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Digital priorities key to driving recovery in the West Midlands

• After a decade of growth, the West Midlands’ economy is being badly affected by COVID-19
• Stepping back, the global pandemic is accelerating key digital trends
• Digital leadership is now at the heart of the recovery plan for the West Midlands
• West Midlands 5G is committed to delivering these digital priorities in five key areas

After a decade of growth, the West Midlands is being badly affected by COVID-19

Over the last decade, the West Midlands has become the fastest growing region outside of London. Total employment has shot up every year since 2010 and GDP grew by 16.5% in just seven years from 2012 to 2019.

The region was seen as one of the best places to invest; living standards were improving, there was a rapid expansion in housebuilding, regional infrastructure was benefiting from huge volumes of investment, there was an increase in the number of apprenticeships, meanwhile construction on HS2 had commenced in Birmingham and the Battery Industrialisation Centre was launched in Coventry.

Then came the outbreak of Coronavirus.

According to the West Midlands Regional Economic Development Institute, the region has been seriously affected due to the structure of its economy and the proportion of people living in deprived areas.

For example, the automotive industry – worth over £11bn to our regional economy – is already facing difficulty and production shut-downs as costs increase, demand falls and workers stay at home. In addition, business sectors reliant on communal service delivery and social gatherings such as entertainment, the arts, and hospitality are facing a partial or complete shut-down.

Tourism is worth £12.6bn to the West Midlands region alone, accounting for an estimated 135,725 jobs – or about 5% of the working population. We are already seeing huge drops in revenues but the Government is trying to inject liquidity and support into these sectors.

Stepping back, the global pandemic is accelerating key digital trends

While the overall economic and social predicament both the region and country faces appears ominous, we have seen our usage of digital services increase dramatically as a result of lockdown and social distancing. This has created a wealth of opportunities as well as challenges.

Digital largely encompass four interrelated things: connectivity (4G, 5G and Wi-Fi), e-commerce (e.g. online grocery shopping), digital services (e.g. online gaming, video streaming, etc.) and the digital capabilities that power the above, which include cloud storage, big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and sensors.

Since lockdown, 35% of all UK citizens have made more mobile phone calls. A further 30% report an increase in home working via collaboration applications such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom. While 29% of the population have enjoyed TV streaming services such as Netflix more often, according to a recent survey by EY.

Management consultants McKinsey & Company have suggested that we have vaulted five years forward in terms of consumer and business digital adoption in the short space of a few months. McKinsey & Company’s UK data reports a 69% increase in telemedicine, a 60% increase in remote learning, a 50% increase in online fitness and a 35% increase in online grocery ordering – with many of these trends predicted to stay permanently in spite of the pandemic.

Many organisations are also starting to embrace digital capabilities at an unprecedented rate in order to survive. Shopify – a growing B2B e-commerce platform – saw its global sales increase 47% in Q1 2020 versus the same period in 2019 as bricks and mortar retailers rushed to set-up or grow their online presence.

In the legal profession, over 80% of High Court trials have been virtual during the pandemic – with e-signature services for contracts also seeing astronomical growth.

Digital leadership is now at the heart of the recovery plan for the West Midlands

The West Midlands seized the initiative and put forward a bold-plan to Government on how to kick-start recovery and growth through £3.2bn of investment in key areas. This plan has six main concerns:

Create green manufacturing jobs – including leadership in automotive electrification and addressing fuel poverty
Maximise job creation from HS2 and the cultural sector – including Coventry City of Culture and the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games
Invest in healthcare innovation – including health innovation through Birmingham Life Sciences Park and a radical disease prevention hub
Build better digital and transport links – including 5G and fibre investment to ensure that entire region is connected, as well as shovel-ready transport schemes
Regenerate brownfield land to build 35,000 new homes – including brownfield regeneration and advanced manufacturing in construction
Get people back to work – including supporting young people and retraining programmes

This investment will help to create or safeguard 135,800 jobs for citizens in the West Midlands, support as many as 154,400 young people and workers, build 35,000 new homes, and provide a rapid economic recovery for both the region and the UK.

West Midlands 5G is committed to delivering these digital priorities in five key areas

West Midlands 5G (WM5G) is the organisation delivering the UK’s first region-wide testbed and we are pleased to be closely involved in the development of the West Midlands Economic Recovery Plan. Our goal is to ensure that the region takes a leadership position in key digital trends to power economic and social recovery. Specifically, WM5G has committed to five key digital priorities to power economic recovery.

Firstly, WM5G is committed to accelerating mobile and super-fast fibre broadband connectivity in the West Midlands to make the region the best connected in the country. This is a key part of the ‘build better digital and transport links’ goal and is the foundation for all the digital innovation that we need to lead in the West Midlands. By addressing the digital divide and ensuring that even more people have access to great connectivity, we will ensure that the West Midlands and its citizens can study remotely, do business, support their community, and stay in touch with loved ones digitally. This work is being delivered in partnership with local authorities, Government and the private sector to remove the barriers obstructing the roll-out of 5G and fibre technology at scale. We are also testing, proving and scaling new ways of doing this more efficiently and have already achieved some notable successes. In addition, we have requested further funding in the Economic Recovery Plan to accelerate full fibre broadband roll-out to deprived areas.

Secondly, WM5G is committed to transforming our transport infrastructure in the West Midlands to reduce congestion, pollution and increase our ease of movement. This also links to the ‘build better digital and transport links priority’. Working in partnership with Transport for the West Midlands, we are building better digital and transport links and have successfully completed trials demonstrating the potential of 5G. Its proven benefits already include: reducing the time it takes to find a parking space thereby lowering emissions, improved safety on trams, and more accurate counting of traffic. Over the next few months, we will be sourcing a consortium to install 5G sensors – including HD video cameras and pollution sensors – at up to 350 road junctions in the West Midlands. These sensors will transmit real-time anonymised data to traffic control sensors in the region to optimise traffic flows by controlling the phasing of traffic lights.

Thirdly, WM5G is committed to accelerating skills development across a broad range of sectors through the three application accelerators we’re launching in Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton with O2, Deloitte, Wayra and Digital Catapult. These facilities – known as 5PRING – are the UK’s first 5G innovation centres and offer businesses and public sector organisations dedicated facilities to experience 5G and work out the benefits it could deliver. 5PRING has already started running virtual engagement sessions with a focus on supporting economic recovery goals relating to digital innovation in manufacturing, creative industries, construction, transport, retail, leisure and more.

In addition, WM5G is committed to advancing health and social care innovation. Last summer we conducted the UK’s first remote ultrasound scan over 5G in a trial with University Hospitals Birmingham and BT. The trial demonstrated the transformative power of 5G in empowering paramedics to give superior patient care at the point of first contact. BT’s super-fast, real-time 5G connection allowed a doctor many miles away to provide guidance to the paramedic and remotely diagnose conditions. To further this, WM5G will be supporting the radical disease prevention centre and is seeking funding to launch the UK’s first 5G testbed focussed on addressing use cases surrounding care homes, early diagnosis of cancer and connected ambulances.

Finally, WM5G is committed to support innovation in manufacturing – an industry which contributes significantly to GDP of the West Midlands. The goal is to achieve productivity improvements through 5G-driven trials. Building on trials with Bosch and Mazak in neighbouring Worcestershire, WM5G is partnering with regional LEPs and private sector organisations to secure funding and launch a 5G manufacturing testbed in the West Midlands.

With 5G networks and devices still at a nascent stage, these are clearly medium-term priorities to drive economic recovery and growth. Nevertheless, by executing them successfully we have the chance to create clear digital leadership in the West Midlands. Leadership of digital innovation will enable economic growth for the next decade and beyond, along with the other exciting initiatives being championed by stakeholders across the region in the Economic Recovery Plan.

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