Workforce.

“There’s a skills piece in everything we’ve talked about; it’s all-pervasive,” Michelle says.

The LEP’s skills director explains that the term Workforce was deliberately chosen to reflect three areas of focus: Education (those at school, college or university; Business (those in work or training) and Society (encompassing the wider North East community).

Each, Michelle says, presents their own opportunities and challenges.

Despite the considerable task stated in the Digital for Growth strategy, to ‘build an inclusive and resilient labour market [and to] make careers in digital attractive and possible for all,’ this doesn’t seem to faze the group.

“By prioritising activity that brings together key stakeholders, sharing best practice, ideas and even resource, we will be able to do this much quicker,” says Deni.

Alison adds: “From my experience, learners are enthusiastic if what they’re learning is relevant, meaningful and presents inherent opportunities. The only way you can do that is at the boundaries between the economy and educational providers.”

Stuart makes the point that people must accept their learning doesn’t stop when they leave formal education. He also believes more should be done to align STEM graduates from local universities to local tech jobs, while encouraging students to be more entrepreneurial.

Deni adds: “We need a more focused, collaborative approach to teaching and skills development, particularly with the challenges we face finding and securing highly-skilled teachers in digital and accessing current high specification resources.

“Employers and industry partners, I believe, are the secret to this. Developing talent works better when not in isolation.”

Herb also maintains it is essential to provide clarity about what skills are available in the North East to encourage more inward investment.

“When you’re in a city and you want to find somewhere to eat, you look at a map where all the restaurants are highlighted.

“There should be something similar made with skills. People are looking for easily digestible information about what’s available here.”

I conclude the discussion by asking the steering group why people should get behind the Digital for Growth strategy.

Stuart reflects: “The North East has done really well so far. Along with Teesside, we have more than 3000 digital tech businesses employing 35,000 employees and generating almost £3 billion GVA.

“If we can get people behind this strategy and pushing in the right direction, we can build on this. But we have to be courageous and ambitious.”

Laura continues: “Sometimes, what ends up happening when we talk about the North East is that we’re seen as a problem that needs fixing. I disagree with that. We have pockets of absolute brilliancy happening here. We need to shine a light on that while helping to create more.

“If we get a sense of coalition around these objectives as a region, in time, the North East will have the confidence to define itself for what it is, not what it is not.”

As for the role of the steering group, Alison says: “It’s our job to keep telling the story and working up the powerful elements of the strategy, so that we keep people with us.”

Stuart concludes: “We are at the foothills. This is just the start and we have a lot of work ahead of us. But the opportunities are there and we have great people in this steering group who can help drive that.”

North East LEP
For more information about the Digital for Growth strategy visit: www.northeastlep.co.uk/theplan/digital

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