June 4, 2019
Laura Partridge relocated to the North East from Manchester in 2017 to take up the position of innovation champion for the Great Exhibition of the North – a three-month celebration of Northern art, design and innovation that took place across Tyneside last summer. As part of the role, Laura immersed herself in the local digital and tech scene, which she found to be “vibrant and full of energy.” Previous to this, she worked for the N8 Partnership, a pan-Northern consortium of research-intensive universities.
Having fallen in love with the North East, when her 13-month fixed-term exhibition contract elapsed, Laura decided to seek another opportunity here.
This came when she successfully applied to become digital programme lead at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).
In what is a new role for the North East LEP, Laura has been tasked with developing a digital strategy that promotes digital activity in the region and supports the local digital sector – which, according to the latest Tech Nation Report 2019, comprises 2905 digital tech businesses that have a combined turnover of £1.26 billion and employ more than 30,000 people.
Reflecting on her appointment, Laura says: “I saw the role at the North East LEP as a fantastic opportunity to take the refreshed Strategic Economic Plan and start to develop a really cohesive digital strategy for the region, together with the sector.”
The North East LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan, Laura explains, is the region’s “blueprint for regional economic growth.” It was first launched in March 2014 and was recently updated to reflect the changing political and economic landscape while remaining committed to creating 100,000 more and better jobs in the North East by 2024.
Digital is named as one of four areas of strategic importance in the Plan (alongside advanced manufacturing, health and life sciences and energy) and highlights physical assets such as the National Innovation Centre for Data, Proto and the Centre for Innovation and Growth, opportunities around the digitalisation of other industries, and skills-building utilising the region’s world-class educational establishments.
“We’ve got some fantastic sub-sectors within digital in the region, areas of strengths and brilliant physical and intellectual assets,” says Laura. “We have to align those, promote them and make the best of them.”
For the past five months, the digital programme lead has been engaging with the local digital community and partners to develop the digital strategy, which will be launched this summer.
With the finer details still in development, Laura explains the strategy will have an “outcome and action-focused approach” centred around “four thematic areas.”
The first of these areas is data, with the strategy detailing how tech and non-tech companies can harness and leverage their information to grow. The second area is infrastructure and connectivity, focusing on linking the region’s businesses and community with each other and the wider UK, and increasing the region’s global competitive advantage. Creative production and application is the third area, which, according to Laura, is “rooted in the region’s innovative past” and details how the region can develop the high growth opportunities of tomorrow, while the final area is around workforce and how, as a region, we can develop digital skills in education, the workplace and society in order to build prosperous communities and improve quality of life.
One of the biggest challenges Laura has faced in developing her digital strategy has been managing the scope of digital.
“It’s arguably everything,” she says. “The real trick has been how to strike a balance between acknowledging that breath of scope of opportunity against clear objectives based on evidence.”
Laura is keen that people and businesses get behind the strategy.
“This digital strategy is for the entire region, developed with the region; it’s for our small, medium and large businesses, it’s for our educational institutions and it’s for the employers of tomorrow,” she says .
Laura is also making it her mission to ensure that the local digital community is fully supported and is looking to work with the region’s myriad of digital networks to provide effective and navigable pathways, whether that’s gaining information
on funding, putting on an event of national importance or peer-to-peer support.
Laura is mindful of the broader challenges – such as skills, funding and Brexit – which could impact the future trajectory of the local digital sector in the North East. She is therefore working with national partners to ensure the North East’s objectives are aligned with those of the UK Industrial Strategy and the Northern Powerhouse agenda.
She concludes: “It’s important to remember that digital is not something that is invented in the North East; it’s much wider than that.
“As a region, we need to get that balance between digital breadth and specificity and, with this strategy, we are trying to navigate through that.”
For more information about the digital priorities set out in the North East Strategic Economic Plan, visit nelep.co.uk/the-plan/digital