Sarah Windrum writes for Tech Central. Tech Central is a networking group based in the West Midlands bringing businesses together that want to innovate and evolve using technology. The original article appeared in Warwickshire Means Business November 2017
I recently accepted a position on Andy Street’s West Midlands Combined Authority Digital Board. At our first meeting we discussed our aims and objectives. Mine was to make the West Midlands a place where digital thrives and is seen to thrive. A vision open to wide interpretation as the rest of the Board told me. What does it mean for digital to thrive? What are the markers and the targets we can measure against?
At the same meeting, we also gave our commitment to the UrbanTech Challenge subsequently launched on 6th November. This was a project I had worked on previously in the West Midlands Digital Group where we discussed how to place public sector problems in front of the innovative digital SME community in order to explore collaborative solutions.
The UrbanTech programme launched by the WMCA has four key challenges around wellbeing, homelessness, youth unemployment, and citizenship. There is a £10,000 cash injection for successful businesses plus a three month pilot with the Combined Authority. You can find out more at https://urbanchallenge.io/ While the marketing is geared towards start-ups, I was assured in our Board Meeting that all SMEs will be considered. If you have a digital-led solution that could help with these key challenges, it is certainly worth a look.
Transport is a clear omission from the challenges. In a recent article for Tech UK I discussed the role of the West Midlands, positioned at the heart of the country, as crucial to the movement of people and things for the whole of the UK. Transport is a key challenge for this region and also a clear strength. It has been deliberately left off this round of challenges as Transport for West Midlands has its own Tech Accelerator. Information about this is not that easy to find but it appears to be part of the national Transport Systems Catapult.
Back to my question: what does it mean for the West Midlands to both be and be seen as a place where digital thrives? In my mind, we have to start with the movement of people and things. Why do we still have people employed in hi-vis to direct us where to park when we have digital signage and beacons that could direct us? Why do we have people patrolling to deliver parking fines when they could be issued automatically with machine learning? I will hear the argument about jobs being lost and to that argument I would respond that we can upskill those people to work in a place where digital thrives. The world of technology is so vast and there is much that can be picked up easily. I am not just saying this. Emerald, the IT business I own, has done it with our own employees from careers in hospitality, retail, and hair & beauty. All of them are now able to work in a place where digital thrives.
Warwickshire is home to some incredible digital businesses. We are home to a high value games cluster. We are home to autonomous vehicles. We are home to businesses exploring cutting edge technology and software development. This should not happen behind closed doors and non-disclosure agreements. We should see it and use it in our everyday lives. Warwickshire could be a place that lives and breathes digital. In all the best ways.