I took part in the inaugural Digital Leaders South East Salon this week at Gatwick Airport. The positive feeling in the room was that the digital economy in the South East is thriving, with oil prices at an all-time low and the economy expected to grow over the next five years, but there were fears that poor connectivity outside the urban areas and a chronic digital skills shortage would stop the region repaying the rewards that growth could offer.
One of the economic hubs of the region is Gatwick Airport and Michael Ibbitson, CIO of Gatwick Airport Limited started the discussion by talking about the central role that Gatwick has in driving economic growth in the South East. The Airport is developing local IT partnerships with educational institutions including Brighton University.
We also heard how technology is making the customer journey at Gatwick as smooth as possible with 95% of passengers passing through security in under 5 minutes and an increase in the single runway capacity by over 10% through the use of new software systems.
The future could include integrating with innovative tech companies like Uber, to create a seamless end to end customer journey.
Simon Matthews, Executive Director for the Rural West Sussex Partnership took us into the rural economy in the South East, particularly in West Sussex and how connectivity is paramount for the region’s 17,000 rural businesses. In West Sussex only 9% of rural businesses are agricultural and the remaining 91% rely on connectivity to work effectively, which is often very poor. Many attending agreed that mobile coverage was patchy at best with coverage dropping in and out on even short car journeys.
The conversation spent a lot of time looking at the issue of connectivity. In digital hubs in Brighton, Portsmouth and Croydon, connectivity is still an issue because as was pointed out some of the high-growth digital businesses depend on higher connectivity speeds and we heard that those landlords with the vision and up front investment in high speed broadband were seeing increased occupation and higher rents.
It was pointed out that outside of urban areas there is an increasing number of people working at home and we looked at options to ensure that new residential developments are built with fibre optic.
The second main part of our debate was over digital skills and the lack of them at all levels, although it was acknowledged this was not just a South East issue. Ideas discussed included the new school curriculum, the merits of apprenticeships and learning on the job and disrupting traditional educational models with ideas like a Nano degree: where people get through the education system in a few months with the core skills they require and move straight into employment.
Collaboration spaces such as Wired Sussex, the Gatwick Campus and Croydon Tech City are fast becoming the engines of the digital economy in the South East. Startups need support giving people experience so we can continue to nurture the next generation of digital talent.
Digital is so powerful because it disrupts the hierarchical structure of traditional industries, government departments and local councils. It is important to consider the ways in which we can support the digital economy in the South East, to enhance collaboration and provide the skill set that the UK economy as a whole can benefit from.