WMCA unveils plan for region’s digital future

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has launched its plan to give the region a digital reboot, with an aim to tackle digital exclusion, reach net zero and support a post-Covid recovery. 

The WMCA Digital Roadmap was presented at Venturefest West Midlands, one of the region’s top business events for digital entrepreneurs. This year’s keynote speaker was Ben Francis, the West Midlands-based founder of billion-dollar sportswear brand Gymshark. 

The plan outlines five missions to digitise the region, including becoming the UK’s best digitally connected region and increasing access to digital opportunities by tackling digital exclusion. The plan will build on the successes of the region’s 5G testbed and its innovation in transport, and make the most unique regional opportunities like HS2, the Commonwealth Games, and Coventry City of Culture.

The Digital Roadmap was launched at Venturefest by Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands. He said: “This Roadmap sets out an ambitious plan for the West Midlands – to become a technologically advanced, forward looking digital economy, where everybody has access to the internet and data is used to improve our public services. Imbedding the latest technology into our economy will also help us reach net zero, where innovation still has a huge role to play in reducing the burden on us to change the way we live our lives.

“Growth has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, but despite the adversity, there is also opportunity. The pandemic has accelerated the switch to digital and highlighted the need for a better-connected economy. To bounce back, we must weave digital into the way we do business. This means more digital bootcamps to train us for the jobs of the future; more digital devices to connect our residents to opportunities; and more innovation to help us reduce our carbon footprint and save the planet.”

The Roadmap has been developed over the last six months and has been approved by the WMCA Board. As well as aiming to make the West Midlands the most digitally connected region in the UK, the roadmap aims to address the issue of the ‘digital divide’. Since the start of the pandemic many firms have quickly adapted to their employees working from home and communicating online. However, lots of small business have struggled to adopt technology fast enough and some families have struggled with home schooling due to a lack of devices or unaffordable connections. 

The plan sets out to ensure the region remains number one in leadership on 5G, there will be an accelerated full fibre rollout, and 4G connectivity will be boosted. The roadmap highlights key sectors to support where the region is already globally competitive: Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV) in Coventry; data-driven healthcare in Birmingham and Solihull, and the gaming industry’s ‘Silicon Spa’ in Warwickshire.

Venturefest West Midlands was founded to provides entrepreneurs, investors and innovators to meet, engage and exchange ideas for co-operation and collaboration, particularly in the fields of science and emerging technologies. It is led by the WMCA along with local enterprise partnerships, universities and business organisations.

Also speaking at the event was Kari Lawler who launched a start-up at the age of 14 and is also a member of the Young Combined Authority said: “Through my AI youth initiative, YOUTH4AI I have been able to communicate to young people the importance and possibilities of AI.

“The West Midlands has a young population which will benefit from a decrease in the digital divide and an increase in digital connectivity.”

Cllr Patrick Harley, WMCA portfolio lead for Culture and Digital and leader of Dudley Council said: “Digital connectivity is going to be vital to our economic recovery and harnessing digital innovation will enable economic growth for the next decade and beyond. 

“This roadmap will help us realise the potential of digital to transform our economy and build economic resilience, firmly putting the West Midlands on the map as the most digitally connected region.”

West Midlands Digital Roadmap can be found on the WMCA website https://www.wmca.org.uk/media/4468/west-midlands-digital-roadmap.pdf