#techUKPS2030: Is Utopia Possible for a Digital West Midlands?

It is a very exciting time to be in the West Midlands right now. The devolution deal we have is like no other. On WMCA Boards and Committees those representing the urban centre of Birmingham sit side by side with those from the Black Country’s industrial heartland. Coventry’s Connected Vehicles share the table with Warwickshire’s Creatives. Collaboration is happening across the public sector in the West Midlands like never before.

It’s a very exciting time to be in the West Midlands and in digital, whether you are in the public or private sector because we are asking ourselves something we have never asked ourselves before. What is possible?

The West Midlands Combined Authority established itself with 18 local authorities and four Local enterprise partnerships because the geography contained nearly 90% of a population both living and working there. It makes social and economic sense to make combined decisions for the future of these individuals. Decisions that will ‘build a healthier, happier, better connected, and more prosperous West Midlands’, the tagline says. However, even though it is a very diverse and large area, there is no such thing as a Greater Birmingham as there is a Greater London or Greater Manchester. We are, therefore, going where no combined authority has gone before.

The challenges are vast. Uniting 18 local authorities for a common purpose is no small task. The West Midlands Digital Group established ourselves under the direction of Martin Reeves over a year before the election of our new Mayor. We were given direction to look at the barriers to digital transformation and, in particular, to address the art of the possible when it came to digital infrastructure across the region. How do we stop everyone talking about broadband? How do we start talking about digital connectivity in the same way we talk about our transport network?

We took our digital transformation call–to-action to Andy Street in July this year. In a seven page document, four pages were dedicated to connectivity. We provided solutions for both short term gains and long term transformation. We hope, as a region, to prove to Government that we are as good at managing our digital infrastructure as we are at our transport network. We also hope to go from strength-to-strength in transport. Birmingham Airport; HS2; active traffic management; autonomous and connected vehicles are just some examples. Being at the heart of the country has always meant a focus on moving through what wants to move through. And bringing in what we want to arrive.

And that brings me to my Utopia. I’m an English Literature graduate, so to any medics reading this please forgive my overly-simplified analogy for pure artistic purposes. But I see digital as the pulmonary artery of the region. Its role will be pumping people and things in and out of the heart. Both physically and temporally. Digital will assess when people and things need to physically move and when they don’t. Digital will also assess when people are likely to need to access services and when they don’t.

Digital will ensure that any movement, physical or temporal, is like the flow of blood to and from the heart: effortless provided you look after the infrastructure.

Sarah Windrum is CEO and Co-Founder of digital consultancy the Emerald Group, Digital Lead at Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership, and Chair of the West Midlands Digital Group

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