Looking past London: turning the UK into a nation of innovation

Local-level support is essential to help drive innovation and growth in the digital economy, says Neil Crockett

Looking past London: turning the UK into a nation of innovation

The UK’s digital economy is booming. In the recent Tech Nation report, over half of the companies analysed were formed since the start of 2008, with 15% set up in 2013 – 2014 alone. This development shows no signs of slowing, with the formation rate of new companies rapidly growing – 53% more digital companies formed in 2013 than in 2010. Digital innovation is driving this.

The UK is leading a charge into the truly connected age – a world where technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearables are part of everyday life. The recent budget reflected this with the government pledging £40m to aid IoT development. Another £600m will be invested into freeing up spectrum to be used for the wireless broadband infrastructure that will support this technology.

But in order to foster and support this, all digital stakeholders – from the government to academia and large organisations – need to ensure we are supporting innovation on a local level. London is a vibrant technology cluster. But it is one of many in the UK, all of which will be equally important as we look to drive the UK’s digital economy forward. 

Fostering local economies

Great work is being done across the country to develop and bring to market products and services which will each form part of the wider digital economy. Indeed, many local technology hubs have specific areas of expertise, lead the way in that space and can therefore cement the UK’s place as a world-leader in digital innovation. From Sheffield’s education tech and telecoms specialism to Birmingham’s hub of advanced manufacturing, all corners of the country are bringing something to the digital economy. 

Indeed our non-exec director Chris van der Kuyl, whose 4J Studios has been responsible for porting Minecraft to consoles, is one of Scotland’s leading entrepreneurs and the leading light of the games cluster in Dundee. Similarly our showcase winners come from all over the country, from Manchester-based magneticNorth to Gateshead’s on:trac

The local economies are there and they’re thriving. But they need support and expertise in order to develop and ensure sustained growth as the digital sector really kicks into gear. There are many challenges we face as we look to accelerate digital or, more specifically, data innovation. From creating trust in the sharing of personal data to the need to streamline the content licensing and copyright process, digital businesses will struggle to reach their potential if we can’t address these hurdles. The only way to overcome them is to convene the various data stakeholders and work together to develop, test and eventually to take products and services from concept to commercial reality. 

It’s this kind of collaboration at a local level that will reap long-term reward. Imagine a one-man start-up developing a mobile app that can act as a remote carer for the elderly or for disabled people. At some point, the app itself is not enough. It will require outside input from parties such as the NHS (to provide personal data of NHS patients who will use the app), academics (to help the start-up understand the health issues) and various other experts. 

To offer a way of bringing these organisations together across the whole of the UK will help overcome the data challenges and ensure all digital products are given the opportunity to reach their full potential. 

The digital convener 

Continuing our mission to help drive digital innovation across the nation, the Digital Catapult is making its move to collaborate with and support these local hotspots. Alongside our ongoing work with organisations including Future Everything in Manchester and Sunderland Software City, we’ve just opened Digital Catapult Centres in Brighton, Yorkshire and North East & Tees Valley to help innovators bring digital products and services to market. The creation of the new Digital Catapult Centres will direct an additional £9m of investment in these already vibrant digital economies. 

The government itself acknowledged the importance of local hubs across the country in the budget 2015, with the announcement of the Energy Systems Catapult in Birmingham and increased funding in science, technology and the creative industries in the north west and Yorkshire. There is no doubt that investments which reinforce the importance of the UK’s regional innovation will only accelerate the country’s economic growth.

We would call on all other digital stakeholders to follow a similar path. Yes, look to London but look outside of the capital too. Because some of the greatest minds are working there and are developing technologies, from medical apps to virtual reality gaming, which will all be staples of the UK’s digital future. As an industry, it is important all of those in digital offer support and collaborate with these local innovation communities. It is from these local hotspots that we will find the best innovation, create the most relevant products and reap the economic benefit for the UK. 

Neil Crockett
Neil Crockett

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