Venturefest WM 2021: Digital Roadmap Panel

It’s not just about computers.  It’s much more than that.  The term ‘digital’ covers a lot, but in essence it’s about using technology to deliver better services, improve productivity, enhance education, upskill and empower workers and to improve the quality of life for citizens and businesses across the West Midlands.

The West Midlands Digital Roadmap was recently launched by the Mayor of the West Midlands – Andy Street.  A culmination of six months of work, which pulled together a huge number of inputs from a range of stakeholders, to confirm a bold direction for the region to pioneer digital innovation and transformation to power economic and social recovery.

The digital roadmap confirms the regions commitment to building the UK’s best-connected region – recognising the increased criticality of fast and reliable digital connectivity.  The West Midlands has already made a strategic start, by investing in and developing its 5G infrastructure, which has led it to be independently recognised as having the best 5G coverage of any UK region so far!  The roadmap acknowledges the lack of fibre in the region, and highlights key issues of digital inequality, transformation and innovation to be addressed.

Producing a Digital roadmap, in the backdrop to the COVID-10 pandemic, digital connectivity is going to be vital to the economic bounce back of the West Midlands.  Offering the potential to transform all of our core industries, including: Advanced manufacturing, Automotive, Life Sciences, Professional Services, Construction, Low Carbon, Transport, Healthcare, and Public Services.

It was during this backdrop that the Digital Roadmap Panel (Led by Sarah Windrum, Chair of Coventry & Warwickshire LEP, and CEO of the Emerald Group) examined the ways in which the Digital Roadmap would impact business, and ensure that students & workers would benefit from the many benefits that a digitally connected region presents to them.  The panel included: Robert Franks (MD of WM5G), Prashant Pillai (Professor of Cyber Security, University of Wolverhampton), Alex Cole (CEO, TIN Smart Social), and Kari Lawler (Tech entrepreneur and Digital Youth Champion).

Questions asked to the panel:

In addition to building new businesses how can we use digital to enable existing businesses to be more competitive? For example, we heard Ben talking about manufacturing in the region. How will the roadmap support this?

Robert believes business can use digital to improve their competitiveness, citing an example of the 5G private network being trialled in the manufacturing sector with AE Aerospace as a first for the Country.  Touching on the many benefits that this would bring, including: remote maintenance, Machine Time Servitization and predictive maintenance being some of the use cases.  Robert is keen to extend manufacturing programmes like these to include smaller businesses – especially on overcoming productivity challenges.

Prashant highlighting the work the University if doing around Digital Enterprise, in promoting the merits of technology to SME’s and business, demonstrating how cutting-edge technology can help them (such as Immersive technology – VR, AR etc).  

Alex believes digital can help by documenting the spare capacity that organisations across the West Midlands currently have – including universities.  Also, a focus on problem led calibrations – rather than solution led collaboration, will lead to more pop-up solutions & create more pop-up entrepreneurial opportunities – these are energisers and triggers for more connectivity.

We hear talk about needing more digital skills, which ones do the panel think are most important?

Alex believed it wasn’t a digital skill, but rather being open to trying out new things – essentially its about mindset.  He also encouraged SME’s to share successes which was important for the region.

Kari felt that skills around machine learning and data will be of growing importance in the future. She stressed that businesses and individuals need to be willing and excited to learn new skills.

Prashant highlighted the growing area of Cyber Security in the West Midlands, and the opportunity this presents to the region and the UK, especially as there is a huge shortage of skilled people in this field. Similarly, with Immersive technology, AR, AI, mixed reality – and how the skills developed here can be used across sectors.

Robert identified that there is a national shortage of ‘Fibre broadband’ engineers.  

Can anyone name a tech company that all tech companies can aspire to?

Sarah mentioned Nimbus in Leamington Spa.

Prashant highlighted that there are not many large ones in the West Midlands, but this is also an opportunity, which is related to how investment and Foreign Direct Investment.  Prashant believes we will see more large companies coming into the region following the publication of the roadmap

Kari suggested Codemasters in Birmingham, but agreed that the lack of big nameable tech companies in the West Midlands highlights the critical need for further investment.

How do we ‘see’ what is going on in tech across the WMs? Where is the map for all the companies involved in each tech segment across the region?

Alex stated that one benefit of producing such a map would be to source companies with ideas that can be accelerated quickly.   And that this creative mechanism would allow the ability to engage with SME’s around demand led challenges.  Mentioned that steps are currently being taken to do this – around the GRID which has been set up by the Innovation Alliance West Midlands.

Alex identified the following steps which he believes the RoadMap can help with, including:

  • SME’s often need funding to progress their ideas forward.  And helping them to be creative with their pitches could also be of help.
  • Creating a growth platform, allowing the introduction of suitable resources to ideas.
  • Developing a collective that can support and ‘turbo charge’ a business.
  • Improving existing infrastructure to allow companies to operate as global businesses.
  • The importance of sector led approaches, and also providing support to entrepreneurs at the various different stages that every entrepreneur goes through.
  • Access to support – legitimate support which is fit for purpose.

Robert feels we could perhaps create challenge focus areas, and channel people through the amazing networks that already exist in the region (Health tech, clean tech etc).  Robert is already reaching out to these sectors, and will also publish the results of the 5PRING accelerators once these are ready.

Prashant: most Universities are aware of what their strengths are.  Now Universities are being assessed on how they also work with and support local businesses.  As a result, Universities have become business facing as well.  In the long run, this will help in building an eco-system and in developing collaboration.

Concluding thoughts: Why should the West Midlands be the place for business to come to?

Alex: West Midlands has the youngest population, it is very connected, and has lots of entrepreneurs!

Kari: The diversity of its young population, which is something we need to take advantage of more! It’s a great place to grow a business.

Prashant: We have an abundance of talent, lots of people who have taken the leap forward.  

Rob: We have leadership in a number of sectors.  We have talent, ambition, political commitment, and the location – heart of England is hugely powerful!  Finally, the quality of life – one can enjoy a much better quality of life in our region then say stodgy old London!

Watch the panel discussion here:

(Author – Ravi Kumar, Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands)