The UK’s digital shift

The pandemic forced our work and social lives to go digital overnight. That our country was able to operate with some ‘normality’ is a testament to our current connectivity capabilities, yet more must be done, argues Genevieve Redgrave, infrastructure Policy and Publications Editor at Public Policy Projects

Digital society - critical for the future
Genevieve Redgrave
On 2 March 2021 14:37

The past decade has seen an unprecedented rise in improved digital connectivity, with our physical and digital lives now inextricably linked. With new technologies being rapidly developed, the future of digital is right at our fingertips. Covid-19 has accelerated this change.

The pandemic forced our work and social lives to go digital overnight.

That our country was able to operate with some ‘normality’ is a testament to our current connectivity capabilities, with remote offices, zoom catch ups and now even schooling happening in the living. Yet when an entire population becomes dependent on connectivity, the shortcomings of our current provision and the realities of limited digital skills are put firmly in the spotlight.

Large swathes of the population, especially rural areas, can only access speeds as low as 2G and it is predicted by 2025, only 70 per cent of the UK will have comprehensive gigabit coverage.

Despite original claims to reach full fibre by this same date, the Government has reduced this target to merely 85 per cent.

Those remaining without this connection, still represent vital communities and in an increasingly digital world, inadequate coverage leaves these citizens at greater risk of exclusion. Yet while this poses a significant challenge, it also presents an incredible opportunity to fortify the UK as a global digital leader. By ambitiously levelling up digital connectivity and sustainable infrastructure at the same time, the UK can drive forward to meet the potential of a digital green future and become the “Science Superpower” it vowed to become upon leaving the European Union.

Connected Citizens: Improving Local and Regional Digital Connectivity, a new report by Public Policy Projects in collaboration with Anderson Strategy and in partnership with Huawei, sets out an ambitious new digital operating model that will ensure the UK meets this technology’s potential. International best practice has proven that the capabilities are there if given the right direction and the new five-point operating model sets out how to do this.

By radically improving its capabilities, the UK has the potential to provide world-leading connectivity. The report outlines the necessity to create a joined up national strategy and funding plan that combines connectivity and sustainability targets into one shared ambition.

By converging these plans into a singular vision, the UK can create a sustainable digital future built on a foundation of world-leading infrastructure. It is those in regional and combined authorities who are best placed to roll-out this vision as they understand the needs of their communities.

While greater devolved powers and funding should be given to enable this rapid development, local levers are already available, if given the right direction. Information-sharing, consortiums, regional barrier-busting and infrastructure deployment facilitated through the planning system should be used alongside exemplar city trials and new digital infrastructure boards to drive the UK’s digital transformation forward.

Making informed decisions fundamentally depends on having access to the right information. By mandating that any information is shared amongst local authorities, relevant stakeholders, and digital at early stages this will improve cooperation and drive forwards development. Similarly, all regulations and legislation must facilitate infrastructure roll-out on a mass scale to meet the challenge. T

he Digital Economy Act 2017 has failed to increase connectivity through its Universal Service Obligations and must be reviewed alongside Ofcom’s regulatory powers.

By ensuring all processes facilitate infrastructure development, the UK can meet the connectivity needs of every citizen. However, crucially underpinning the model’s potential is the realities of the population’s digital skills.

22 per cent of the UK do not have the basic digital skills needed for everyday life and as technology improves, this is likely to increase. The UK requires an ambitious long-term digital skills strategy that reforms every level of the education system to ensure it is fit for purpose in the digital age. Putting digital at the heart of education and retraining can not only combat existing skills shortages but drive forwards a culture of digital innovation. In an ever-digitising society, it needs to be ensured that those who want to, have the necessary skills to be a part of this digital world.

Digital connectivity offers limitless possibilities, but its potential can only be reached when all partners and levels of government are brought together to implement the new digital operating model. Through a bottom-led ambitious national vision, the UK can become a world-leader in connectivity, levelling up to meet the potential of a green, digital future.

Genevieve Redgrave is the infrastructure Policy and Publications Editor at Public Policy Projects

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